Academy provides workers for Georgia’s growing film industry

A year ago, Melinda Anderson was running a home-organizing business. Today, the 54-year-old Dacula resident works in Georgia’s multibillion-dollar film industry - an unlikely transition without the state’s help.

“I feel like I was on the fast-track,” said Anderson, who recently worked as a production assistant in the costume for the hit TV series “The Walking Dead.” “Doors were opened to me that I feel like would have taken me a whole lot longer to get through had I not gone through the Georgia Film Academy.”

Like Anderson, many of her 208 peers in the inaugural graduating class have found work in special-effects, set decoration, lighting, grip, and other specialties known in the industry as “below-the-line” jobs. Many are working for major film company’s like Sony and Tyler Perry Studios.

After nearly a year of classwork, hands-on training and an internship, Anderson officially became a certified on-set production assistant last week. She got the certificate through Gwinnett Technical College, part of a statewide collection of colleges and tech schools working with the academy to groom people for Georgia’s $7.2 billion film industry.

As the academy wraps up its first year of operations, state film industry officials say the effort is delivering much-needed workers in relatively short order. By June 2017, some 1,100 students are slated to graduate from the academy and 350 will have participated in internships on film projects.

“It’s very hard to break into the industry. It’s a relationship industry,” said Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner for the Georgia Film Office. “[The academy] is a great way in a short amount of time to figure out the skills.”

Employment in Georgia’s film and entertainment industry has mushroomed during the last decade as filmmakers increasingly sought out the state for its warm weather and generous tax credits. Suppliers and other businesses catering to the industry followed.

As a result, the jobs of about 79,000 people in Georgia are tied to the industry. Of that, 25,000 people are working on TV and feature films, Thomas said. Currently there are 41 television shows and feature films projects in varying stages of production in Georgia, Thomas added. Some 245 feature film and television productions were shot in Georgia during fiscal year 2016.

Industry growth over the next five years is projected by officials to generate between 3,000 to 5,000 new jobs in the state, most of which are on the set. The average salary in those jobs is $84,000 a year.

While the state was hailed for its accessibility, many of the essential behind-the-camera workers had to be imported from other states. That concern ultimately ended up on the governor’s desk.

In January 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal announced a film industry job training program in tandem with the state’s public universities and technical colleges. Jeff Stepakoff, a television writer and producer with Georgia roots was tapped to build a program from scratch. With the help of about a dozen industry vets, Stepakoff built a curriculum in 2015. The academy opened in January 2016 with it first class of students.

In an industry long criticized for being lily-white, the academy’s inaugural students is a microcosym of Georgia’s growing diversity. More than half - 52 percent - of the inaugural class is made up of people of color and nearly half are women.

“We think it’s important for Georgia to be a model for the rest of the country, particularly regarding diversity. California talks about it a lot. L.A. talks about it a lot. We’re doing it at the Georgia Film Academy,” Stepakoff said.

Students range in ages from 18 to early 50s. Many of them are at the academy to jump-start second careers.

“Job One for the Georgia Film Academy is to put Georgians to work on our sound stages. We’re doing that,” Stepakoff said during an interview recently at the academy’s Fayette County soundstage.

“As a leader, he’s a visionary,” said Dan Kelly, an instructor at the academy’s Fayetteville facility. “He has a very clear idea of what we want to build and where we want to be…It’s about where do we have an industry in five years, 10 years. But how do you have an industry that sustains itself?”

The Jeff Stepakoff Files

Executive Director of The Georgia Film Academy

Age: 53, native of Dunwoody

Education: Graduate of Woodward Academy and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Career: Stepakoff is a tenured professor at Kennesaw State University where he teaches film and television writing and producing. He also has written books, created and produced movies and TV shows. "The Wonder Years," "Sisters" and "Dawson's Creek" are among his Hollywood credits. He also has created and developed pilots for major film studios such as 20th Century, Paramount, MTM, Fox and ABC.

Family: He and wife, model and actress Elizabeth, live with their three children, Sophie, 17, Charlotte, 15 and Eli, 8, in East Cobb.

Favorite TV shows: "The Americans" and "Rectify"

Favorite movies: "Casablanca," "Almost Famous" and "The Graduate"

Georgia Film Academy

Founded: 2015

Annual operating budget: $2.6 million

Total students enrolled in fall 2016: 364

Graduates: 209

Where Georgia Film Academy courses are taught: Clayton State University, Columbus State University, Gwinnett Technical College, Savannah Technical College and Pinewood Studios in Fayetteville.

Institutions offering credit for GFA courses: University of West Georgia, Georgia College, Georgia State University, Kennesaw State University, Georgia Piedmont Technical College, Southern Crescent Technical College, Clayton State University, Columbus State University, Gwinnett Technical College and Savannah Technical College.