Georgia today has 100-plus soundstages, more than any state except California. Thanks to an insatiable demand for TV and film content coming out of the pandemic, business is booming.
EUE/Screen Gems, now with 10 soundstages and plans to build more, is currently working with Netflix to shoot the second season of “Raising Dion” and the fourth season of “Stranger Things,” which alone employs around 500 people.
EUE Screen Gems has been home to 2012 film "Flight," two "Hunger Games" films and Netflix's "Stranger Things." Contributed.
Credit: PUBLICITY PHOTOS
Credit: PUBLICITY PHOTOS
Lakewood opened in 1916 as an agricultural fair with supporters raising money to erect Spanish Mission-style exhibition halls. They also built a dirt race track, an amphitheater, a Carnival Midway and a big roller coaster dubbed the Greyhound.
By the 1970s, the fair had lost its appeal and shut down. Burt Reynolds, for his film “Smokey and the Bandit II,” famously blew up the Greyhound. Former Georgia film commissioner Ed Spivia’s Filmworks USA in the early 1980s signed a longterm lease in hopes of turning Lakewood into a first-rate movie studio.
That never came to pass, so Spivia pivoted, turning it into a popular antique market until 2006. For four years, the buildings largely lay empty, becoming a magnet for vandals, gangs and homeless people.
Enter the Cooneys, who for decades ran studios that were home to the soap opera “Guiding Light,” the WB show “Dawson’s Creek” and Marvel film “Iron Man 3.” After Georgia amped up its tax credits in 2008, executives spent 10 months searching for space in metro Atlanta.
They used real estate broker John Raulet in part because he had brokered Tyler Perry’s first studio space off Krog Street. He said he showed them about 20 locations. Despite its dilapidated state, Lakewood stood out. The Cooneys like its close proximity to both downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
It also didn’t hurt that the buildings evoked the classic soundstages of Los Angeles. “There is nothing else like it in Atlanta,” Reitz noted.
EUE/Screen Gems in 2010 signed a 50-year lease with the City of Atlanta. Cooney noted that his company receives zero tax credit money. They are simply a vessel to make it easier for makers of TV and film to get the 30% tax credit.
Chris Cooney, CEO of EUE/Screen Gems, hired the affable Atlanta native Bagwell ― a former MTV Networks executive who actually helped get MTV signed onto a cable network in Atlanta in 1986 ― to run the operation. Bagwell had no experience running a studio but possessed a deep background in business development and client relations, Cooney said.
Bagwell’s goal was to help early shows like BET’s “The Game” and USA’s “Necessary Roughness” (when basic cable was ascendant) to stay on schedule and on budget. That meant being on call 24/7, fixing broken lighting or a wonky door at a moment’s notice.
“It can get wacky,” said Bagwell. “You don’t realize how expensive it is for these production companies if they have delays. If a single door breaks and they can’t shoot for an hour, that could be tens of thousands of dollars lost. Our job is to be rapid service problem solvers.”
At the time EUE/Screen Gems opened, there were only a handful of small rental spaces available. Tyler Perry was using his Greenbriar studio just for himself and was already outgrowing it. Raleigh Studios in Senoia was taken up by AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva” was using a converted airplane hangar in Peachtree City. EUE/Screen Gems was effectively a turnkey operation with the proper specs and acoustics producers came to expect in Los Angeles or Vancouver.
Kris Bagwell (right) EUE Screen Gems Studios' Atlanta outgoing executive vice president, is relocating to New York to continue his work with EUE. Billy Stoll (left) is taking over the position and will continue the studio's work in Atlanta. Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: Jenni Girtman
Credit: Jenni Girtman
As a result, they nabbed some films such as Perry’s “For Colored Girls,” Vince Vaughn’s “The Watch” and Washington’s “Flight.”
In 2013, EUE/Screen Gems was able to entice Lionsgate to set up shop to shoot the final two films of the massively popular “Hunger Games” series, taking over the entire campus.
“A lot of studios out West took notice of us after ‘Hunger Games,’” said Raulet,
In 2010, Kris Bagwell (right) talks with Salim Akil, writer, producer and director of BET's "The Game." Kris Bagwell, was the new executive vice president for the EUE/Screen Gems Studios at the former Lakewood Fairgrounds, where construction crews were transforming the 30-acre property into a state-of-the-art film and television production facility. Brant Sanderlin/AJC FILE
who learned to run his own Mailing Avenue Stageworks studio from executives at EUE Screen Gems. “That legacy is huge. They put us on the map.”
EUE/Screen Gems was also prescient when streaming giant Netflix approached them in 2016 to shoot an untested sci-fi show called “Stranger Things,” which became one of the streaming service’s biggest hits in its short history.
“It’s been a wonderful relationship,” Cooney said. “We try to bring them as much value as we can.”
Bagwell is leaving soon to run a studio in Queens, New York, and Cooney is sad to see him go. “He’s an amazing manager of complex facilities with a sense of urgency wrapped in a nice guy.” Bagwell also knew how important the tax credits are to EUE/ Screen Gems’ survival. He created a studio alliance and regularly hosted state legislators to tour the facilities to ensure they understood the value of the jobs they were creating, such as caterers, electricians and carpenters.
But Bagwell is confident in his replacement; longtime Atlantan Billy Stoll, a low-key man who worked at CBS46 as a production tech in the 2000s and built up a knowledge base the past few years working under Bagwell.
“Billy won’t miss a beat,” Bagwell said. “He has a black belt in operations.”
In 2012, EUE Screen Gems hosted a short-lived BET show "Second Generation Wayans." This was a daily production sheet the AJC picked up at the time.