Atlanta-based Gray Television is on schedule to finish its Assembly film and TV studio on the site of a former General Motors plant in Doraville, but Gray’s CEO said the company is delaying a second phase that would include housing, stores, restaurants and a hotel, citing economic headwinds.
“There is some macroeconomic concern about real estate and what’s going on out there, so we are taking a break,” said Gray CEO Hilton Howell on an earning call Friday. “Our focus is on building the studios, and we just about have all those built.”
Gray acquired the 135-acre property near I-285 and I-85 in north DeKalb County in 2021. The site has long been seen as a possible new downtown for Doraville and an attractive location with MARTA access and two interstates. Though the Assembly land attracted the headquarters for the parent company of the Serta and Simmons mattress brands and a smaller film studio, Gray’s purchase accelerated the site’s development.
The initial phase, featuring the film and TV studio construction, began in May of 2022. Howell said that project is ahead of schedule with the studio ready to start shooting TV series and films this June on 43 acres.
Once the film studio is completed in June, it will have about 20 soundstages, becoming one of the largest studios in metro Atlanta.
“This was only possible due to our decision in 2021 to pre-order steel and to produce concrete onsite and certain other key materials before the supply chain issues created delays, inflation, cost overruns for so many other projects in 2022,” Howell said. This move saved the company about $25 million, he said.
NBCUniversal, a major New York-based media company, last year signed a 15-year lease to manage the studio and shoot TV shows and films there. It will use most of the studio space for itself but will lease some of it to outside production companies.
NBCUniversal, which is wholly owned by Comcast, runs networks such as NBC, Syfy, Bravo, E!, USA and Telemundo as well as the streaming service Peacock.
Gray had previously announced plans to build out an 80-acre portion of the site called Assembly Atlanta with a boutique hotel, townhomes, apartments, office buildings and restaurants as well as a public park and amphitheater.
Howell was unavailable for a follow-up interview Monday regarding how long the delay may be for phase two. Gray has not previously specified when it had originally planned to finish the entire project, but a spokeswoman said it would take several years, with or without the delay.
Doraville Mayor Joseph Geierman expressed confidence in Gray despite the delayed second phase.
“I have no doubt it’s a question of when, not if, this remaining tract gets developed,” Geierman said. “NBCUniversal’s presence will make the expected housing, retail and hotel components that much more viable to the development community at large.”
Hilton during the earnings call said Gray should starting generating revenues from NBCUniversal’s deal beginning in June but wasn’t specific on how much money it will bring in this year.
“The Assembly upon maturity is going to be a quite significant contributor to the free cashflow on an individual asset basis,” he said. “I’m quite excited by it.”
Gray’s own Swirl Films will use some of the new studio space as well. Gray also purchased the adjacent Third Rail Studios in 2021, the same year it paid $80 million for a bulk of the former GM site, which largely sat empty for many years. The automaker closed its Doraville plant in 2008 after building Pontiacs, Buicks, Chevys and Oldsmobiles there over six decades.
Georgia’s film and TV tax credits passed in 2008 is one of the state’s largest incentive programs. The incentives only directly benefit production companies, not the investors who fund the build out of studios. But studios like Trilith, Eagle Rock and Assembly get back their investments courtesy of clients such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV and Lionsgate who pay to shoot productions there.
Georgia’s credit system is competitive with those offered in Canada and England as well as other states like New Mexico, New Jersey, Louisiana, California and New York. Production companies spent $4.4 billion in direct spending in Georgia in fiscal year 2022, which ended June 30. That fiscal year, the state certified more than $1.3 billion in film tax credits, state data show.
Gray has publicly stated it spent $130 to $140 million building out Assembly Studios last year and is in line to spend another $80 to $90 million to complete it in 2023.
Credit: GRAY TELE
Credit: GRAY TELE
Besides the indoor soundstages, Assembly has four outdoor backlot streetscapes. Based on film office requests, they have a New Orleans French Quarter vista, a block of New York City brownstones and a set of buildings that could pass for some European cities. The fourth block will rotate based on need.
A three-foot-deep retaining pond has been built out in front of a glass building which could be used for film sets that need a sleek, futuristic setting. The pond could also be used for green-screen ocean or lake settings. And Gray plans to use the penthouse of the building for viewing parties and other events.
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