Big screen dreams: Calhoun County setting the stage to lure film industry
by Benjamin Nunnally
Special to The Star
Aug 25, 2013 | 8657 views |  0 comments | 96 96 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Director Pete Conroy talks to film students from JSU during the filming of an infomercial at Longleaf Studios’s green screen in Jacksonville Thursday. Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
Director Pete Conroy talks to film students from JSU during the filming of an infomercial at Longleaf Studios’s green screen in Jacksonville Thursday. Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
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The biggest green screen in Alabama hides at Longleaf Studios in Jacksonville, tucked away in a reclusive spot near JSU. The big, brick building boasts 18,000 square feet of soundproof studio space. Pete Conroy, president of the Northeast Alabama Entertainment Initiative, points out the black, cloth-like sound-dampening material covering the walls, held in place with silver spikes.

“They just finished that yesterday,” said Conroy, leaning out a second-story window overlooking the interior of the massive studio. A few of the spikes are facing outward about 20 feet up the wall. Conroy adds them to his mental list of things to fix before the studio opens in September. He wants Longleaf to be perfect on the first day of filming. If the studio takes off with the film industry, it could make a major difference in the local economy.

“We went to a film locations expo in California, and our booth was between Shreveport and Kenya,” recalled Conroy. “Everyone wants to sell their location.”

The response to NEAEI’s booth was incredible, he continued, opening a drawer filled with business cards from the conference.

Part of the draw to Alabama is the impressive rebates offered by the state’s Entertainment Industry Incentives Act of 2009, which offers a 35 percent rebate on money spent filming in Alabama in a budget range of $500,000 to $20 million, and a 25 percent rebate on wages paid by productions to Alabama workers. The other draw is Longleaf's massive green screen.

“It's not about the artistic side of things,” Conroy said of the screen's appeal. “For directors, it's about money.”

When a filmmaker wants to put a character in an impractical location, a green screen can be easier than a practical set or stage. For instance, when “The Walking Dead” actors are seen dodging zombies on the barren streets of Atlanta, the production hasn't actually shut down the city’s highways. Instead, the performances are filmed in front of a green screen and later inserted into digitally created environments — at a fraction of the price and hassle required to close down Atlanta.

Attracting the film industry to the area will also set the stage for success for local filmmakers. JSU students working on projects at Longleaf will graduate with film credits from well-known and respected productions on their resume. Conroy said there's already a plan in motion to create an official film degree at JSU, one that would involve many of the existing departments at the school.

Nearly everyone has a story idea, says Annie Brunson, founder of Yellowhammer Filmmakers of Northeast Alabama, and turning those ideas into a movie is becoming more of a practical reality in the area.

"Even though film itself is young, the phenomena of storytelling is thousands of years old and everyone can relate," Brunson said.

Yellowhammer Filmmakers formed in February with an open invitation to movie makers of all skill levels. The group has grown at a brisk pace in the months since, amassing nearly 100 interested locals and filming its first short film, “Missed Connections.” At the monthly meetings at the Peerless Saloon, members screen short films and discuss personal and group projects.

By 2015, Brunson aims to create a film festival in Anniston akin to Birmingham's annual Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, which wraps up its 2013 event tonight. During the weekend-long event, tourists and filmmakers fill the streets of Birmingham's Theater District to screen dozens of films and celebrate independent cinema. Now in its 15th year, the fest draws a large enough crowd to warrant a shuttle service to run attendants from theaters to restaurants and back.

"Many cities that have turned themselves around have done so through the arts," said Brunson. Yellowhammer's film festival, if successful, would create another tourist event for Anniston that could also garner serious attention from the film industry. For the next 18 months, the group’s goal is to foster a film-friendly environment in Northeast Alabama, secure sponsorship and show locals the fun and entertainment that can be found in supporting independent films. With the combined efforts of Yellowhammer and Longleaf Studios, Calhoun County could possibly become a serious hub for the film industry in the Southeast, but those behind the movement say it will require the support and interest of the community.

"We only have one chance to get it right," said Brunson.

For more information on the film industy in Calhoun County, visit www.longleafstudios.com and www.yellowhammerfilmmakers.org.

To see what’s screening today at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, visit www.sidewalkfest.com.


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