Take a behind-the-scenes look at the women directing Georgia’s $4 billion film business
Photography by D. LAWRENCE BARKSDALE
IT’S NO SECRECT that the movie industry in Georgia is booming.
Savannahians are now well accustomed to seeing the telltale yellow production signs and trailers around town, spotting actors on the street and recognizing local scenery on the silver screen for blockbusters like 2017’s “Baywatch” starring Dwayne Johnson, 2019’s live action “Lady and the Tramp” and the Academy Award-winning “Ford V Ferrari” — just to name a few.
According to the Georgia Film and Entertainment Office, between July 2017 and June 2018, the combined budgets for productions in the state were $2.7 billion. Between July 2021 and June 2022, that number had risen to a record $4.4 billion.
In the last few months of 2022 alone, “A Jazzman’s Blues” (Tyler Perry), “Devotion” (Jonathan Majors), “Halloween Ends” (Jamie Lee Curtis), and “The Menu” (Ralph Fiennes) were all released, each of which were shot in and around Savannah.
The region’s soaring popularity amongst the Hollywood elite isn’t just because of its hospitable weather, favorable business climate and beautiful scenery, though. Meet five women who are playing their own starring roles in increasing the state’s prominence as a sought-after location for film sets.
KATIE SCHUCK, Assistant Director, and RENÉE LEVENTIS, Manager Of Operations
SAVANNAH REGIONAL FILM COMMISSION
KATIE SCHUCK AND RENÉE LEVENTIS have spent their entire professional careers working on film and television sets, often to the detriment of their lives outside of production. “I was exhausted,” admits Schuck. “I was looking for something that’s a little bit slower paced that still involved everything I’d done professionally.”
That’s exactly what she found at the Savannah Regional Film Commission, a division of the Savannah Economic Development Authority, which aims to promote the area as a premiere destination for production, while acting as a liaison between film companies and the local community.
“l always tell people who might come here about our quality of life,” declares Leventis, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design who moved back to the city after over five years with the Food Network in Atlanta.
Still, Schuck insists that it’s still “full speed ahead” as they assist productions across Savannah.
“In 2015, the entertainment production industry generated a direct spend of $59 million and in 2022 had a record breaking of nearly $207 million direct spend,” adds SEDA President and CEO Trip Tollison. “It is really staggering the amount of dollars that are coming into our region related to entertainment production. The state of Georgia, our local governments, our partners and the community have all played a role in growing the industry in our region.”
Word is clearly spreading that Savannah has plenty of work but not as much stress as New York or Los Angeles.
“We have nearly 300 crew members currently living in our area,” explains Schuck. “When the Georgia tax incentive first came out in 2002, we only had about 14 living here locally.”
“The entertainment industry offers a lot of opportunity, and Savannah is an ideal place for people to learn more about the industries and the skills needed,” says Tollison. “They get an opportunity to work alongside veterans in the industry.”
Leventis believes that the best way for people to advance is to start through [Film Savannah’s] Production Assistant Training Class, as it really gives people a chance to network and see which department they might want to work in.
Speaking of advancing, Tollison notes that one way Savannah can continue to build the industry is to invest in infrastructure such as soundstages. “The future is very bright for entertainment production in the Savannah region,” he says.
(Editor’s Note: While working on this issue, the Savannah magazine team was saddened to learn about the passing of Erin Fraser, executive director of Savannah Regional Film Commission. Our thoughts are with the family, friends and colleagues who had the privilege of working with Fraser.)
Andra Reeve-Rabb, Dean
SCAD SCHOOL OF FILM AND ACTING
ANDRA REEVE-RABB WAS always destined to move into education. Her mother was a school teacher, and her dad was a college professor.
“It was the family business,” she declares.
Over the next 25 years, Reeve-Rabb didn’t follow suit. But even though she’d risen to become the director of prime-time casting for CBS, the world of teaching kept calling out to her.
In 2016, Savannah College of Art and Design President and Founder Paula Wallace invited Reeve-Rabb to help the next generation of storytellers. Since SCAD is the only university with a casting company and a mission statement to “prepare students for their creative careers and turn them into working artists,” she couldn’t resist.
To help in that pursuit, SCAD has a number of state-of-the-art tools, including three soundstages, green rooms, lighting grids, postproduction suites, a multi-purpose recording booth, screening rooms, and production offices for the university’s film and television program.
Perhaps the most impressive tools, however, are the newest additions: extended reality (XR) stages, also known as LED volume stages, located in Savannah and Atlanta.
At 40 feet wide, 20 feet deep and 17 feet high, the immersive technology allows students to merge virtual worlds with live-action performance and real-time environments on set.
“Come to SCAD. Our facilities, access, technology and faculty are unmatched. Students are choosing to stay in Georgia and make it their home. I have friends in the industry from Los Angeles and New York who are moving to Atlanta and Savannah. There’s so much work here.” — Andra Reeve-Rabb
“Innovation is happening all around us in our industry,” she adds. “We were the first university to have a LED volume stage for student use. Students from game design, visual effects and film and television come together to work on this playground. It makes all of them very desirable in terms of the marketplace.”
Meanwhile, SCAD is also undergoing an expansion of the university’s Savannah Film Studios, a landmark 10.9-acre project that will include a Hollywood-style film backlot.
Slated to complete this year, the backlot will include scenes inspired by Savannah’s iconic historic district, an urban environment featuring alleyways and a gas station, and a suburban backdrop of a town hall and homes in various architectural styles.
“Savannah Film Studios is really unique,” says Reeve-Raab. “We’ve seen how the industry is booming in Savannah. So, we created our own Savannah, so students don’t have to compete with studios for film permits.”
With SCAD’s annual Savannah Film Festival — the largest university-run film fest in the world — bringing the industry’s finest to the city and into the classroom, too, Reeve-Rabb’s advice to people wanting to work in film and television is simple.
“Come to SCAD. Our facilities, access, technology and faculty are unmatched,” she says. “Students are choosing to stay in Georgia and make it their home. I have friends in the industry from Los Angeles and New York who are moving to Atlanta and Savannah. There’s so much work here.”
Samita Wolfe, President
FILM BIZ RECYCLING
BORN AND RAISED in Woodbine, Georgia — about 100 miles south of Savannah — Samita Wolfe studied environmental science at Savannah State University before pivoting to a career in production design in New York City. She worked on crime re-enactment shows and even landed a role as a set dresser for FX’s hit series, “The Americans.”
Still, she had always kept one eye on the emergence of the film industry in Savannah, especially as she still owned a house in the city.
Every six months or so, she’d be back. During the course of her visits, she noticed the film industry kept growing, but Savannah lacked a prop house.
Eventually, she couldn’t resist the allure of returning to Savannah and opening her own prop-recycling business.
She touched base with Eva Radke, founder of Film Biz Recycling — the first nonprofit prop house on the East Coast — who had closed the company in 2015 because rent had become too high in Brooklyn.
“It’s been great. The quality of life here is much better. I can work as much as I would like. I have a great income. I’m with the union. There are labor rights and people on our side. … We’re trying to build a real database of crew here.” — Samita Wolfe
“Eva agreed to hand over the reins of the company to me, which meant me bringing it to Georgia,” says Wolfe.
She did just that at the end of 2016, making Film Biz Recycling Savannah’s first and only prop house. Inside a warehouse on the city’s westside, Wolfe collects and rents anything and everything, from used furniture and retro appliances to old books and forgotten treasures.
Since launching the nonprofit, Wolfe has also continued to work as a set decoration buyer on Savannah-based productions, including for films like “Devotion,” “The Menu,” and “A Jazzman’s Blues.” Currently, she is working on a new series, created by TV icon Norman Lear and starring actress Laverne Cox.
Not only has Wolfe’s career been boosted in Savannah, but she also says she has benefited from a much better work-life balance.
“It’s been great. The quality of life here is much better. I can work as much as I would like. I have a great income. I’m with the union. There are labor rights and people on our side.” All of which, Wolfe hopes, will attract more people to Savannah. “We’re trying to build a real database of crew here,” she says.
Lee Thomas, Deputy Commissioner
GEORGIA FILM & ENTERTAINMENT OFFICE
AS DEPUTY COMMISSIONER for the Georgia Film & Entertainment Office, Lee Thomas has had a front-row seat to the industry’s growth and economic impact over the past three decades.
After studying at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Thomas moved back to Atlanta just before the start of the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“At the time, there just wasn’t a ton filming here,” she explains. Over the last 27 years, Thomas has helped to change that, especially since joining the Film Office in 1998 as a location specialist.
“In Savannah, I’ve worked on ‘Midnight in The Garden Of Good And Evil,’ ‘Spongebob Squarepants,’ ‘Lady and the Tramp’ and ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance,’ to name but a few,” recalls Thomas, who says that she works with the Savannah Film Commission — particularly with location scout Andy Young — to determine where each project should shoot.
“Savannah has such a unique look. It’s beautiful for period films. There are so many places where you put the camera down and do very little set dressing.” — Lee Thomas
“Savannah has such a unique look,” says Thomas. “It’s beautiful for period films. There are so many places where you put the camera down and do very little set dressing. It’s tropical. It’s green and beautiful all year round. People can do photo shoots for spring catalogs or even in the dead of winter.”
With so many more productions in the state, Thomas believes anyone looking to work in film and television should come to Georgia and take advantage of the consistent flow of work — which shows no signs of abating.
Looking ahead, Thomas is excited by the new investments across the state, which include several new soundstages.
“People are also looking to build more visual effects and post-production facilities,” she says. “We’ve had a tremendous explosion in the amount of infrastructure. But it just continues to grow.”