Holding the Torch for Georgia’s Tax Credits, “The Peach”, Casting, and More: Our Hour with Shay Bentley-Griffin of Chez Studios

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By Mollee Harper, Senior Editor,

Georgia Entertainment News shared an hour with three-time Emmy nominated Casting Director and Producer Shay Bentley-Griffin, CSA, who was recently honored by the Business Chronicle among the “Women Who Mean Business”. Georgians are realizing $9.5 billion annually in economic impact from the Georgia tax credits for entertainment, since the bill first passed in 2008. Shay Bentley-Griffin is the original champion, negotiator and marathon-runner to ensure Georgia’s infrastructure in the entertainment business would prosper, and last.

Bentley-Griffin is also founder of Chez Studios and has been deeply involved in the industry for more than two decades, working as a talent agent, casting director, and providing acting workshops, training and mentoring to the next generation of actors, and literally touching thousands of television episodes, and major films.

During our time together, Bentley-Griffin shares insights from her role as co-chair of the committee that worked to pass the Georgia Tax Credit in 2008. Highlights of her extensive career in Hollywood are interwoven into her extraordinary contributions to the boom that is now Georgia’s entertainment industry. She shares her passion for the business and Georgia’s success, and her determination to cast, crew, film, write, direct, produce, post….all of it here in Georgia.   

Georgia Tax Credits….In the Beginning

Bentley-Griffin shared, “I think I was born in the industry.”

 “I was co-chair of the governor’s film and entertainment advisory committee under Governor Purdue. In the early stages of that, we began to talk to him about what needed to happen to make Georgia a competitive workplace. Those things take time. At the time, many Georgians regarded entertainment as a fun thing that came in and out of our State, but not necessarily a money-maker.”

Bentley-Griffin described, “I worked as a special consultant with the film consultant. I had been in and out of LA since I started my business. It was tough because we were competing with Canada, and then Louisiana. In the beginning, no one thought we had anything to offer. Georgia did have a good infrastructure and good people. That’s when we began to realize we had to have something more in incentives to really compete.”

“Later, Governor Purdue charged us with the responsibility to find out exactly what we needed. We put together a committee to figure it out. There were five of us on the committee to create the ideas. There was one from Savannah and the other four of us were here in Atlanta. We went to work. It took us some time to make sure we had a plan that was good enough, smart enough and competitive enough to take to the governor. We had the 20% credits in place but needed that final piece to get us to that 30%. That was critical.”

“The GA peach logo gave us that extra 10%. The GA peach was worth a whole lot more than anyone could begin to imagine. It really helped to brand Georgia. The GA peach would be out there forever and was and is still invaluable to our marketing efforts. Our peach is seen everywhere.”

“We sat down with the governor and showed him we had a plan. When he saw that peach, he realized this was a plan that might work. We told Governor Purdue, ‘If we can get this to work, we will put Georgians to work. It will affect so many other areas of commerce.’ Typically people think about the talent and crew. We had that here and knew that. But, there are so many other businesses that have flourished as a result.”

“It’s an astounding number, an estimated 85,000 plus Georgians are working now due to the industry. Real estate was struggling during the unsettling times of 2008. Now real estate has really rebounded and part of that has been as a result of the industry being here. I don’t think anyone realized the affect it would have on all of these other areas.”

“Plus we have 12 studios here in Georgia, and more to come. And, the Georgia Academy is here to train more Georgians so they are qualified and successful in these new jobs. We’ve been able to put a lot of construction industry workers back to work in the entertainment industry now. We recently heard a talk about how the industry has affected the tourism industry here too. The film industry is now a significant part of Georgia’s tourism industry.”  

“We finally heard back from the governor, ‘If you can get it passed through the session, I’ll sign it.’ We went to the Capitol and talked to the different representatives. Working with those legislatures was a big part of what we did. It became a full time job for the four of us in Atlanta. Eventually, people wanted to meet us, the people who were working in the industry. We worked hard to convert them into followers. That shift eventually turned into people asking us what else can be done. We always answered ‘protect the tax credit’. It is the secret that turned our film economy in Georgia. It is supporting so many other types of businesses that support the entertainment industry. To this day, I always tell everyone to protect this bill.”

“Ed Spivey, the first Georgia film commissioner, came out of retirement to help us. He was an incredible help with this bill. He really knew how to handle the issues. He worked with people like Burt Reynolds and others that came in to shoot in Georgia in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Ed really kept people like Burt coming back, among others. We knew we had a really good infrastructure before 2008. By 2009, we knew it was going to have to be bigger.” 

“At the Georgia Film Academy, we want to train Georgians so we don’t have to bring in people from other places. I am so dedicated to Georgia first. I want to see our people get the roles and opportunities, as well as financial rewards whenever possible. I am happy to share that with surrounding markets with qualified people, but not before Georgians have had a chance at anything we are doing. I think the Georgia Film Academy has really helped here in the training end of it.”

“I started training actors when I got in the business. I realized we had to have a stronger talent pool. We didn’t want to just send extras from Georgia to the set. We wanted our people to have starring roles.”

“We have had actors in Georgia that have now been able to retire under SAGs retirement plan. Not many people have had the opportunity to work long enough and build up their retirement plan. That’s really great to see this happen.”  

Bentley-Griffin added, “Our biggest challenge was to create something that we knew was competitive, and something that the film office could use that would work. We needed to be able to compete against New Orleans. They were really busy and calling a lot of us there for work. I said I was not going to go over there and train their actors to work. We knew whatever we put up in Georgia needed to help us compete there in Louisiana and Canada. We had to appeal to people to come shoot in Georgia.”

“The second challenge was coming up with a package that the governor would feel comfortable with signing. We knew we had to get this bill right. It didn’t have everything we wanted, but it had enough. Since then, we’ve seen that support added for the music industry and gaming industry. We are all in this together. The film industry had to be strong to lay that foundation.”

“We had to do this to be a business that takes us into the future. The industry really came together and has remained united. We did a telephone campaign in the beginning. It was great to hear the answer, ‘We got it we got it! You can stop calling now.’ The Georgia film credit passed with 99%.”

“The entertainment industry here in Georgia has been extremely united with a lot of great people willing to work hard for it and to give money to take care of our lobbyists to make sure the bill did not fail. It was the passion of those of us who had worked in the industry. It was an unexpected thing. I had to consider if I would move to California. No, I’m not going. I’m going to stay here and fight. And that’s what some of us did to make sure it had a chance to continue on.”  

“I remember saying if we could not save our industry, we would be the only generation to have worked in film industry in Georgia.” 

“Right before the bill passed, some people were going to California to work and they were reaching out and saying, ‘please bring us home. Please bring us back to the Georgia film industry.’ I was president and founder of the Georgia Production Partnership (GPP). We were certainly an odd group, because we honestly believed we could have a film industry in Georgia at a time when no one believed it could happen. Somehow we did and continued to fight, and it did. I am so proud to have been part of the inspiring, hard working and professional group in this market with the vision to make it happen.”

“It worked!!! We never doubted ourselves. Those of us on the committee really were dedicated to bring more work to Georgia. We were determined and certain that we could make it better. And, make it a real industry people can respect and that we could maintain in years to come.”  

“There are many communities who have had film work in their towns. The reach is incredible. We see that all over the State. Savannah is getting stronger, along with other Georgia towns. When I used to go to Los Angeles, so often I would see signs with initials on them. One day I found out those signs were pointing to production sets. What has been so amazing to me years later is to drive around Atlanta, or that small town in West Georgia, and see those bright yellow signs with initials on them. That means there’s a film shooting somewhere in the area. If you ride around you will see a lot of them now.” 

“It was a dream that came true. It was the best of all worlds for me. I spent a lot of time in LA early on in my career. LA was always good to me and gave me a chance.”

“I love hearing about new actors being discovered here. Some are even coming back from LA to work here or set up studios here. That is the way you would hope the plan would go. I would always say, ‘we are lending our people to LA’. I don’t encourage talent to go to LA now. I feel like everyone in California is trying to come here now. We have agents and talent calling us wanting to work here on a regular basis.”

“I always ask, ‘Do you pay taxes here in Georgia?’ If no, you are not local. You are here to work. I am still going to put up the best of the Atlanta talent first, because they pay taxes here. I never had to say that a lot, because everyone understood that was my bottom line. If you are part of us, be a part and contribute.”

Inside Chez Studios

Chez Studios is a multi-faceted company offering full-service casting to the television and film industry, a variety of training and workshop programs for new talent and experienced actors, and a production house. Chez Studios is located at 2221 Peachtree Road NE, Suite D, Atlanta, Georgia, 30309.

Bentley-Griffin offered, “Chez Studios started out as a talent agency in the early ‘80s. Then in the ‘90s, I moved into casting and closed the agency. Those were two big transitions I made when I found greater needs in other areas of the business. That is why I am so passionate about productions now. We need to build our own great content from Georgia and put our writers, directors, producers to work and put our actors in starring roles on those on the screen. It means something to their careers and it means something to the industry building our own library of content for Georgia.”

“As far as casting, I am in a very blessed place. It’s not the way it once was. I can pick and choose a little more.”  

“The first big thing I did in casting was ‘In the Heat of the Night’. It was like I was casting a movie of the week, every week. That created a bigger demand for good actors.”

“I just worked for the fourth time on Clint Eastwood’s next movie, and am beginning to work on a second movie for Ang Lee we will start at the first of the year. Along with Billy Bob Thornton, I have had the opportunity to work with the industry’s best. A very special project was working on a Netflix project with a great friend of mine who just moved back here from LA. We get the opportunity to work on some really great projects. My bigger goal is to help the independent filmmakers. In casting end of it, we can give a little advantage. We try to handle all casting from the people here in Georgia. That saves money and also creates a greater value to those actors.”

“We have some wonderful people on the casting end and a great team that goes to all of the various shows to give us the opportunity to see talent working that may not have agents yet.”

“As we discover more talent, we are able to build our profile and make Georgia known as a place with great talent. It will be such a great day when people are ready to invest in what we are doing, get behind the industry and help us to make these independent projects a reality.”  

“I’ve loved to train and help actors since I was an agent. I quickly realized we needed the kind of training to help our actors grow. Some actors are born with it, but others can really excel if they are giving the right training. I began to call on casting and agent friends of mine in LA and NY to come to Atlanta to help train our actors. I believe we have to create as strong a talent pool as we can. We get there by working with actors that have been in the business for a long time.” 

“I know our agents in Atlanta fight for it all the time, to put our actors in bigger roles. We have actors here with resumes that are simply unbelievable. We are not at that place where we cast here first then bring the rest from LA. That’s where we need to be.”

“When someone asks me how many roles I can cast out of Georgia. My answer is just as many as I can. My goal is always to have at least 75% of the talent cast locally.” 

“I am also advocate. Please don’t be unkind to talent that lives here. We can save you money, because you won’t have all of the expenses associated with travel and LA agents. Just give the actors the money they deserve for the role. You will still save a lot of money.”

“I remember when I was getting ready to move into casting, still an agent at the time. I was trying to sell a director on what I thought I could do. I told him I would bring him 80% of the cast. I remember I said to him, ‘You tell me what that is worth to you.’ I got that job, we put Georgia talent to work, and it did save him a lot of money.”

“I do stand by the professionals that work with us in our program from LA to NY. We have some of the finest people in the industry working with Chez Studios. We go to the expense to make sure we bring in the very best. I am very proud of that. They believed for many years in what we are trying to build here. I know the actors here will not be given misdirection.”

“To be honest, most of those of us in the business can tell you quickly if someone really has the talent. Some are born with it like the young Dan Byrd, Seth Meriwether and Dakota Fanning, and many others. They were born with it, and we just enhanced it. Some others have the instinct, but don’t know how to put it together. It doesn’t take long for good instructors to see that and help enhance their skills. If it isn’t in you to do it, the sooner you find out and stop spending money on it, it’s the best gift we can give you. Sometimes you see someone who just doesn’t have it. The camera just doesn’t love everyone the same. If the camera doesn’t love you, you are not a marketable face. We’ve seen that over the years. There are still a lot of ways to be in the industry than just being in front of that camera. I always tell people there are many other opportunities for you.”

“I believe in training. We do it the very best that we can and hope to continue to do it. We are expanding that part of the business too now. It’s wonderful to watch talent grow through training and see them audition and succeed.”

“We are continuously doing workout weekends through intense work for two days with instructors who are on top of their game. They know immediately how hard to push someone to meet their potential. I feel strongly about that to not encourage someone to keep pursuing it if they have been trying for 4-5 years and are not getting booked. I think it’s so much more important to build the best talent pool, and give other opportunities to those who want to be industry, but are not going to be in front of the camera.” 

“We also want to find the new talent, up and coming producers and those who are trying to create films here and get them stamped with that peach so they can be successful here. I believe we haven’t finished yet. When we are making our movies here and not depending on bigger markets to bring their work to us, we will indeed be an independent film market. And, Georgia will be known for their film industry. We do have everything we need. We just need to continue to encourage Georgia investing with the opportunity to take advantage of the tax credit.”

“I always want to be able to inspire and be a good place of information for those coming into this business. It’s just as tough for me. I’m as good as my last job just as are the actors. I do understand that. Casting directors can get depressed too. We all feel that depression from time to time. I am so grateful I was able to discover that early on. People always ask if I ever wanted to be an actress. I just sordof knew early, this is what I do better. I just put all my efforts into being the best at what I can be. I think the thing I am the proudest of over the years, while I was building my career some of the actors I’ve worked with over the years have become lifelong friends.”

“So many people out there are now holding that line and helping to build our market. I once talked with a producer. She said, ‘You could work out there in LA. However, what you do is so unique here. What you are building is so special. Sometimes it’s just as great to bloom where you are.’ I am so glad I stayed to bloom here.”

The Next Chapter 

Bentley-Griffin shared, “Advocating for Georgia has been a huge part of my life. After the tax credit passed, I thought I might get out of this business and go do something else. I had an honest conversation with myself. I love this business. I can’t seem to let it go. If you love what you do, it’s impossible to quit.”

“If my business had been something that I had not loved and valued in my life, it would have been easy to walk away. You have to be studying this business all the time. I seem to care too much to say, ‘today is the day’. It’s in my nature to move quickly to something else. I’m real happy with the way the business is right now.”

“I am also a huge supporter of the industry as a whole and of women in this industry in particular. I want to see more of our talented and qualified women doing more. It’s exciting to work with some of the women coming into the business from all directions including lawyers, directors, and more. It’s a great opportunity to help them avoid the mistakes I’ve made. I want to leave this industry in a better place than I found it.”  

“Recently, we were referred to as the third location production market. We don’t want to have anyone create a number for us. We are among the top three. And in April of this year, we were cited by the Hollywood Reporter as the number one production sight in America, and number five in the world. It may vary, but to be declared number one by the Hollywood Reporter; that is incredible! We need to stay competitive.”

Bentley-Griffin added, “We are about to do an independent film. It is not an LA kind of project. I want to be able to do it here. I am so excited the money is from here. We are using local cast in great roles and getting them on that screen. There are many of us who want to bring our projects to life on the big screen and want Georgia to be known as one of the most creative markets in the industry. When I realized moving to LA was not what I wanted to do, everything changed.” 

“When actors from Georgia are so recognizable in LA the tides will have turned. And, when our actors have so much work in their own state, we will be where we want to be. That’s where we’ll see industry grow in the next 5-10 years. It will be so unbelievable that such an industry exists in Georgia and we were the people who believed it could. So many people believed.” 

Conclusion

Bentley-Griffin concluded, “I feel so blessed to have had a career in this business. I have worked with wonderful people in this business. People tell me I’ve had the best of both worlds. I’ve had great opportunities and relationships with people in LA and NY, and yet still get to be where I want to be helping build the industry up here in Georgia. I am extremely proud to have been able to raise children, live where I want to live and have the career that I have.

“I was recently honored with an award from the Business Chronicle; it was probably one of the greatest highlights of my career. I was included in the most fabulous group of ‘Women Who Mean Business’. I love that title. When I was chosen to be recognized, I was so excited that people realized I am running a business here. That meant more to me, although I’ve had meaningful honors within the entertainment industry over the years. This one meant more coming from outside of the industry, to be recognized as a business person. I was the first person from the entertainment industry to be recognized with this business honor. That alone is truly a treasure, very special, and meaningful to me.”

She added, “I had to have a song play when I went to the stage to receive my award. The Rolling Stones song ‘Satisfaction’ is what I chose. I was so satisfied with my achievement that day, although I am always certain there is another mountain.”

“In fact, we are already onto the next endeavor. We have recently been asked to look for the lead roles for a new upcoming television pilot by a major network here in Georgia. That has never happened before. That is something that is truly exciting and the culmination of that next dream.” 

“There is no word I understand less than the word ‘No’. I don’t believe in ‘No’. I will probably go out of this world not understanding ‘No’.”

Bentley-Griffin added, “I definitely think I have more to do.”

To learn more about Chez Studios, visit their company website at:

http://www.chezstudios.com/.

 

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