Recently I read this blog regarding Sarah Jones’ unfortunate death in rural Georgia last year while filming Midnight Rider, the Gregg Allman story. I was furious. In fact, I was furiously sad. I know this story too well. Not Sarah Jones’ per se, but the filmmaking story and how things like this happen. I was once a Locations Manager in New York City. I was good enough at my job, and others often recommended me for bigger productions where I felt I was well on my way for a successful career. But I had one problem, I didn’t like breaking the law and I didn’t like the moral conundrums of other questions that come about on a film set. Perhaps one day I’ll tell you my penguin story.
As young people partake in the burgeoning film industry here in A-Town and it becomes more of a powerhouse for our local economy, they’ll feel greater inclination to bypass their moral compass to accommodate the desires of some L.A. slime-ball director who wants to get a shot off that will last two seconds in the finished film. My only advice: “please trust yourselves and what you know to be right and wrong.” All of us, who have worked on films in the past have a story of when right versus wrong was questioned. Usually the reason we no longer work in film is because we chose to be right. Being right dictates banishment from set and eventually banishment from your chosen career. Whether it’s self-inflicted or not.
Young people in Atlanta who work in this industry are wooed by their sheer title, or by that moment at some dinner party when someone asks what they do, and they can respond “I work in the film industry.” Whether it’s a cocky production assistant who won’t let you walk on a downtown sidewalk that you have paid taxes for and that same L.A. slime-ball director has instructed him/her that no one shall pass, or it’s a creative art department worker bee who feels above such titles and statements, the fact is, all film workers like saying “I work in the film industry.”
I get it: the film industry gives our city jobs, and the politicians can say they’re doing their jobs. Well, that’s partly true. When I was asked about getting back into the industry here in Atlanta, I quickly said “no!” without batting an eye because the fact is the film industry here in Georgia is all bullshit, economically speaking. The politicians increase the tax incentive, and Hollywood comes. That’s true, but when the incentive goes away—and one day it will go away; just look at Bobby Jindal destroying the film industry in Louisiana—we will have another brain-drain and a lot more unemployment. Because no one gives a shit about anything in Atlanta or Georgia that they can’t get in Dallas, Charlotte, Houston, or Los Angeles.
Here’s how this whole racket goes: Chevy wants to make a car commercial. The auto giant needs a curvy road to show off performance and a drone shot. When Chevy goes to a production company in L.A., that production company begins brainstorming where they may find a great roadway with curves to show off the Chevy vehicle driving performance. For argument’s sake let’s say they choose two locations as candidates for the commercial: the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia and Mount Tamalpais in Northern California. You tell me the difference:
The producer then checks the budget, researches the tax incentive of each state or municipality, and then makes a decision based on production costs. Lately, Georgia has been winning that argument due to our significant tax incentives. It’s not that anyone gives a particular shit about Georgia or Atlanta—it just makes more sense financially to film here. The same goes for any quirky college T&A flick, or some race car movie. It’s all simply a product, not art. These are business decisions, not creative ones.
Places like New Orleans and New York won’t even have to worry about government tax incentives because those cities offer a distinct character in their own right. If a director has a project that was green-lit to shoot in the Lower East Side, the producers will find the financial way to deliver the Lower East Side. This is the reason why such wonderful independent films come from places like New York City, because the writers already have such a wonderful character, or muse, if you will, at their disposal. This is also the reason why Atlanta doesn’t have a truly independent film movement, because Atlanta doesn’t offer anything that another city couldn’t deliver, or deliver better.
People make films in Atlanta for two reasons, because they’re here anyway and because it makes sense financially. If they’re here anyway, their goal is to get out and get to New York or L.A., where the work is more challenging with like-minded people. Of course there are exceptions—Tyler Perry, for example—but he’s an anomaly.
My only hope is that this while this town continues to count its chickens before they’re hatched, we maintain our southern morality and continue to identify those things that make us decent and good people. Because the basic, fundamental truth about all this is that they don’t care about us, and they never will. They’ll make money off of our work and they lie to push us to our limits. This is what I believe about Hollywood, and this is what I believe is the fundamental difference between Atlanta and Hollywood, between us and them.
For Sarah, I have followed her story closely and tears rush to my eyes for her family and for her friends every time I read. I did not know her or anything about her, but what I do know is how horrible things happen on set. I know the conversations and I know the selfishness and evil from certain directors and producers. Producers and directors, like those who filmed Midnight Rider, should not be welcome in Georgia. So please y’all, do your best to ensure their etiquette and respect when the L.A. slime-balls come filming in our state and cities.