By Mollee Harper, Senior Editor
Georgia Film News catches up with Stephen G. Weizenecker, Esq., a partner in the Atlanta office of Barnes & Thornburg, where he is a member of the firm’s Corporate Department and Entertainment, Media and Sports Practice Group.
Weizenecker has been part of the team reviewing and revising the film tax credit legislation and accompanying regulations. Most recently, he drafted House Bill 155 (the Georgia Musical Investment Act) currently pending in the legislature, which will bring significant incentives in touring, scoring and recording for the music industry. During our interview, Weizenecker shares highlights of his journey in law and the entertainment industry, and insights into the support provided by local government as well as the infrastructure in place today to sustain Georgia’s growth in the entertainment business.
Weizenecker also highlights the focus for his practice in supporting film, television and video game clients across the world, which includes production incentives, financing, acquisitions and intellectual property matters.
Weizenecker shared, “I was born in Lakeland, and grew up in Clearwater, Florida. I came to Atlanta to attend undergrad at Emory University. Early on I knew I wanted to get in the practice of law. I don’t come from a legal family. My dad is a doctor and my mom is an RN. I was just always fascinated with it. As I got through Emory, I started managing rock-n-roll bands. I realized then I did not want to do that full time. And that led me to law and to become an entertainment lawyer. I have the ability to interact well with those folks and spent time learning how the industry works, especially the financial and tax aspects of the entertainment industry.”
“There was no real film industry here in Atlanta when I started, except the small Indy film community which I was involved with; Turner was here but it was all about music industry at that time. Then the gamers came. When the tax credit passed, the film industry came to take advantage of incentives, the airport, the talent, and the crews. Georgia’s film and television industry is a more than $1 billion industry now, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. That has really been our progression.”
“Obviously, we have lots of feature films and television series. I work with them all across the world as they move from location to location. A lot more of it has been TV lately, since this has been called ‘The Golden Age of TV’. A lot of folks are spending the same amount of money as on feature films to build episodic television series with big budgets that are well-written and well-costumed….and, all the way down to reality TV shows. They are really creating a tremendous amount of content and consumers are veraciously gobbling it up through a variety of different devices.”
“That has been a vastly growing part of my practice. We do a lot in the area of film, television series and video games including helping with tax, financing, acquisitions and intellectual property matters.”
“On the music side, the industry evolved in a different way and wasn’t growing for many years. Lt. Governor Casey Cagle appointed me to the Legislative Study Committee on Music and Economic Development to examine ways to support and grow Georgia’s music industry. With the committee and the industry group, Georgia Music Partners, I drafted House Bill 155, which is the Georgia Musical Investment Act, to bring in the tax credits for the music industry. Right now, that bill passed out of the House and passed the Senate.” (The bill is headed back to the house for consent.)
“The film tax credit does have aspects for music and scoring but that historically hasn’t been utilized very well. House Bill 155 is written differently and tailored to the music industry so starting off your tour here, or a musical act or opera here and spending over the threshold in the State will result in a tax credit. That is a big area where other states have taken advantage of these opportunities and Georgia’s trying to follow suit. So much goes into touring from building, transporting and setting up the sound stage, to months of practicing, organizing and then taking it on the road and hiring people for months at a time to do it correctly. Music recording itself is also in there. It does have thresholds you have to get over.”
“We managed to hit the main three areas in music where it is profitable for musicians, the music industry and is also profitable for the state – touring, scoring and music recording. Some musicians like Lady Gaga build elaborate stages they take on tour with them and practice for months. They hire crew and stay in hotels and spend a lot of money locally. The parts of the industry we are encouraging employs people at all levels here locally.”
“The film tax credit bill was passed many years ago and it was a team effort to achieve the success of this tax credit. Our success has been the continued team effort which involves Governor Deal, our legislature, Commissioner Pat Riley and Lee Thomas in the Department of Economic Development and Commissioner Lynn Riley in the Department of Revenue. We continue to work together to improve our tax credit.”
“We have a great group of dedicated government officials that work with us and see the industry as a significant opportunity for the State and continue to nurture it. That includes the Governor’s founding of the Georgia Film Academy and bringing in Jeff Stepakoff as the Executive Director.”
“That has been a much bigger achievement to me. That we work together as a state on all the necessary parts to make this industry successful and profitable for the state. ”
“The only other thing I wanted to mention is how the physical infrastructure has really grown. There are great people working on film, television and video games, but we have the best sound stages now too. This growth of physical infrastructure has allowed us to attract some of the largest projects. I helped put the Pinewood deal together to come to Fayetteville. Now some of the most prestigious and most expensive films are being filmed there.”
“There is also Executive Vice President Kris Bagwell at EUE/Screen Gems Studios. Bagwell, with Misty Holcomb of Maguire Woods Consulting, who helped organize the trade organization, Georgia Studio Alliance, with most of the sound stages in Georgia. You have Tyler Perry Studios, Eagle Rock Studios, Triple Horse and Mailing Avenue Stageworks. That is another part of the piece of the puzzle that helped it all come together. And that these people are willing to invest and build these major facilities here is really remarkable. The facilities do not get a tax credit for their investment. They invested their own money to attract and support this growing industry”
“One of the great things about Governor Deal is he is like everyone’s wise grandfather. He is very patient and listens to people and you feel good when you are in his presence. Last year on film day in LA, he was speaking to all of these top film executives, several people grabbed me after and said ‘isn’t his term up soon and he can’t run again, so can he move here and be our governor?’ Of course, I reminded them he is a Republican. They said they didn’t care, send him here.”
“Obviously, we all hope this industry continues to grow and have a great Governor and supportive legislature to continue to support our growth, the infrastructure and the people.”
Stephen Weizenecker is a partner in the Atlanta office of Barnes & Thornburg where he is a member of the firm’s Corporate Department and Entertainment, Media and Sports Practice Group, and focuses his practice on entertainment-related business, including tax incentives, tax policy, financing, acquisitions and intellectual property matters for film, television, and video game clients. Weizenecker graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School where he earned his J.D., cum laude. He received his undergraduate education from Emory University.
Weizenecker is a member of the Georgia Governor’s Advisory Commission on Film, Music, and Digital Entertainment. Lt. Governor Cagle appointed him to the Legislative Study Committee on Music and Economic Development. He serves on the Governing Committee of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Forum on Sports and Entertainment Industries and is co-chair of the Forum’s Webinar Program.
To learn more information about Stephen G. Weizenecker, Esq. and Barnes & Thornburg, visit their website at: http://btlaw.com.