Kempner: New Atlanta neighborhood for movie cast, crew (and us)


South of Atlanta, across the street from one of the biggest movie-making complexes in North America, the CEO of Chick-fil-A is betting he can make a real-life movie neighborhood with cool architecture and creative residents.

But pulling it off may be harder than spreading fried chicken sandwiches far and wide, which is one business Dan Cathy knows really well. This movie and real estate stuff he’s doing is separate from the chicken chain.

Crews recently started building the first of 1,300 homes that eventually will be joined by independent shops and restaurants, miles of trails and 118 acres of public green space at Pinewood Forrest. (They like two r’s.)

The mixed-use development near Fayetteville is supposed to be a little like Avalon and Serenbe and Seaside and Rosemary Beach, all quaint and enriching and walkable. It’s also supposed to be a unique creation, sitting just across two-lane Veterans Parkway from Pinewood Atlanta Studios, where visiting production crews have gone gangbusters making movies like “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Ant-Man,” “Captain America” and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2.”

It all sounds marvy, but there’s a challenge within the vision laid out by Cathy, who also has an ownership stake in the studios.

How do you create a welcoming community for non-industry people as well as movie folk, from the lowest paid production assistants to grips and gaffers and maybe even A-list actors and actresses, all while attracting tourists and not freaking out the super-sensitive, sort-of-secretive movie productions rotating in and out across the street?

Studio security guards got skittish and shooed me off when I stood in the driveway outside the movie complex and took a couple quick photos outside the front entrance. What are they going to do when new neighbors walk by with dogs and toddlers and whip out the iPhone for a selfie?

Others have contemplated designing homes to go up near new studios in Georgia. But it has yet to catch on in a big way. Still, maybe this is the kind of thing we’ll see more of, now that movie and TV show productions have become part of the Georgia landscape. (Fueled by oodles of tax incentives, Georgia was the No. 1 location for more big U.S. feature films last year, according to FilmLA.)

Rob Parker, the president of Pinewood Forrest, says the project is out front.

“We don’t know of another community purpose built to be able to walk to studios,” he said.

He recently showed me around the place, which is mostly fields and woods. He pointed out a protected stand of big trees and equipment going in to eventually use geothermal energy to heat and cool future homes.

The goal is a community designed for “creatives, storytellers and makers,” from glassblowers to makeup artists.

“We are building that urban cool in a suburban setting,” Parker told me.

Homes will be priced from about $250,000 to something north of $1 million. He plans to set aside a gated area for about a dozen homes that might work for celebrity actors and others craving more privacy.

Planned apartments and two hotels might cater to movie workers on temporary gigs. Apartments and very small houses would be priced to serve lower paid workers in the industry.

“It’s a constant tension for us: How do you do amazing and attainable?” Parker said.

Financial goals not focus

It helps immensely, I suspect, that Cathy is already a very rich man who apparently isn’t focused intensely on a big dollar profit from this particular venture.

“None of the goals we’ve talked about are financial goals,” Parker told me. “They are not at the top of our list of objectives.”

More than 40 planned homes already have been reserved with $2,500 refundable deposits from prospective homebuyers. While the prospects have included doctors and IT workers, the mix also includes a writer/producer and an actress moving their family from Los Angeles.

“There’s no promise on our part that there is going to be an A-list actor living next door,” Parker said. But some day, just such an actor might be spotted getting a coffee at a local shop in Pinewood Forrest.

“It is part of the mystique and the draw,” he told me.

He predicts tour buses will come into the community. And he’s contemplating early concepts for some kind of “movie experience” center on site.

But Parker knows he has to be careful. As we chatted about a planned pedestrian bridge for future community residents to get to the studios across the street, he mentioned that the bridge can’t go so high as to provide too clear a view into the studio property.

Scott Tigchelaar knows about the idea of mixing community and movie-making.

“It’s a delicate balance,” he told me.

He’s a part owner of Raleigh Studios Atlanta in Senoia, the Coweta County town about 15 miles south, where the hit TV series “The Walking Dead” has its home base. Early on, he started work on a development of 75 planned homes in town that he hoped would be part community and part movie setting. Much of the space is now being used as the fictional town of Alexandria in “The Walking Dead,” though seven families still live there in real life.

‘Up in their business’

Movie people tend to gravitate to each other, Tigchelaar told me. But productions often demand privacy when they are shooting.

“They do not want the general public up in their business.”

Creative people tend to like creative communities that avoid cookie-cutter formats, he said, “but if it comes off wrong, if it’s too contrived, it will backfire.”

And if homes and studios are too close, it can become a problem, he said. Five days in a row of night shooting and the sound of fake gun shots can get old.

So much for movie magic.

For people in the movie industry coming from other parts of the nation, Pinewood Studios is already a marquis name. And other big studios are already in place in surrounding communities south of Atlanta.

Steven Betolatti, who was a gaffer (in charge of lighting) on TV and movies sets, told me short commute times to work may become Pinewood Forrest’s biggest draw.

He and his wife Debra are real estate agents who put some of their focus on people in the entertainment industries looking for temporary or permanent Georgia homes.

People in the industry often work long days. Many don’t want to face long daily drives on top of that, he said.

“They are just regular people trying to live a life and make a movie.”

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