Lights, camera, action: Film crews get warm welcome at Emory

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sept. 20, 2016

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Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt's internationally publicized legal battle against a Holocaust denier is the subject of the new feature film "Denial," which brought a film crew to campus in February. Students appeared as extras and producer Russ Krasnoff made time to speak in the classroom. The film opens in Atlanta on Oct. 7.

When the Emory Quadrangle turned into a temporary movie set earlier this year for “Denial,” a feature film focused on Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt's internationally publicized legal battle against a Holocaust denier, it sparked a ripple of excitement through the heart of campus.

Not only was the project focused on one of Emory’s own, but producer Russ Krasnoff also agreed to include Emory students as background extras. He even made time to speak in the classroom, sharing his own experiences working with television and feature films with Emory film and media studies students.

If it seemed like a serendipitous Hollywood-meets-Emory moment, consider this: It was just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the past two years, Emory has steadily courted the attention of the television and film industry, encouraging location scouts to view the University as a viable set for their projects.

And the industry has taken notice, choosing campus properties, landscapes and hospitals as the backdrop for some 30 productions, ranging from feature films and television series to viral videos and commercials.

In response to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s economic push to encourage film and television production in the state — in part through expanded tax incentives — Emory has become serious about leveraging its physical assets to support such productions, a decision that has also provided unique opportunities for Emory’s Film and Media Studies program, says Bill Dracos, associate vice president of administration and chief Business Practice Improvement (BPI) officer at Emory.

Today, location scouts can explore viable settings through the Emory Film Management website, which offers information about Emory’s many campus properties — from the University’s leafy urban forest and historic architecture to classrooms, chemistry labs, and quirky mid-century office buildings on the Briarcliff property.

They also have a dedicated point person. Within Emory’s BPI office, Denise Chandler has served as manager of film management and contracting since February 2015.

“We’ve been fortunate that in Georgia, the tide is rising — there has definitely been an increased demand for film locations,” Dracos says.

“Along with Denise’s hard work to create more awareness about Emory within the community of location managers and film scouts, the industry is growing and maturing — there’s just more volume," he explains.

Filmmaking boom

In FY 2015 alone, Georgia-based feature films and television productions generated an economic impact of $6 billion, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

In fact, a study of U.S. feature films released theatrically in 2015 showed Georgia is now tied with Louisiana for third place for filming locations, behind only California and the United Kingdom.

“In the past, Emory worked on a more ad-hoc basis with some film companies,” says Dracos. “Now we’ve put the structure behind it to make it operate in a more systematic, disciplined way — networking with location scouts, working to understand their needs, and deciding if the projects make sense for Emory to host."

And it’s paid off. After a summer of active negotiations, Chandler reports that no fewer than four major productions are poised to film on the Emory campus this fall.

Although the BPI Office maintains confidentiality around productions that come to campus, magazines, newspapers and websites that document regional television and film productions show that Emory properties have played host to a wide range of productions over the past academic year, including:

  • Denial” (Bleecker Street): Feature film starring Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz that recounts Lipstadt’s legal battle against British Holocaust denier David Irving. Opens Sept. 30 in New York and Los Angeles, Oct. 7 in Atlanta and other selected cities, and nationwide Oct. 21.
  • Stranger Things” (Netflix): A supernatural drama set in the 1980s starring Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine that begins with the disappearance of a young boy amid an unfolding mystery that involves top-secret experiments and supernatural forces.
  • Gifted” (Fox Searchlight): Feature film starring Chris Evans and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer about a single man raising his 7-year-old niece — a mathematical prodigy —who is drawn into a custody battle with his formidable mother. Scheduled for release April 2017.
  • Killing Reagan” (National Geographic Channels International/Scott Free Productions): A television movie due to premiere later this year starring Tim Matheson and Cynthia Nixon as Ronald and Nancy Reagan in an adaptation of the book “Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault That Changed a Presidency,” which examines the attempted assassination of Reagan in 1981.
  • "Jacob’s Ladder” (LD Entertainment/Gaeta-Rosenzweig Films): The 1990 supernatural thriller starred Tim Robbins as a Vietnam war veteran plagued by hallucinations of monsters and demons. This remake is a modern day paranoid action thriller starring Michael Ealy, Nicole Beharie and Jessie Williams.
  • “Containment” (The CW Television Network): Follows a mysterious and deadly epidemic that breaks out in Atlanta, leaving the city quarantined. The series was cancelled after one season; the finale aired in July.
  •  “The Jury” (Sony TV/ABC Television): A crime drama starring Jeremy Sisto and Archie Punjabi that follows jurors on a single murder trial in the vein of popular podcast “Serial” and Netflix’s “Making A Murderer.” At this writing, the series is being redeveloped.

A classroom on the set

To film at the University, Emory charges modest location fees, which vary by the size of crew, the length of the shoot and the exact location, explains Dracos, who notes that Emory’s Briarcliff property remains a perpetual favorite.

Location revenue is shared with the hosting schools and units, he says. Fees from a recent production at the Emory School of Medicine, for example, were provided to support student services and infrastructure, Dracos explains.

But if a project has a strong Emory connection— such as “Denial” — “there is no charge, it’s more about doing the right thing,” he adds.

In the end, Emory simply passes on projects that aren’t a good fit. “We partner closely with our schools and units in managing the impact a production would have on our core operations and mission,” Dracos says. “We’ve turned away major productions that would have been disruptive.”

To strengthen educational opportunities, production companies that agree to use Emory students as extras can receive a discounted rate, Chandler notes.

“If we can, we’ll put film and media studies students on the set to observe,” she says. “Sometimes students help work on the productions for academic credit and we’ve also had producers and actors meet with classes and talk to the students, which is always a terrific opportunity.”

For Emory students, the chance to observe filmmaking firsthand provides a critical form of research, says film and media department chair Matthew Bernstein, Goodrich C. White Professor of Film and Media Studies.

“We can analyze a film shot-by-shot, but there is no adequate description of what it’s like to be on a film set,” he says. “It’s a unique experience and an important one for our students to understand.”