On With the Show! DeKalb Entertainment Commission Director Shelbia Jackson Talks Show Biz and How the County Works to Lure and Nurture Billion-Dollar Film Industry

Categories: Film

County agency geared to helping production companies scout locations, smooth permitting requirements and assisting aspiring film professionals break into the business

Judging by the hype, it seems like film and video production outfits are rushing to Georgia and throwing cash around like Hollywood mega-stars who’ve just landed multi million dollar advances.

Our state has certainly played host to many megawattage celebrities but – as a conversation with DeKalb Entertainment Commission Director Shelbia Jackson reveals – it takes a lot of hard work to attract films to Georgia.

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes coordination involved in creating a viable landscape for production companies and the myriad support staff, services and resources they require.

“Entertainment has always been happening in Georgia,” said Jackson. With film, it started in the 1970s when then-Gov. Jimmy Carter launched the Georgia film office after the film “Deliverance” was filmed in the state. But it kicked into high gear when “the state legislature passed a tax credit in 2008, and the industry really began to take off in 2011,” she said.

Still, she added, “not many counties established programs to manage the infrastructure. There was no coordination of services, no single point of contact, no database of what assets we had in order to promote the industry.”

The DeKalb Difference 

But that was different in DeKalb. The county created the DeKalb Entertainment Commission in 2017, Jackson said, “with industry officials, technical colleges and volunteers to advise us about how to implement a strategic plan to develop that infrastructure, to  grow and leverage Georgia’s attraction for the film industry.”

Jackson, a DeKalb native and county economic development official, was tapped to lead the office which is part of Decide DeKalb, the economic development authority of DeKalb County.

“It kind of landed in my lap in 2013,” said Jackson with a laugh. “It was clearly an economic development project, bringing in new business and expanding current businesses. It took quite a while to do the research and create the infrastructure. We had to reach out to stakeholders and public officials to see what it should look like. Everybody else was doing what we were, and it was a challenge to go through that process. The only examples I found were in Los Angeles and New York.”

The effort has been paying off with what Jackson says is an estimated $2 billion in film and

production-related revenues in DeKalb County over the last three years.

One-Stop Resource for Production Companies

“We’ve created a one-stop shop for production companies,” she said. “It’s a centralized department they call to find shooting locations, to learn how to file permits, to get police and fire services on their sets, and to find available properties to build a stage or convert an existing site like a school, mall or hospital.”

There also may be permitting or permission issues with county or municipal authorities, she added.

“That can mean working with multiple county departments, really drilling down into the details of what the production company wants and making sure all of the relevant departments are aware of what’s going on. At the same time, we want to  make sure we don’t negatively impact the quality of life for people in the area.”

Calling all scouts and location managers

“Our primary clients are location managers and location scouts, the people who work for the studio or production company,” said Jackson. “It could be a commercial, a TV series, a film; they let us know what they’re looking for. Maybe they want to recreate a traffic accident with lots of special effects, or need a house that looks a particular way or a hospital. We look through our database and are able to put together a short package for them.”

The effort has borne impressive and lucrative fruit. Over the past few years DeKalb has hosted film crews for movie and television productions including Netflix blockbuster series “Stranger Things,” “Sweet Magnolias,” “Wonder Years,” “P-Valley,” “MacGyver,” “Dynasty,” “Black Mafia Family,” “Doom Patrol” and many more, Jackson said.

“We love having television series here year after year. It has a continuing impact,” she said. “Now that the [actors and writers] strike has ended, several are coming back. And we never stopped shooting commercials and reality shows.”

Recruitment and training

DEC also offers recruitment and training opportunities for students and aspiring production professionals. “We began to learn about the needs of the industry, and to help our own county residents coming out of college or high school find a career in film and video production,” she said. “We have year-round workforce programs that reach out to industry professionals, teachers, technical schools and colleges.”

Services Offered at No Cost to the Industry

DEC devotes a lot of effort to making the county attractive to the film industry, and it does so free of charge.

“Our research showed that, when a production company is trying to locate a production in your area, the return on your investment is not a fee,” said Jackson. “It’s economic activity. It’s thousands of jobs. It’s people staying in your hotels, eating in your restaurants, moving into your community. So let’s say Netflix calls and asks for a vacant lot to build a set, we help them find that lot, scout where the production crew can go, and work with the county and city to connect those networks, all free of charge.”

“Core economic development”

In addition, she noted, there are requirements for production companies benefiting from the state tax credit. “One of the incentives is that they have to spend at least $500,000 and they have to hire local workers,” Jackson said. “That’s core economic development.”

Despite her central role in luring big-name talent and hit shows to DeKalb, Jackson says she’s anything but star-struck.

“I’ve never been the one who desires to go to every set to take pictures with celebrities,” she said. “I just want to make sure they have positive things to say about their experience, and that they want to keep coming back.”