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Where did all the films go?
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The late, great Ray Charles was a beloved icon in his native state.

But a film about his life was made recently in Louisiana. Not in Georgia, where he was born, nor Florida, where he was raised.

That’s because Louisiana offers monetary incentives for filmmakers. So do countries such as Canada, New Zealand and the Czech Republic.

It wasn’t long ago that Georgia’s role in the entertainment industry seemed assured, particularly in Savannah, where films such as Forrest Gump and The General’s Daughter were made.

The decline of interest since then is of such concern that the topic was discussed at the International Media Center during the recent G-8 Summit.

Savannah’s own Stratton Leopold, executive producer of films such as The Sum of All Fears and The General’s Daughter, participated in the panel discussion. “Georgia is second to none,” he said. “It’s a wonderful state to film in.”

Yet Leopold must commute between Savannah and Los Angeles to work in the film industry. “There’s a saying in Los Angeles that a friend is someone who will stab you in front,” he said.

Folks are much friendlier in Savannah, Leopold says. “People are clearly glad to have you,” he said.

Award-winning country music singer Travis Tritt is proud of his Georgia roots.

“It’s with a tremendous amount of pride that I tell you I was born, raised, breast-fed and hand-spanked right here in this great state,” he said.

Yet Tritt was told to be successful, he would have to leave Georgia. “They said, ‘If you’re going to be in the entertainment industry, you need to move to Los Angeles, Nashville or even New York -- anywhere but here,” he said.

“I resisted that. No place felt like Georgia did. As I got further into the business, I realized all those people were wrong. I’m proud of this state and I plan to stay here. They’ll carry me out of here feet first.”

Joel Katz, General Counsel of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, has practiced entertainment law in Atlanta for 33 years. His clients have included James Brown, Alan Jackson and Willie Nelson.

“I have always loved living here and working here,” Katz said. “There is no place like Georgia in America for the development and nurturing of entertainment assets.”

Dallas Austin is a music producer and songwriter in Atlanta. He also has begun producing films, including Drumline, which was filmed in Atlanta.

Quincy Jones was Austin’s mentor, and he convinced Austin that he would have to leave Georgia to succeed. “I went to Hollywood and I hated it,” he said. “This is better than Hollywood. Who wouldn’t want to live in Georgia?”

Austin says despite stiff competition, Georgia has the potential to become an “entertainment mecca.”

“There are 30 Georgia communities that have had movies filmed in them,” he said. “Also commercials. My movie, Drumline, led to an annual battle of the bands at the Georgia Dome. Last year, 70,000 people came out to see it.”

After learning that state budget woes might kill music education in public schools, Austin started his own program. “I kind of got disturbed because they were going to take music out of the schools,” he said.

But Austin learned that having homegrown talent wasn’t enough. After Warner Brothers announced plans to take the filming of Jellybeans, which is set in Georgia, to New Orleans, he decided to take action. “I took the incentive to go to the state legislature,” he said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue put Austin and others on a committee to develop an entertainment bill that would provide incentives to lure the entertainment industry. However, Perdue himself vetoed the resulting bill.

John Watson, Perdue’s Chief of Staff, said there are projects in the works for Georgia, although he did not name them.

“There are a lot of things under the radar,” he said. “We feel it is important to highlight not just the entertainment business in Georgia, but other business in Georgia.”

Austin said he believes the bill was vetoed because Perdue did not see how incentives could be funded when the state’s budget was so low.

“Let’s get together and make the right plan,” Austin said. “(The governor) could have just said no. Let’s take the initiative to do this thing right. There are a lot of really great stories here, a lot of great movies and television shows here. All the stars -- everyone is here. The industry must be able to stay here.”

There’s much to be gained, Leopold said. Of a $100 million film budget, about half the money stays locally.

“If incentives carried out in Louisiana are brought here, the industry will carry forward,” Leopold said. “There are talented filmmakers, directors and writers here. These are the types of things could help create an industry here so I could work here full-time.”

Leopold says he’s doing all he can to make it happen.

“My family was in the ice cream business,” he said. “We’re going to reopen the business and also make it a cinema cafe. We'll create a gathering place for film professionals right on Broughton Street.”