Pinewood Atlanta: James Bond meets Fayette County

Pinewood Atlanta Timeline:

Fall 2009: Fayette County business partners Len Gough and Rick Halbert set their sights on creating public/private film and entertain ventures.

June 2010: Gough contacts Chic-fil-A president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy to gauge his interest in expanding his Peachtree City facility to add more sound stages at Falcon Field, where the television show "Drop Dead Diva" is filmed. Cathy's not interested.

Spring 2012: Gough reaches out to Cathy again regarding film and entertainment industry ventures. Cathy's interest is piqued. Gough, Halbert and Jim Pace put together a plan to bring in or develop a movie studio in Fayette County.

September 2012: Nick Smith, the No. 2 man at British film giant Pinewood, and Andy Weltman, the top officer of Pinewood's U.S. operations, arrive in Fayette County for a visit. They're shown a site near Falcon Field in Peachtree City but are unimpressed. Before leaving, they stake out 288-acres of farmland in north central Fayette as the future home of the company's first American film studio complex.

Dec. 20, 2013: Pace takes a team to London to meet with Pinewood and work out details of the deal which was unofficially agreed upon.

Feb. 5: The London team returns to Fayette. Pace, who becomes the managing partner of River's Rock LLC, the American arm of the joint venture, signs deal. That same day, Cathy sets up an independently managed trust to invest in the Pinewood studio deal.

April 26: Pinewood Shepperton PLC signs a $107 million, 10-year deal with River's Rock to build Pinewood Atlanta, a full-service film and entertainment studio complex in Fayette County. Deal is publicly announced three days later.

Pinewood Studios At A Glance: The making of James Bond, Harry Potter, Hobbits and Les Miz

Headquarters: Buckinghamshire, England

Opened: Sept. 30, 1936 with five studios.

Background: Major British film studio that has hosted numerous productions of movies, television shows and commercials.

Some notable productions: The James Bond franchise, beginning with "Dr. No" in 1962; "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968); "The Day of the Jackal" (1973); "Superman" (1978); "Superman II" (1980); "Little Shop of Horrors" (1986); "Full Metal Jacket" (1987); "Batman" (1989); "Mission: Impossible" (1996); "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999); "Jesus Christ Superstar" (2000); "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" (2001); "The Da Vinci Code" (2006); "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007); "Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix" (2011); "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" (2011); "The Hobbit: Unexpected Journey" (2012); "Snow White & the Huntsman" (2012); "Prometheus" (2012); "Les Miserables" (2012).

James Bond’s backers were unimpressed and were headed home.

Georgia’s film incentives had lured British film production company Pinewood Studios and Fayette County’s proximity to the Hartsfield Jackson International Airport made it an ideal place for Pinewood’s first American film studio. But after touring property in Peachtree City last September, Pinewood executives deemed the location too small.

A last-minute detour on the way to the airport took Pinewood executives through a lush swath of rolling Fayette countryside, just 20 minutes from the airport. The farmland was reminiscent of the filmmaking giant’s studio setting back home in London.

The executives were sold. They’d found the future home of their American studio complex, which also came with deep-pocketed backers. Chic-fil-A president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy is part of the local investor group River’s Rock LLC, which owns 60 percent of what will be one of the largest movie studios east of the Mississippi.

The hope now is the unlikely partnership between the film company best known for the James Bond franchise and the scion of the chicken sandwich fast-food chain will produce more than 3,400 high-paying jobs over the next decade. The studio in turn will spin off another 3,000 more jobs around the region, not to mention the $10 million direct investment in the Fayette economy over time. The two sides signed a $107 million, 10-year deal.

“Having that kind of brand here in Georgia is as good as you can get,” said Lee Thomas, director of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office.“It’s a grand slam. This is what you hope for when you pull together a film tax credit.”

Once it opens, Pinewood Atlanta is expected to catapult Georgia into a new realm of filmmaking, industry experts say.

Pinewood Atlanta, located in the center of the county, will open with five sound stages and about 400,000 square feet of space. Movie production could begin in the spring or summer of 2014. The complex ultimately will grow to about 32 sound stages with 1.5 million square feet of space that will include training facilities to produce future industry workers. (Pinewood is in talks with several colleges such as Clayton State University and Savannah College of Art and Design to provide training.)

Unlike many of the film Georgia studio deals recently announced, the Pinewood deal is fully funded with private investors’ money and has already broken ground, according to Len Gough, a Fayette County executive who helped broker the venture and has extensive experience in the film and entertainment business. The deal is a culmination of five years of work and a conscious effort to use local real estate developers, architects, construction firms and economic development folks, said Gough of ProMaker Development Group.

A prominent old-line Fayette family weighed in, selling land it has owned for more than a century to help cement the deal. In a nod to the Rivers family, Pinewood’s American investors dubbed their investment group River’s Rock LLC. The facility has some 70 companies — wardrobe, supply firms, prop companies and rental car companies — already wanting to get on the lot, said Thomas of the state’s film office.

News of the British film production giant’s arrival has shaken up the usually staid county known for its golf-cart lifestyle and slow-growth development. After a half decade of fighting the construction of a controversial bypass in the area, residents seem more receptive toward Pinewood. Studio officials have promised to be environmentally conscious and remain in keeping with the rural flavor of the area.

“I think it’s going to be pretty good because it’ll bring in some jobs,” said Steve Smithfield, who lives about four miles north of the film complex.

Not everyone’s happy that the British are coming.

Don Fowler has lived in relative seclusion near the planned studio site going on a half century and relishes quiet country living while watching farmers like Paul Rivers tend to the wheat, hay and other crops he’s cultivated over the years.

“Farming activity is all we ever see. We hear the wheat growing and that’s the most noise we get from the farm,” said Fowler, who moved in 1965 with his wife and two sons to their 10 acres on Hood Road. “It’s nice to wake up and see a tractor plowing a field.”

Now that land is going to produce movies instead of crops. Fowler watched last week as Rivers “cut a whole lot of wheat down” to make way for the construction equipment to clear the land for the studio complex, the first phase of which is set to open in January.

It’s not so much that Fowler minds having a film studio for a neighbor. He worries that Pinewood could open the door to more commercial development. “It’s going to come on their coattails,” he said.

That commercial overload remains to be seen. What is clear is Georgia is pulling ahead in a competitive field. Its climate gives filmmakers more filming days than hurricane-prone Louisiana or snow-burdened Michigan. Its tax incentives have become even more attractive now that competitor Louisiana is considering getting rid of its income tax, which would hurt its film tax credit program. Some 34 feature films, television pilots, movies-of-the-week and TV series are currently in various stages of production in Georgia, the majority of them in metro Atlanta.

Such an atmosphere enticed Pinewood as it angled for a bigger presence in the U.S. film market. But some observers wonder if the tax credits for movie makers eventually will prove toxic to states like Georgia.

“In the vast majority of states that enacted these tax credits, they don’t create any permanent infrastructure or permanent facilities or permanent jobs,” said Michael Mazerov, a senior fellow at the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research institute that produced a 2011 report on the impact of film tax credit incentives on states.“So they’re very expensive ways to create a lot of temporary jobs. It’s not a wise use of limited state resources.”

The folks in Fayette County would likely take exception to that assessment, given the work that went into getting Pinewood here.

After last September’s visit to Fayette, executives in London and Fayette spent a lot of time conferencing and skyping each other finalizing details of the deal which was officially signed April 26 and announced three days later. And Gough was finally able to persuade Cathy to play a bigger role in the film business with the lure of Pinewood. Cathy’s initial entry into the filmmaking business involved leasing space at his hangars at Falcon Field for the filming of the television show “Drop Dead Diva.”

“We approached him because he owns the hangars where Drop Dead Diva is filmed,” Gough recalled. “He’s interested in expanding his horizon. He’s involved in music, movies, Junior Achievement and helping young people learn about business. (The Pinewood deal is) just a natural extension.”

That extension however doesn’t mean Cathy will influence the production projects at Pinewood.

“He’ll have zero influence,” Gough said. “He’s mainly a passive investor.”