From Farm to Film

The Story of How Pinewood Atlanta Happened

According to its motto, Fayetteville, Georgia, is a place that has “A History with a Future.” Sandy Creek Road is very tangible evidence of that phrase. The sleepy road runs just behind a large hospital and over the stream with which it shares its name. The road winds straight past three gloomy looking buildings, two rusty farmhouses and an abandoned home. The trio of buildings is covered in vegetation and clearly has not been used for years.

However, the farm looks like it could be cleared out and used the next day if necessary. The structures look strong; the paint is only slightly chipped. Paul Rivers, the farmer who tended to the land for years, represents what the buildings might say if they could speak for themselves. Rivers knows the farm’s finest days passed long ago. The farm is no longer necessary to support the community or family around it, but it serves as a comforting reminder of his relatives, who now mostly live outside of the state, and their proud past in the area.

At one time, Fayetteville’s City Hall was hosted in Clarence River’s old home on East Lanier Avenue. River’s family owns the plot of land that at one point stretches around 2,000 feet to the tree line behind it. Rivers died years ago and his descendants have been looking to sell the land for a while now.

They don’t want to sell it to just any developers that could try to make it a commercial shopping center or a neighborhood that would never be filled. They want the property to leave a legacy, an impact on the city that their forefather’s home was once the center of. The Rivers never could have expected that their lonely farmland would one day yield hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of economic impact on the county when all it had yielded before was whatever crop was growing that season. The Rivers family never could have imagined that celebrities and stars would soon populate the land they once plowed.

Pinewood Studios, the movie studio that brought you “James Bond”, “Harry Potter”, and “The Avengers” will now also bring 3,400 jobs to Fayette County. Coming soon! Three hundred and seventy-eight million dollars worth of economic impact per year! Although attracting Pinewood from its home across the Atlantic Ocean could not have been predicted by anyone, the acquisition of the film studio was no miracle. Maybe just a little lucky.

If a screenplay were written about how Hollywood found a home in what was once an agriculture epicenter decades ago, it would require a lot of dramatization including an epic battle to decide the location with animated farm animals trotting around the Rivers’ farm to make it a remotely interesting film. However, the script is set in reality and therefore the plot contains only hours of planning, conversations over video chat, and finally one suspenseful scene that takes place in the privacy of a lofted room above a restaurant that lacked the ardor of a Bond restaurant somewhere in Paris. The opening scene would require no computer-generated imagery as it opens in the conference room where a bureaucrat sits across from a journalist, recalling how he and an ambitious group of men altered the future of a city forever.

Matt Forshee is the CEO of the Fayette County Development Authority. His office is located in the Fayette County courthouse, which was built in 1825. It resembles more of a drafty, dimly lit museum than the office of a man who played a monstrous role in bringing a state-of-the-art movie studio to the town he helps foster economic growth in.

The University of Georgia graduate speaks quickly. His voice echoing off the zoning plans leaned against the walls of the empty conference room, devoid of a Southern accent. He says the event that triggered the state’s film leaders to provide more tax incentives was the loss of the 2004 movie “Ray.” “The state competed for that film and lost it to Louisiana. Here’s a story of a Georgia boy and we’re not filming it in Georgia. Why?” questioned Forshee.

The answer was that Louisiana provided better tax incentives than Georgia. But Georgia evened the tax incentive competition in 2008 by strengthening its policies and earning a five-star rating from the Film Production Capital, meaning Georgia was a very attractive place to film in based off of tax relief. The five stars equal Louisiana’s.

However, Louisiana’s susceptibility to hurricanes and flooding make it a difficult location to film sometimes, elevating Georgia above Louisiana as a premium place of production, in comparison. Atlanta is also conveniently the home of the world’s busiest airport, with international flights flying in and out at nearly every time of day.

Reaping the benefits of tax relief without having to fight the occasional hurricane is what brought “Drop Dead Diva” to Atlanta. The Lifetime show produced by Woodridge Productions was originally supposed to be shot in Louisiana but the crew had decided they did not want to work in the Bayou State. The pilot episode was filmed in Decatur, but on-site filming is a pricey venture once you consider the costs of dealing with sound, weather, and other factors. Therefore, the producers of “Drop Dead Diva” began to seek out sound stages to cut costs.

At the time, Bobby Vazquez, a 20-year resident of Peachtree City, was the president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 479. Vazquez, who has since died, was a pilot who often flew small planes out of Falcon Field, a local airfield in Peachtree City that had plentiful hangar space. Vazquez was the first to bring the modern film industry’s attention to Fayette County in 2009.

The front of Falcon Field hosted Chick-fil-A’s corporate hanger, while the back remained empty. Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, owned the empty hangar. Cathy gave the consent for “Drop Dead Diva” to use the space as a sound stage and production area. Group VI, a real estate and construction firm, partnered with ProMaker, a similar firm also located in Peachtree City, to hammer out a plan to leased Cathy’s hangars to the producers of “Drop Dead Diva.” The cable show operated using only a budget of one million dollars, but the jobs it brought to Peachtree City, and the stimulation that the economy of the area received from the show and its workers consumption was significant. Realizing that the film industry presented an opportunity to reboot the local economy in the worst years of the recession, the men of ProMaker and Group VI decided to continue their partnership to take full advantage of the 2008 tax adjustments and attract a movie studio to Georgia.

Originally, the hope was to simply expand the already existing production stages that “Drop Dead Diva” used and convince a movie studio to film there. However, Cathy did not find the prospect of investing more money in the studio at Falcon Field appealing when Len Gough of ProMaker first approached him about the opportunity in June of 2010. Instead, Gough and his partner from ProMaker, Rick Halbert, tried to take their talents to Henry County. Meanwhile, other entrepreneurs around Atlanta did not hesitate to utilize the benefits of the new tax rules.

“The Walking Dead” is the top rated cable show in history. The chirps of South Metro Atlanta crickets can be heard clearly in many of the scenes that have been filmed in and around Senoia since 2010. Senoia, known to viewers of AMC’s wildly popular show as Woodbury, shares a border with the western edge of Fayette County. The former Lakewood Fairgrounds became the home of Screen Gems in the same year. Films like “The Fast 5,” “Flight,” and “The Hunger Games,” were shooting in and around Atlanta and scoring big at the box office. In 2012, Gough again spoke to Cathy about teaming up to bring that same success and economic impact to their corner of metro Atlanta.

Halbert and Gough pitched their plan to Henry County officials in 2010, hoping that they would be open to converting some of the hangars at Tara Field into sound stages just like the ones at Falcon Field had been repurposed. Henry County declined the proposition because the development crew was asking the county to invest into the project to draw a studio without a stable solution to who would rent out the hangars for production.

Halbert and Gough asked Steve Brown, Fayette County’s Chairman of the County Commission, his opinion on the matter. The former Peachtree City mayor sports large circular-rimmed glasses with three shiny stones embedded on the front corners of the spectacles. Brown recalls meeting with the pair during their attempt to lure Henry County into their deal, “We go over to Panda Express in Peachtree City and we sat (sic) down and wrote all this stuff on napkins and pieces of paper. I wish I would’ve kept them all,” said Brown, “They showed me what their idea was. They showed me the plan they had presented to Henry County, which would be something like they would want to do (at Falcon Field). I looked at it; I said if you can do this I’m behind you 100-percent.”

Henry County turned Halbert and Gough away. They were hoping the county would invest some funds in the form of bonds. They were trying to build a major movie studio but did not have anyone interested in making movies in it yet. Finding a suitor to court their studio proved to be their biggest obstacle. “How do you go to a bank to borrow money to build something you know you can fill but you can’t prove it on paper because you don’t have a lease in hand?” asked Forshee. The pair from ProMaker was not discouraged by Henry County’s disapproval of their proposal to build sound stages at Tara Field. Gough again gauged Cathy’s interest in backing their idea to develop a movie studio in the area in the spring of 2012, but this time Cathy was intrigued.

As the CEO of Chick-fil-A, Cathy and his family are well known throughout Fayette and the surrounding region. Dan’s father, Truett has an extensive car collection including many luxurious classic cars, a fire truck, and even a Batmobile. The father and son attend New Hope Baptist Church and their faith is a large aspect of their lives. Voicing his views that align with his faith as a conservative Christian in 2012, Dan received a heap of negative press and criticism when he projected his stance against homosexuality. Hollywood and the film industry have never claimed to present the purest morals in their productions, making the Cathys interesting investors.

With Cathy’s stamp of approval now on the venture, Jim Pace, Cathy’s real estate advisor and CEO of Group VI, took the role of lead developer in the partnership with Halbert and Gough. Together, they turned their attention back to Fayette County and Falcon Field, aspiring to attract a major film studio to populate the stages that they hoped to construct.

Luckily, Forshee knew people in the area from a previous four-year stint as the CEO of the Fayette County Development Authority. Using his contacts, Forshee was able to connect the pair with someone that could fish for a studio looking to be a potential leaser in 2011. “I knew a local banker, a guy with Wells Fargo, Chris Pettis. Chris is a human Rolodex, he knows everybody.” Pettis, living up to his reputation as the human Rolodex, introduced them to an Atlanta entertainment attorney named Stephen Weizenecker.

Gough and Halbert told Weizenecker that they had a major investor in Cathy but they were seeking an entity to operate the facility that they were trying to construct. Weizenecker pushed their information over to a number of different companies, one of them being Pinewood Studios. Pinewood had a goal to establish a production location in the United States other than their offices in Los Angeles. Armed with a concept, an investor, and a location, the team was able to convince the studio to survey Falcon Field, hoping it might pique their interest. During a layover in Atlanta, Nick Smith and Andy Weltmen, a pair of Pinewood executives, visited Fayette over a weekend in September 2012.

Touring the area by helicopter and by car, Smith and Weltman were able to get a taste of Peachtree City. After observing the area and the Falcon Field property that a long cast of characters including Cathy, Forshee, Brown, and the developer trio hoped would catch Pinewood’s eye; the group was having a final meal. A quick lunch at Latitude 54, since closed, before a 3 p.m. flight was all the time the crew had with the executives to close the deal. Time was running out.

During the lunch, Forshee asked Smith’s final opinion. Smith proceeded to name the biggest obstacle he saw in building at Falcon Field, the airfield itself. The entire goal in building sound studios to film in is to create a haven away from noise pollution. Even in the seclusion of a 5,000 square hangar, small airplanes reach decibel levels powerful enough to possibly interrupt a shoot. Smith also said that Pinewood desired a much larger space. The current proposition only called for an 11-acre expansion on top of the few hangars that “Drop Dead Diva” already filmed in.

Smith’s conclusion was that they wanted a more ideal plot of land. It needed to be more spacious, more private, and more silent. The first pitch was intended to use hangars as sound studios so that if the film industry died they could be used as actual hangars if necessary. That way the investment would not be completely lost if film companies stopped producing at the airfield. Fayette was open to a large-scale operation if there was a permanent solution to filling the buildings.

Just days earlier, Brown was discussing with Forshee his opposition to the zoning of certain plots of land just a 20-minute drive away from Latitude 54. The land, just north of Fayette Piedmont Hospital, was zoned for residential and retail development. Brown’s stance was that building additional retail centers would only detract from the shopping malls that already existed in Fayetteville. Forshee agreed with Brown’s belief that retail was not the answer for the Rivers’ land. The family hoped to leave a positive imprint on their community, not another Wal-mart.

Recalling his conversation with Brown, Forshee was able to come up with a last-second pitch to the Pinewood executives. After hearing Smith’s concluding remarks, Forshee said, “On the way back, instead of just going straight up 74, let’s go down by the hospital. Let me show you some of the property and I think we might have something here.” Stopping just south of where Sandy Creek Road and Veterans Parkway intersect, Forshee pointed and said, “We’ve got a couple hundred acres of land here.” Gazing upon the land, Weltman remarked on how it reminded him of Pinewood Studio’s home, the Green Belt that circles London, where urban growth is limited to preserve green space for agriculture.

The economic impact that Pinewood will have in Fayette County is more than welcome. Brian Wismer, the head of the Downtown Developmental Authority in Fayetteville, says his fellow governmental leaders were in agreement that inviting Hollywood into their city was a positive shift into the future. “I think everyone realized that this would be the shot in the arm that would get the city going again since everything was stagnant at the time because of the recession,” said Wismer.

Forshee, his counterpart within the county, shares his sentiments for the future of the city. “If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” said Forshee. Prior to Pinewood, the future of Fayette called for much more aging than growing. “The future in the city pre-Pinewood was looked at as a retirement community, but I think now there will be an injection of young blood and creative minds,” said Wismer. With the recent announcement of the opening of a Georgia Military College campus in the near future, Wismer’s forecast for the community is likely to hold true.

Those who wish that Fayette would make more of an effort to preserve the small-town feel of the past should look to Rivers and try to share his viewpoint on the change his home will soon undergo. “I was perfectly content living on about 700 acres of land and farming the land. I guess I am more of a sentimental person. I hate to see it go, but I understand that it is probably for the best.”

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