The city is on fire.
Atlanta, left in ashes 150 years ago by the Civil War, has recently survived a hoard of both fictional catastrophes — zombies, werewolves, anchormen, Vin Diesel’s friends — and fictional heroics from the likes of Captain America, Ant-Man and Katniss Everdeen (whose friends once repelled down the inside of the Marriott Marquis).
The metro area is widely known as the star of the state’s film and TV boom — and like any good success story, this one has places the plot is magnetized to, according to government officials, tour directors, local crew members and more.
Since 2008, Atlanta has played backdrop to more than 140 films and TV shows, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Everywhere, it seems, stories are being built.
“It’s really nice to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. You have to be ready,” said Craig Miller, chair of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Advisory Commission.
“And now, Atlanta is ready.”
The story of the growing production industry is one about taxes, legislation and politicking, told with words like “highly desirable financial incentives.”
To hear some state officials tell it, the story really began in 2004 when “Ray,” a biopic of beloved Georgia musician Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx, chose instead to film in Louisiana, a state with its own incentives.
At the time, Georgia’s film “heyday” was considered the ’70s and ’80s, after then-Gov. Jimmy Carter created in 1973 Georgia’s state film commission — the first of its kind outside of California. “The Dukes of Hazzard” filmed its earliest episodes in Covington in 1978. But the industry later wilted as Canadian tax credits lured major productions away.
By 2008 Georgia began offering 20 percent tax credits to productions with at least a $500,000 production budget. If producers showed the Georgia logo at the end of the credits, the state would up its offer to 30 percent.
The money multiplied, and in fiscal year 2015, production companies spent $1.7 billion on 248 projects, an increase from the $1.3 billion spent in fiscal year 2014 which was already a more than 500 percent increase from 2008.
In a 2014, Film L.A. surveyed primary filming locations. Georgia was the third U.S. state to top the list, coming in at No. 5 overall behind California, New York and two international locations. Decades after “Dukes,” Covington was host again to a network TV show, The CW’s “Vampire Diaries.”
Programs like Georgia’s are not new, and they’re not without controversy. Any money divvied out in tax credits is revenue the state is giving up, and critics say there may not be an even return. Some argue the credits, which have faced fraud allegations elsewhere, amount to a too-pricey giveaway, returning mostly low-wage local jobs.
They argue that the industry’s rapid growth is directly tied to the credits themselves, and would end just as quickly if the program did.
“It’s a very expensive subsidy that is based on glamour and glitz and not creating jobs,” Nick Johnson of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, told the AJC in 2013.
State officials say Georgia is attractive for its diversity, and the tax credits are simply an appetizer. Productions can find coastlines, leafy neighborhoods, farmland and a sprawl of skyscrapers and interstates, all reachable within hours.
“Whatever sacrifice we make in revenue on the tax credit, we more than make up for through the multiplier effect of economic development,” Gov. Nathan Deal said in 2013.
The state recently claimed production spending in fiscal year 2015 amounted to $6 billion economic impact. The AJC’s Politifact team rated this as “half true.” Georgia’s economic multiplier was far too high, experts said, a more realistic economic impact was estimated at $3.1 billion for the year.
Georgia’s earliest competitors are cutting back — or just cutting — their tax credit programs. Louisiana, which offers 30 percent tax credits to productions that spend at least $300,000 and 10 percent more for crews that use in-state labor, recently passed an aggregate cap on claims of $180 million.
North Carolina, among the first to offer similar tax credits, bowed out last year, opting for a $10 million grant program in lieu of the $61 million it paid out in tax credits in 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Months later, Fox announced its supernatural series “Sleepy Hollow” would be renewed for a third season, but would leave North Carolina. In summer 2015, the series started shooting in Rockdale County.
Atlanta’s Office of Entertainment estimates that 75 percent of filming takes place in the city, meaning Atlanta keeps 75 percent of the 77,900 jobs and $3.8 billion in wages the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) attributes to the new business.
Much of the filming takes place in what the office calls “Zone 5.”
The area is better known as Midtown and downtown, north from I-20 toward the Downtown Connector’s split and east from Northside Drive toward Piedmont Park.
It includes Woodruff Park, dressed up like New York for “Anchorman 2”; and city hall, where Kerry Washington walked the halls as Anita Hill for HBO’s “Confirmation.”
But you’ll probably recognize it for this:
In October 2010, in the pilot for a show called “The Walking Dead,” a man named Rick Grimes rode his horse down what looked to any local like Freedom Parkway.
More than 5 million people tuned in to watch that unsettling, iconic take on the horizon from the Jackson Street Bridge — the same viewpoint captured in selfies and Snapchats.
“TWD” has become incredibly popular, smashing cable TV records, and fertilizing a pocket tourism industry around town. It’s a staple offering for Atlanta Movie Tours, started by Carrie Sagel Burns and Patti Davis, which has drawn 10,000 customers in the past year, many of whom shambled in line for tickets to the company’s zombie-themed options.
As in-town locations continued to attract interest, city officials sought ways to organize filming efforts and minimize the disruption. In 2013, the city’s Office of Entertainment was born.
With the assistance of city officials, in November 2013 filmmakers from “Furious 7” were able to execute an explosive action scene, with a flaming ambulance plummeting onto Spring Street.
Helping pull off one of the film’s stunts “signaled to the rest of the industry what Georgia and the city of Atlanta could pull that off within the city limits,” said LaRonda Sutton, director of the city’s office of entertainment.
Filmmakers later flocked to the Peachtree Street business block for “The Divergent Series: Insurgent,” struck by the design work of Atlanta architect John Portman.
As The Atlantic explained in March, “Insurgent” production designer Alec Hammond “came to Atlanta looking for a location that could be manipulated into a post-apocalyptic megatropolis.”
In late July, crews returned to film scenes for “Allegiant – Part 1.” The franchise is also fond of the High Museum of Art, as was Fox’s short-lived “Red Band Society,” which featured the museum’s Stent Atrium spotlight.
“Hunger Games” installments “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay – Part 1” also filmed at the Portman-designed Marriott Marquis, at one point engineering a fictional rescue mission by air, with a drop through the hotel’s distinctive tower.
In 2014, Marvel Studios, perhaps the biggest and certainly the most interconnected ongoing production in America, came South.
“Ant-Man” recast the state’s Archives Building, already used as a news bureau in “Kill the Messenger,” as the headquarters of Pym Technologies, the place that teaches grown men how to shrink.
After that was done, “Captain America: Civil War” began.
Next up is “Guardians of the Galaxy 2.”
“The size of the movie that comes into the city has changed,” Sutton said. “Now we’re getting those big mega action movies.”
The “Hunger Games” franchise most visibly uses one local landmark: Atlanta’s historic Swan House, which appears at least twice as large and thrice as menacing as the home of the velvet-voiced villain President Snow.
The home is first seen when the heroes attend a party in “Catching Fire.” Those scenes required about 300 extras, Historic House Manager Jessica VanLanduyt said, some of them as outlandishly styled as individually wrapped pieces of candy.
Most of the filming took place at about 2 a.m. It’s the kind of production that may have seemed impossible a few years ago, but all the right ingredients are now available.
Extras are ready and eager (casting call notices are catnip for local social media), and the city is full of film school graduates who no longer have to fly to California to start their careers.
The Swan House, on West Paces Ferry Road, is small but resplendent. A 12,000-square-foot mansion, it was constructed in 1928 for Edward Inman and his wife, Emily. Inman — a well-known politician and cotton broker — partly used the Swan House to conduct business. But primarily, he built it as a place for he and his wife to retire.
Filmmakers in the “The Hunger Games” used CGI and elaborate props to magnify the standout design features: Crews accented both party scenes and somber, suspense-filled interior shots with meticulously placed white roses.
Those accents, VanLanduyt said, arrived by the thousands.
The Swan House never used to receive requests for filming — and now gets them two or three times a month.
These stories knit themselves into the fabric of Atlanta, leaving everyone with many more tales to tell. When someone writes about the Swan House’s next 87 years, Ms. Everdeen may appear as a footnote.
When director Francis Lawrence returned with his crew for “Mockingjay – Part 1,” he toured the museum, including the exhibits that featured his work.
“They thought it was the coolest thing,” said Brandi Wigley, director of tourism for the Atlanta History Center, “that we had married the history of the house to some of the filming in Georgia — that the house has created its own history.”