3 impressive women-owned production companies
By Rob Springer
Photographs by Josh Norris
The entertainment industry pulsates in Atlanta. Its electricity connects the heart of the South’s bustling show business capital to productions that travel to the far reaches of Georgia’s beaches, mountains, forests and farmland.
The film and TV industry had long been simmering just below the surface here, mostly out of public view. That has changed with projects and studios filming in locations that are hard to miss. These include movies like the Hunger Games series, Marvel’s Ant Man, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, an upcoming Spiderman, Netflix’s hit Stranger Things, and AMC’s iconic The Walking Dead only tap the surface. At any given time there are consistently two or three dozen projects in production.
In 2015 alone, Georgia-lensed feature films and television productions generated an economic impact of $6 billion. This touches business, government and individuals from all walks of life. A large part of this success is due to the women who help to create, shape and steer its projects.
Open Rivers Pictures holds an unparalleled position in the Georgia production universe, and it’s no surprise that its founder and CEO Tammy Williams is just as unique.
Hailing from Tennessee, Williams had a diverse and busy career that allowed her to travel the country and eventually brought her to Georgia. She is the first black woman to own a post-production studio in the state of Georgia, and her evolving path to success led to the creation of Williams’ multifaceted production business at the new Pinewood Studios Production Centre.
“Early on I was going to be a teacher but changed my major to media production and broadcast journalism,” she said. “Still, education has always been my passion.” Williams’ interest in teaching others has impacted lives. Her creation, the annual Cinema South Expo, and her ongoing film crew training classes put people into on-set jobs. Her students have worked on productions that include Sully, Captain America 3, Vampire Diaries and countless other projects.
Williams is also in production of a film her company is creating, in addition to operating a live event production company. While her 24-plus years in the industry have been lauded with recognition and awards, Williams continues to give back in the creative ways she has found to share her knowledge and industry experience.
She has seen the industry landscape change. “When I started going on shoots or hiring back in the 1990s, this business was dominated by males,” Williams said. “It has been empowering to see a great increase in women working in this business. There need to be more, but you do see women working in positions they didn’t have before.”
Williams has witnessed the industry growth closely. “I’ve been in Georgia since 1998, and it’s been wonderful watching the film industry’s explosive growth here,” she said. “Our own studio started with a 16,000 square-foot building just down the street. I remember the rumors and thinking, ‘This is coming here. I want to be proactive and be a part of it.’ ” She caught the wave. “To not be ready for it would have been tragic.” It was no surprise when Williams got the call to move her operations right to the Pinewood Studios locations.
Williams’ businesses and even her personal life operate in a way that is very receptive to what happens around her. It’s no surprise that her company is called Open Rivers. “The great things that have happened for me have been organic. Being open and ready for them.” She continues, “One of the secrets is this: I am spiritual, and while you influence the order of things and take your footsteps, things will happen organically, whether it’s being put in the right situations in life or networked with the right people.”
Williams offers this advice to anyone with a desire to work in Georgia’s TV and film industry: “It’s happening here, and it’s happening now. This is our season. This is the time to jump into the water.”
Jen Kelley and Rita Harrell
With a wealth of industry experience that spans from coast to coast, Jen Kelley and Rita Harrell are co-founders of Big Picture Casting in Atlanta and are members of the Casting Society of America (CSA).
“It’s an exciting time to be a woman in the entertainment industry in general,” said Kelley, who began her career as a talent agent in Los Angeles. There she represented talent on sitcoms, feature films and national commercials.
In 1996, Kelley moved to Atlanta. “I was looking for a change, and Atlanta was an up-and-coming place to be, with more opportunities to create and to be in on the ground floor. It was a blank canvas.”
In Atlanta, Kelley joined one of the top talent agencies in the Southeast and worked in all of the agency’s departments during her 14-year tenure. With a desire to foster a more focused and creative involvement in the entertainment industry, she and Rita Harrell formed Big Picture Casting and became casting directors in 2011.
Harrell had returned to the casting field after a four-year stint at People Store talent agency, where she became intimately familiar with the Atlanta market by serving as a voiceover and on-camera industrial agent.
Harrell shifted to agency work after living in New York City, where she worked in casting for theatrical organizations such as The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, the New York Theater Workshop and the Williamstown Theater Festival. She continued her work in casting as a freelancer on various television and movie projects. Before moving back to her hometown of Atlanta with her husband Scott, Harrell worked for two years in the East Coast casting office at FOX Television.
Kelley recognizes that, “Here in Atlanta, there is a large support staff with great and talented women in production roles and casting. I would like to see more female directors, writers, executive producers. We still have a ways to go, but it is happening. We’re seeing new filmmakers rising up. Things are changing.”
Kelley recognized a change in the Georgia show business industry five years ago and saw there was room for more casting directors. “After being in the talent agent profession for over 19 years, I was personally looking for a new challenge and a change. I realized then that the time was now.”
Both Kelley and Harrell had worked together at the same talent agency. “I knew Rita had a desire to get back to casting, so I gave her a call. I floated the idea for her to come onboard, and we started Big Picture Casting together.”
Big Picture Casting stands as a major player in the region, with a long list of current and past TV, film, commercial and stage projects. Their work can be seen in upcoming projects that include a Tom Cruise feature, other major star vehicles that are not yet announced, national TV ads and more.
Kelley and Harrell, along with casting assistant Kimberly Thomas, play an important part in the entertainment industry. They’re a team known for having a keen eye for connecting the correct talent to the right role.
Kelley sums up the current position the state holds in the business: “Georgia’s stance in the industry now, compared to just five years ago, is night and day. All of this is exciting, but it is contingent on the legislative level.”
While this statement is more than true, the vibe that you get at their offices is one of bright optimism and a path to continuing success for both Georgia productions and for Big Picture Casting.
Lee Thomas is a native to Atlanta and is deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. She earned a bachelor degree in radio/TV/film from UGA, a master’s in film studies from Georgia State University and pursued doctoral studies in cinema studios at New York University’s Tisch School.
Thomas went to work for the Brooklyn Arts Council and returned to Atlanta in 1996 to work for the Georgia Film and Videotape Office as a project manager, and then became a location specialist for the office in 1998. This was at a time when Georgia relied mostly on its locations as a lure for filmmakers.
Thomas touched on its history: “The Georgia Film Office actually started in 1973 under Jimmy Carter, using the money brought in from the previous year’s Burt Reynold’s classic, Deliverance.” Interestingly, a flow of money was created by a continuing string of Reynold’s films that included the Smokey and The Bandit and Cannonball Run movies.
Additional films like Driving Miss Daisy, My Cousin Vinnie and Glory kept things busy. “Those were robust times for the industry; then everything started slowing down in the late 1990s,” Thomas said.
While the Georgia film industry still managed to maintain some lifeblood through those years, Thomas’ office eventually helped usher in the powerhouse success that it presides over today. “Until we had a competitive tax incentive, we were really losing a lot of business,” she said. “It wasn’t until 2008 that we got a great incentive put in place. In 2007 we went from $244 million of economic impact to fiscal year 2016 where we’re at $7 billion.”
It’s clear that the state’s tax incentives served as a catalyst for Georgia’s flourishing TV and film industry success. Thomas adds, “That, and the fact that Georgia has a lot going for it — direct flights from Hatfield-Jackson Airport, great hotels and restaurants, a deep crew base, a lot of infrastructure and very diverse locations. Georgia is now ranked the third in the nation for film production.”
Thomas also likes what she sees ahead. “We anticipate continued growth. It’s an infrastructure expansion we’re having in Georgia. There are new sound stages, prop shops, camera and catering companies, and we have had a lot of crews move here.”
She adds, “Additionally, the state has set up the Georgia Film Academy. The governor put this in place to be able to fast-track people into the industry. It’s a unique program, a partnership between the university system and the technical college system.”
This cultivated crew-training approach creates a base of industry-skilled labor that allows the state to hire locally, making sure that Georgia’s own residents have direct access to film industry jobs. “It’s an investment the state has made in making sure this industry is strong, along with tremendous legislative support,” Thomas said. “The governor has been a huge supporter of the film industry.”
Thanks to the people behind the scenes, Georgia’s communities and its government, a very real industry grows, the state realizes it’s gains and the world is entertained.