Dan Rosenfelt, president of Third Rail Studios in Doraville/Special

The message from a Georgia studio head trapped by our abortion debate

To grasp what’s at stake economically in the current fight over the new Georgia law that will require most women to carry pregnancies to term after six weeks, consider how your video viewing habits have changed over the last few years.

A video-streaming contest for your eyeballs is underway. To estimate its worth at tens of millions of dollars would be wasting words on chump change.

“There’s never been a better time to make things, or to be in a place where things are made. It’s a content arms race,” Dan Rosenfelt said toward the end of an hour-long conversation. “Apple TV [Plus] hasn’t even launched. They’re streaming. In the fourth quarter of this year, Disney is going to launch Disney Plus. They’re pulling every bit of their content from everywhere. You can only watch a Disney-anything on Disney Plus.”

Rosenfelt, the president of Third Rail Studios in Doraville, was elaborating on one of those stunning facts unknown to most outside his industry: There aren’t enough sound stages in the world to keep up with Netflix’s appetite for original storytelling. Never mind everyone else.

In the world, he said.

A surge in video-streaming on a multitude of platforms – “watching TV” is a phrase that just doesn’t cut it anymore – has created a revolution in the film and television industry.

Georgia has been — and remains — in an excellent position to ride that wave. In fact, the incentive package the state offers to production companies may someday be counted as the one of the great economic accomplishments of Republican rule in this state.

That is, if those same ruling Republicans can defuse the culture war over abortion that threatens to shut down their prized economic initiative.

Since Gov. Brian Kemp signed House Bill 481 into law last month, certain elements in Hollywood have threatened a boycott of the state. A few actors aside, West Coast production executives have refused to dabble in loud brinksmanship. But many have made it clear that, should Georgia’s new “heartbeat” law go into effect on Jan. 1, as the legislation mandates, they’ll take their business elsewhere.

We have heard of the army of workers attached to Georgia’s new entertainment industry – 92,000 is the figure commonly cited. We have heard from Governor Kemp, who has condemned the protests of “C-list” actors. He and other supporters of HB 481 will continue to argue that it’s better to do right than to do well.

Rosenfelt is the rare head of a Georgia studio willing to talk about being trapped in the middle.

He’s a Philly guy. His first professional gig was as a location spotter for M. Night Shyamalan’s “Sixth Sense.” Rosenfelt moved his family – a wife and two sons, ages 12 and 9 – to Dunwoody from Los Angeles three years ago to open Third Rail.

“I like the town. It’s got a lot of friendly people. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit here that I think is my favorite part of Atlanta and Georgia — this idea that we can build things together. People follow through here,” Rosenfelt said.

In other words, when somebody in Atlanta says “Let’s do lunch,” lunch actually happens.

Since coming here, Rosenfelt, 44, says he has talked to more politicians than in his entire 15-year stint in California. Most of them have been Republican, and all of them go unnamed during our interview.

“I never had to explain my industry and why it’s great in Los Angeles,” Rosenfelt said. It was an observation, not a criticism. To those new to the business, this might qualify as Rosenfelt’s standard opening line:

“It’s nice to think about people like Dwayne Johnson and George Clooney and Sandra Bullock and all these wonderful actors, but they’re not the industry,” he said. “The true industry is a thousand people on the ground making things.”

But this would be the brass-tacks portion of his message: “There’s not been a tax-incentive state that has built the amount of infrastructure as rapidly and as large as Georgia has,” Rosenfelt told me. “It’s important to note the capital expenditure on the ground here. The infrastructure exists in such a massive way here, more than it has anywhere else in this country – except for L.A., really.”

In Georgia, there are perhaps 100 sound stages. Tyler Perry Studios in southwest Atlanta and Pinewood Atlanta Studios in Fayette County have the largest collections. Most are newly constructed.

Third Rail operates three stages with 41-foot tall, soundproofed ceilings — they’re under a flight path for Peachtree-DeKalb Airport, on the grounds of the old General Motors plant. The name “Third Rail” is an homage to the three rail lines that once fed the carmaker.

“We’re more of a boutique studio,” Rosenfelt said. He heads up a small staff of five, but that’s a deceptive number.

Outside of Los Angeles (and with the exception of the Tyler Perry operation), most studios don’t generate their own content. They are more like hotels, renting to production companies that stay for several months, then leave. And like hotels, these studios are dependent on the climate around them. Hostages, one might say.

Typically, Third Rail will have two productions going at once, each employing between 200 and 500 workers. “Some people might say they’re short-term or free-lance, but in a place where there’s this much production, it’s one job after the next,” Rosenfelt said.

Given its youth, Third Rail has primarily hosted movie productions, which quickly come and go. The real money is in TV series and the long-term commitments that come with them.

“TV shows, generally speaking, are the bread-and-butter for studios like ours,” Rosenfelt said. “Eight months after they wrap, they’ll probably be back. They may be even paying for a space just to hold their sets.” This is what makes AMC’s “Walking Dead” series such a valuable franchise.

Because of the uncertain future surrounding Georgia’s anti-abortion law, TV is also the sector of the entertainment industry that has been chilled by the legislation. TV companies have become reluctant to begin new productions here.

Rosenfelt himself has hopes for one that just finished at Third Rail: the Netflix series “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings.” It’s an eight-part anthology based on her songs, aimed at country music fans. The workforce was almost entirely Georgia-based. If Netflix likes it and wants to see more, Third Rail is likely to benefit again.

And so Rosenfelt paid attention last month when Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said that if Georgia’s “heartbeat” bill goes into effect, “we’d rethink our entire investment in Georgia.”

Here is where we need to note that the 30 percent transferable tax credit that Georgia offers applies to movie and TV production companies, not the brick-and-mortar operations that house them. Should Georgia’s TV and film bubble burst, Third Rail and other studios will be the ones left holding the bag.

Rosenfelt is careful when he speaks of the debate surrounding HB 481. He offers no opinion on abortion, but neither does he criticize actors and others who have threatened to stay away.

“I don’t begrudge anyone their opinion. I might feel the same if I lived elsewhere,” Rosenfelt said. “That being said, we do have an incredible infrastructure here, an incredible crew base, incredibly diverse locations in Georgia. So, it’s obviously upsetting to me to think that an entire industry could be in trouble.

Earlier this month, Democrat Stacey Abrams went to Los Angeles to tamp down talk of a Hollywood boycott of Georgia. “Stay and fight” was the message from the former Democratic candidate for governor.

Rosenfelt will buy into only part of that message. “I’ll just stay and work. And live. I just came here with the hope that I can do my job,” he said. “If you lose an election, you don’t leave the country.”

He does have conversations with California friends who think of Georgia as a strange and foreign place. “I don’t believe we’re the other,” he said. “I’ve told my friends in L.A. that we’re the exact same industry. We just live in a different place. That can get lost in the rhetoric. I’m not here to fight. I’m here to make movies.”

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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