By Charles J. Bowen
What do an aging assassin hunting his clone, a football-playing private investigator trying to exonerate his daughter, an escaped slave interacting with famous historical figures, and an upper-class cocker spaniel falling in love with a street smart mutt all have in common? They are all leading characters in movies filmed in Savannah in 2018.
These films do not even begin to demonstrate the breadth of last year’s film and television industry in Savannah. From film noir in John Travolta’s “The Poison Rose” to the science fiction action thriller “Gemini Man” starring Will Smith to Disney’s live-action remake of “Lady and the Tramp,” Savannah has played host to almost every possible genre of production.
Over 200 professional film and television productions were filmed in the Savannah area in 2018 with another 147 student productions on top of that. Whether large or small, each and every production served as an economic engine pumping cash into every corner of the local economy.
According to the Savannah Regional Film Commission, these productions accounted for $120 million in direct spending locally and had a total economic impact of well over $250 million in 2018 alone. These figures shattered the record set in 2017 of $65 million in direct spending with $138 million in total local economic impact.
As founder of the Savannah Film Alliance, I see the tremendous financial impact these productions have daily on a diverse range of local businesses. In addition to food and lodging, film crews utilize dry cleaners, pet sitters, massage therapists, and countless other local professionals. Small businesses across the city are finding a windfall in income from these productions, and every month, more and more businesses that service the entertainment industry are moving to town.
One of the major reasons for this boom in the local film and television industry is the Savannah Entertainment Production Incentive offered by the Savannah Economic Development Authority. This program provides cash rebates to qualified film and television productions that schedule a majority of their shooting days within 60 miles of Savannah City Hall. Since this rebate applies to local spending only, it encourages productions to hire local crew and utilize local businesses and service providers.
The reason this incentive is so effective is that it is offered on top of the very generous production incentives offered statewide by the State of Georgia. But all this government support would mean nothing without the many local crew members, small business owners, industry leaders, and educators, such as the Georgia Film Academy at Savannah Tech, that have worked tirelessly to transform Savannah into one of the most popular filming destinations in the world.
While these statistics are certainly reasons to celebrate, it is crucial to remember that all of this progress can be instantly destroyed by one ill-informed swipe of our new governor’s pen. As North Carolina discovered after its infamous “bathroom bill,” any effort to roll back the civil rights gains of the last 60-plus years under the guise of “religious liberty” could decimate Georgia’s film and television industry. Just last year, a bill that would have allowed private adoption agencies to legally discriminate based on “sincerely-held religious beliefs” made it all the way through the Georgia Senate before failing. Thus, it is important to remain vigilant lest any such efforts resurface.
Looking forward to 2019, Savannah looks well-positioned to hold onto its status as the second most filmed city in Georgia behind Atlanta. Numerous productions have either committed to or expressed interest in filming in Savannah this year. Remember, there is a lot more at stake than simply the chance to spot a movie star at a local restaurant or to recognize a familiar site on the screen. Entire livelihoods and real money supporting real families are being built by the local film and television industry and you never know where the flow of that money will ultimately land.
While recently browsing a local antique mall, well-removed from the lights-camera-action world, a friend ran across a prop master buying rotary phones for the 2019 local filming of “The Glorias: A Life on the Road,” a Gloria Steinem biopic. The film dollar travels far and wide. The pocket in which it winds up may well be yours.