Atlanta Studio Sparks Protests for Plan to Clearcut 200-Acre Forest for More Soundstages

Blackhall Studios, where films like “Venom” have been shot, is under fire from environmental groups over its expansion plans

Blackhall Studios Intrenchment Creek Park

Blackhall Studios, which has hosted some of the biggest Hollywood productions in Georgia in recent years, has come under fire from local activists and conservation groups for its plan to build new soundstages on 200 acres of natural forest in DeKalb County just outside Atlanta.

If completed, Blackhall would become the largest production space in a state that has seen a rapid expansion in film and TV projects in the last decade. The conflict over the expansion has placed Hollywood at the center of intense debate over climate change, gentrification and racial inequities inside a liberal enclave of a Republican-controlled state.

“At a time when climate action is more urgent than ever, our local officials are neglecting their duty to protect irreplaceable forest that is such a major part of what Atlanta is,” said Jacqueline Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance.

Blackhall Studios is a fairly new player in Georgia’s film industry but has seen its profile rapidly grow over the past four years. The complex was founded by real estate magnate Ryan Millsap, who got his start as a real estate broker in Georgia. He took advantage of the state’s generous film tax credit program to bring Hollywood productions to his facilities — and found business despite local powerhouses like Tyler Perry Studios and Pinewood Studios, where Marvel Studios shoots its blockbusters.

In 2017, Blackhall Studios opened a 165-acre complex with over 200,000 square feet of soundstage space as well as offices and rentable workshops. Since then, Blackhall has rapidly built connections with all of Hollywood’s top studios and networks, landing productions such as HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” Sony’s “Venom,” and multiple Dwayne Johnson blockbusters like “Jumanji: The Next Level” and the upcoming “Jungle Cruise” and “Black Adam.”

While setting its sights on developing a soundstage complex in London and possibly in other cities, Blackhall is trying to expand the number of full-scale productions its Atlanta campus can hold. To that end, it has filed permits for a 155-acre expansion located adjacent to its existing complex that would include 18 new soundstages. Blackhall claims that the project could add nearly 6,000 jobs.

But a half-mile west of the main Blackhall complex sits Intrenchment Creek Park, the site of another 40-acre expansion the studio is considering and which the South River Watershed Alliance filed a lawsuit to block this past February.

“Jungle Cruise” (Disney)

Since 2018, Blackhall has been in talks with DeKalb County officials to acquire Intrenchment Creek in exchange for 53 acres of land that the county will develop into a public park tentatively named Michelle Obama Park. According to a proposal for the land swap presented by the county last September, the park would include an Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant playground and water park along with an outdoor classroom and other amenities.

According to the presentation, Blackhall pledged $1.5 million for construction of the park, as well as other community initiatives, including a partnership with a local high school to develop film production programs and internship opportunities for students.

But the South River Watershed Alliance remains skeptical of both Blackhall’s promises and the county’s assurances that the proposed park would be a fair environmental tradeoff for what they estimate will be a loss of 3,000 trees clearcut by all of Blackhall’s expansion efforts. Jacqueline Echols said that Atlanta’s tree canopy is among the best safeguards Atlanta has against the rising temperatures of climate change; and once it is cut down, there’s no restoring it.

“This swap would set a dangerous precedent of giving up parcels of public land to private businesses,” she said. “These forests are the last bit of truly natural space we have in Atlanta and rather than care for them and take care of the economic opportunities those forests give us, our county is giving it away to make way for more warehouses, which really is what these studios are.”

Another reason Echols doesn’t trust the county board’s claims is because she and other local activists have spent years demanding that officials clean up the heavy pollution that plagues the South River. According to conservation group American Rivers, the South River stands as one of the most polluted rivers not just in Georgia but the entire U.S., thanks in part to runoff from construction sites that pop up with the rapid development by companies like Blackhall.

Echols also faulted officials for what she called environmental injustice, noting that the South River runs through predominantly Black, low-income neighborhoods while the nearby Chattahoochee River, which runs through wealthier neighborhoods, has received much more environmental aid from local officials. “The City of Atlanta and DeKalb County have not invested in protecting the environment and public health of the East side of the city and in the South River. All of the industrial development historically has been here,” she said. “These new plans by the county to welcome in Hollywood is just the latest phase of that.”

Joe Peery, a member of the Watershed Alliance that is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the land swap, also said that Blackhall has been making promises about community involvement since talks began in 2018. But he sees no indication that the company is making any moves toward fulfilling those promises.

Peery’s suspicions were only further raised when Millsap sold Blackhall Studios in April to Los Angeles-based private equity firm Commonwealth Group for $120 million. While Millsap retains the Blackhall name for use in other entertainment projects along with the land involved in the swap, the new owners would be tasked with fulfilling agreements made with county officials.

“There hasn’t been any sort of legal contract that we’ve found binding Blackhall to any of the community promises they’ve made,” Peery says. “And now this sale comes along and it just proves what we’ve feared: this expansion wasn’t about creating local jobs. It was about making a real estate sale.”

Intrenchment Creek Park in Atlanta (Twitter/@DefendATL)

Representatives for Blackhall and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond did not respond to TheWrap’s requests for further comment at time of publishing. But In a statement sent to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on May 5, DeKalb County said it had “no prior knowledge” of Blackhall’s sale to Commonwealth and would investigate if and how it would impact the land swap deal.

In Hollywood, talks about what to do about the climate crisis have become common both publicly and behind the scenes. While actors like Edward Norton and Shailene Woodley have spoken out about the issue, the Producers Guild of America has started an initiative called the Green Production Guide to teach producers how to reduce their projects’ carbon footprint.

But that image of sustainability clashes with how activists like Emily Wood see Hollywood and its ecological and economic impact on local Georgia communities. Wood is a part of Defend ATL, which describes itself as a decentralized movement trying to encourage residents to build a connection to Atlanta’s forests and stand against development proposals that would shrink it. She flatly rejects Blackhall’s idea to set up film school programs for teens, saying the gentrification the studio brings would push poorer black residents out before they could truly benefit from such programs.

“The majority of these jobs will go to people outside the community with specific skill sets. That will increase property values and, without rent control, will push residents out,” Wood warned. “We are trying to engage people who live here to understand that they are giving up these forests and, despite what these studios promise, they are not going to get much in return.”

The conflict between Atlanta environmentalists and Georgia’s rapidly growing film and TV production industry won’t be going away any time soon, as the offer of tax credits and the promise of more soundstages makes Atlanta a more enticing place for studios and networks.

Early on in the land swap talks, Peery said, he took Millsap on a tour of Intrenchment Creek Park and suggested that Blackhall could take over unused warehouses and industrial space instead of expanding into undeveloped land. “We have so much industrialization that has happened in these poorer neighborhoods on the East side, but what I was told was that the people who own those warehouses want too much money,” he said. “They just think it’s easier to build on undeveloped land, as do other companies that try to take advantage of the cheaper land in this lower-income area. And the county basically subsidizes it.”


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