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Gray TV CEO Says Assembly Film Campus With NBCUniversal Will Be Georgia 'Icon'

Hilton Howell, the chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based media conglomerate Gray TV, is striving to position its mixed-use studio campus north of Atlanta into an icon for Georgia and proof that the state's television and film industry has become a powerhouse on its own.

Rendering of the 144-foot digital tower dubbed "Atlanta's Time Square signage."

Gray TV is under construction on the first phase of Assembly Atlanta, set to include more than 1M SF of soundstages, offices, warehouses and public-facing backlots built to replicate New York City and European capitals for film shoots. The media company provided Bisnow with exclusive new details of the development underway on the site of a former General Motors assembly plant in Doraville, 15 miles north of Downtown Atlanta.

The centerpiece of the project: a 144-foot digital screen dubbed Iconic Tower at the entrance to Assembly Studios “that will be Atlanta's Time Square signage right there,” Howell told Bisnow.

“We kind of want to have the public involved. We want them to see what Atlanta and Georgia are doing,” Howell said. “Everybody who is there and everybody who may be able to live there one day knows that they're living in a movie studio.”

Gray bought the 135 acres that make up the Assembly property, including the existing Third Rail Studios, last year from Atlanta-based Integral Group, then signed NBCUniversal Media — which owns brands like Universal Studios, DreamWorks, Focus Features, NBC, SyFy, Telemundo, Peacock and the Golf Channel — to lease and operate Assembly's multiple production facilities.

The project's first phase is expected to cost $305M to develop, $230M of which will be spent on the film production campus, totaling more than 1M SF on 53 acres. It will span 19 individual film stages and include offices, mill space, warehousing, a production base camp, dining space and private production bungalows, according to Assembly's architect, HGOR.

It will also feature four backlots built to mimic New York brownstones, the French Quarter in New Orleans, a European architectural-styled backlot, and a gritty, industrial backlot, complete with exposed fire escapes, that is dubbed Tribeca, Howell said. 

Gray's lease to NBCU allows it to focus on its own video production business through its independent film production studio, Swirl Films, which is getting dedicated space in the first phase of Assembly.

Construction of the French Quarter backlot at Assembly Atlanta.

Also in the first phase will be $75M in infrastructure work, including a 4-acre public park and a 2-acre central lawn for outdoor events, which will also function as stormwater drainage, 2 miles of streetscapes connected to the Atlanta BeltLine, a parking garage and two Doraville police precincts.

In future phases Gray plans to develop 800 apartments, 120 condominiums and townhomes, 250K SF of retail and food space, 1M SF of office space and a boutique hotel and full-service hotel with 350 combined rooms. Gray also plans to build a 5,000-seat civic arena and conference center and a nondenominational chapel for weddings, Howell said.

Film and television production has fast become one of Georgia's largest industries. In the fiscal year 2022, film and TV productions spent $4.4B in Georgia, a new record for the state. That included activity on 412 productions, including 32 feature films and 269 television and episodic productions through June 30, according to the state of Georgia.

“We're going to break $5B, maybe $6B this year. You got a winner, don't screw with it,” Howell said.

Howell said Gray is sourcing all the construction materials from inside the state as a way to demonstrate that Georgia can be self-sufficient in the entertainment business.

“Every single contractor, every single commodity we're using, every single architect, every single designer, every single product we have purchased is all from Georgia. There won't be one single thing that didn't originate from Georgia. It's Georgia steel, it's Georgia concrete. Everything. It's Georgia lumber,” Howell said.

“If you're these folks in California, and I love them, but they think everything creative happens in LA. Well, I'm proving them wrong," he continued. "The creative side of this all came from great men and women who are Georgia-born, Georgia-bred, Georgia immigrants, people who live in this area. I think it's going to be an icon for the city and the state, I really do.”

Howell said the production industry in Georgia has finally matured to a point where studios no longer need to import talent. And that is giving the state a shot in the arm in attracting work here, outside of the lucrative film tax credit that the state is renowned for.

While the program came under scrutiny after a 2020 audit revealed flaws in its implementation, the state has improved its oversight of the film tax credit, according to a review earlier this year.

“This is the great flaw that critics of the film tax credit have in their analysis. They say, 'We're bringing all these people from California.' That's really not right. We have raised two generations of young Georgia men and women,” he said. “Twenty years ago, that was a legitimate criticism because there was nobody in Georgia that grew up knowing how to do the jobs necessary in a production. All we need to do right now is leave everything alone. Momentum is in place. No one screw it up, don't kill the goose that's laying the golden egg. It's really simple.”