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Kempner: Atlantan not a movie guy, but now has Oscar connection

Nelson Burke is more surprised than anybody that an Atlanta guy like him is in the movie business and has ties to a production up for an Oscar on Sunday.

It’s become kind of routine.

But he tells me he often gets a worrisome twinge. It’s not his back; it’s Georgia legislators.

What if the folks at the Capitol get some kind of goofy idea to kill the tax credits that have made Georgia a movie and TV boomville?

Or remember that religious liberty bill lawmakers passed last year before the governor vetoed it? Legislation like that would scare off filmmakers and squash his business selling composites used to make special effects and props, Burke told me as we chatted one recent evening.

The next morning, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had this on its front page: a group of state senators are sponsoring a scaled-back version of such a bill. It would require the state to prove a compelling governmental interest before interfering with a person’s exercise of religion. 

The governor’s office says he will kill the sequel, too. (I tried to reach the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, but didn’t hear back from him on deadline.)

Last time around, an array of business leaders warned that the law would make Georgia less welcoming, scare off business and be used to discriminate against some people, such as against gay folks who marry.

Burke, who owns The Engineering Guy near the Atlanta airport, told me his customers would have bolted the state.

“That is a terrible thought when you have more than ten people whose livelihoods depends on you,” he said.

Staking the future

Lots of other local business owners have staked their economic futures to movies.

“My biggest fear,” Burke said, “is that more people in the state don’t understand how important this business is to the state.”

More than $2 billion was spent in Georgia in the last fiscal year, according to the state.

Georgia has lots of selling points for the movie industry. The biggest is that we offer some of the most lucrative tax breaks around. That makes us vulnerable if another state offers a better deal or if we do something to shoo off directors and producers.

The industry is now ingrained here, feeding everyone from lumber suppliers and electrical equipment companies to real estate, actors and, well, a guy who thought his biggest business would be supplying composites for aircraft repair at Delta Air Lines, Gulfstream and Lockheed.

Burke is really not a movie guy.

He has a hard time remember the names of the dozens of films he has supplied with goo and adhesives or – this still amazes him – make-up. How did an industrial guy end up in cosmetics?

He started carrying a line of rubber and plastics products often used in special effects. That business bloomed. Lots of people had a need to make gory faces, severed limbs, alien bodies, fake iron bars, pretend lava or props that look like everyday fixtures but are lighter, softer and more malleable.

Life-changing business

“It has completely changed our lives,” Burke told me. “We’ve gone from a small company with maybe four people to three times the space and three times the employees, and it has happened over the course of three years.”

His materials have been used to create fake bullet holes in one of the “Fast and Furious” movies, wall medallions and parts of a hovercraft in one of the “Hunger Games,” pieces of the lead character’s costume in “Ant-Man,” and two severed arms still attached to a steering wheel in “Zombieland” — the first time he saw props from his materials appear on the big screen.

Supplies for “Hunger Games” productions generated about $120,000 for his business, he said. “Guardians of the Galaxy” dropped more than a quarter million dollars on his shop. An Avengers movie, which is still being made, will easily double that, he said.

Then there was the space movie “Passengers.” They got plaster and fiberglass materials to create surfaces for the inside of a spaceship.

Critics panned the film. Still, it has Academy Award nominations for best original score in music and for production design.

I wanted to know whether Burke will be psyched up when the winner for that latter category is announced, given that his materials were used on the set.

Nah, he said. “I’ll probably be sleeping.”

When is the Oscar night?

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