Barton Bond, the director of program curriculum at the Georgia Film Academy, helps student, Justin Nesbit, 26, set up lighting equipment during the on-set film production class at Gwinnett Technical College. The class is part of the Georgia Film Academy Certificate Program that will prepare students for on-set jobs in the film industry. TAYLOR CARPENTER / TAYLOR.CARPENTER@AJC.COM
Photo: TAYLOR CARPENTER / AJC
Photo: TAYLOR CARPENTER / AJC

Unofficial Business: Movie jobs! But first, know what a gaffer is

Cue the stirring music.

“You all are in the vanguard” of creating a movie production workforce in Georgia, an instructor told a gathering of college students, who looked like they varied in age from 19 to 50-something.

Ah, the glamour of the booming movie/TV business. It appeals to so many people. Hanging with the stars. Having your name in the credits. Making something that lasts forever when pirated on YouTube.

Within the first hour of the first day of class I visited at Gwinnett Technical College, instructor Barton Bond gave his new apprentices hints of what they’d gotten themselves into.

“We have a whole session about coiling cable,” Bond told them, with what I took to be delight.

He and colleague Dan Kelly, a production guy who is a screenwriter on the side and worked his way up from the industry’s lowest rung, launched into some random terms: Silks (used to diffuse light), quackers (a kind of clamp), Fresnel lights, a C47 (clothespin to you and me, often used to attach colored filters to lights) and the difference between a gaffer and a key grip (which along with “best boy” are all jobs tied to lighting or equipment set up). They also explained a “three-riser beefy baby with a Rocky Mountain leg” (which I believe is a lighting stand set up for uneven ground) and “civilians.”

“You are no longer civilians,” Bond told the 26 students. That seemed like a compliment because he explained that civilians are people who are not in “the business.”

Don’t worry, they told the students: We’ll give you way more details on this stuff in the weeks ahead.

Behind the spotlight

Welcome to movie-making reality. Behind the spotlight are lots of good paying jobs, a completely new vocabulary, fresh rules of etiquette and plenty of sweat and sore backs.

Georgia’s movie and TV business is absolutely on fire. Passing yet another production underway in Atlanta, Savannah, Covington, Norcross, Conyers, Marietta, etc., has become so … “of course.” After all, Moviemaker magazine named Atlanta the best major city for TV and film people to work and live. New studios are growing like kudzu.

But it’s an industry set on a wobbly foundation.

Money – generous Georgia tax credits that best those of many states – has driven much of the boom. (Plus we have a super-connected airport and good locations.) Of course, if other states outbid us on tax credits or Georgia legislators scale back the corporate welfare, expect the industry to shrink here, just as it has elsewhere.

Georgia officials are trying to fix another issue right now.

They tell me they keep hearing that Georgia doesn’t have enough home-grown movie production people. Bringing in outsiders costs filmmakers extra.

So the state has launched production training classes as part of its new Georgia Film Academy (GeorgiaFilmAcademy.org). It’s designed to create a conveyor belt of trained people to work behind the scenes (without necessarily having any crazy aspirations of becoming the next Jennifer Lawrence).

Movie-set interns

Classes started at Clayton State University and Columbus State University in January, followed recently by two classes at Gwinnett Tech in Lawrenceville. Students take the for-credit class and follow up with a not-yet-launched internship program on movie sets.

Complete both courses and you get a certification and job-placement help, which is supposed to significantly boost your chances of landing in the industry, where I’m told starting pay is about $26 an hour and experienced workers make an average $84,000 a year.

It’s usually tough to get in the industry’s front door. That’s because there isn’t actually a front door.

“There’s no real way to get up to speed. No job shadowing. No internships,” Bond said.

He’s estimated that an average minute on set probably costs a production company about $10,000. They don’t have time to help newbies figure it out.

Production jobs are often a gig-by-gig endeavor, with the hope that well before one movie, commercial or TV production ends, you’ll have lined up the next one by self marketing.

“I had 12 different employers last year,” said Kelly, who has a bachelors degree in film directing and a master’s in screen writing but still started at the bottom of the industry. Fifteen years later, he often seeks out office jobs handling the logistics for productions that roll into town.

Laura Hofer, 31, inspects a piece of equipment during the on-set film production class at Gwinnett Technical College. The class is part of the Georgia Film Academy Certificate Program that will prepare students for on-set jobs in the film industry. TAYLOR CARPENTER / TAYLOR.CARPENTER@AJC.COM
Photo: TAYLOR CARPENTER / AJC

‘You got to hustle’

“Once you’re in your 30s and 40s, being on set can take a toll,” he told me. “You got to hustle. It’s pretty demanding.”

Some students in the Gwinnett Tech had already tried and failed to get traction in the industry on their own.

Matt Pendergrass, a 38-year-old Peachtree City resident with some electrical experience, joined a local union and worked as an extra in movies, thinking it would help open doors. It didn’t.

He did get to see crews in action, though. “They have a good time, make a lot of money, have fun and free food.”

All but one of the people in the class I attended said they thought the movie industry will remain strong in Georgia for years to come.

Jeff Stepakoff, the film academy’s executive director, told me there’s enough infrastructure and political support to keep the industry fed. “I don’t think it is fleeting or transitory.”

He told the students, “As much as you want it, it is there for you.”

Maybe. But both of the Gwinnett Tech instructors — Bond, who had been in New Mexico, and Kelly, who moved from North Carolina — saw the movie businesses there decline when tax credits were cut back.

Laura Hofer, a 31-year-old former social worker from Buford, is not fretting.

“You have to take a gamble on some things in life,” she said, “if it’s a passion.”

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