What’s next for studios formerly known as Pinewood?

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Cal Beverly

I got the call from Pinewood Atlanta Studios minutes after I published on TheCitizen.com the breaking news story mid-morning Aug. 21.

“Adjust your headline,” said the publicist for the local movie studio. The first headline read, “Pinewood Studios is pulling out of Fayette.”

“It sounds like everyone is leaving. The studios are not going anywhere,” the publicist said. She emailed a prepared news release giving the local spin to the news already released to Variety and some other publications by the Pinewood U.K. headquarters.

I added the phrase within minutes, “selling its stake to local partner.”

That is the extent of what I and this newspaper have heard from anybody connected with Pinewood Atlanta Studios: “Adjust your headline,” and the canned news release.

I don’t expect to hear any more from the local president, Frank Patterson. They don’t communicate much with locals, only when they have to “adjust” a short online headline that says in seven words exactly what has happened.

The big dog is taking back its name and going home.

As I write this on Sunday, some 30,000 readers have viewed that story since its posting five days ago at mid-week. Somebody is curious, that’s for sure.

Let’s get this question and answer series high up in this opinion column.

Question: Is this bad news for the film industry in Fayette?

Answer (from an outsider with no specific inside knowledge): Not right away, of that we can be relatively sure. Pinewood U.K. has agreed to lend its name and marketing strength to the studios on Sandy Creek Road for up to 18 months. Marvel and its superheroes already have pretty much pulled out of the five-year love affair with the brand-new state of the art facilities and taken their blockbusters elsewhere. It is unlikely they will be back anytime soon.

Q.: What’s behind this deal?

A.: First answer: It’s NOT because of abortion or gay rights, according to Deadline.com: “We have been told on the record by Pinewood that the exit is ‘not connected in any way’ to controversial anti-abortion laws recently passed in Georgia. The legislation has been criticized by Disney and Netflix. Talks over Pinewood’s exit have been going on ‘for at least two years,’ the Group told us.”

Second answer: In fact, both business partners have spelled out specifically what has led to the parting of ways, summarized in my online subhead: “2 businesses going in different directions.”

The Pinewood U.K. version: “As our partners in Atlanta look to expand their focus and invest in content development, we have agreed to sell our equity in the Studios. Pinewood will continue to prioritize its core business of providing studio infrastructure, including extensive growth plans in the U.K. and expansion in key international markets.” This from Pinewood Group chairman Paul Golding from London.

The Sandy Creek Road version: ““The Pinewood Group has been a great partner, building the best facilities in the world for us in Atlanta. I came on two years ago to build content opportunities at the same time the Pinewood Group changed ownership and decided to focus on providing studio accommodation. We’ve got some exciting investments in the pipeline on the content creation side of the business so this a truly great time for the industry in Atlanta.” This from Frank Patterson, president of Pinewood Atlanta Studios.

Here’s the U.K. translation: Pinewood U.K. is going back to its roots, providing rental facilities where moviemakers can do their thing. Pinewood is not interested in becoming either an investor in or producer of any movies or films itself. That would seem a conflict of interest to its main users, the big production companies, who would see such efforts as competition. The Atlanta studios can go its own way, but the U.K. folks are not interested in that business model.

Here’s the Sandy Creek translation: Frank Patterson came on board as CEO in late 2017 specifically to broaden the new studios’ business base beyond just renting the facilities for others to come in and make movies. In fact, nearly two years ago, Patterson explicitly stated the local studios’ new business model.

He said in a Nov. 23, 2017 story in The Citizen, “My goal is to further position Pinewood Atlanta Studios as the premier entertainment ecosystem, where companies cluster in a symbiotic atmosphere that benefits all and helps fuel the growth of Georgia’s booming motion picture, television production, digital, music and gaming industries.”

Patterson hasn’t changed his focus.

Patterson intended from the get-go to move well beyond just renting some buildings and land to transient movie productions. His business model was to BECOME a content creator, not just remain a stopover for others to make their stuff and then vacate the premises.

Presumably that was why Dan Cathy, the man behind both the studio complex on Sandy Creek Road and the unfolding residential-retail complex built especially for creative types, Pinewood Forest, hired Patterson.

Full ownership of the Sandy Creek studios passes now to River’s Rock LLC, described by published reports as “an independently managed trust of the Cathy family.” Dan is the CEO of Chick-fil-A, the nation’s third most popular fast-food restaurant chain.

Cathy has lived on a farm in Fayette County for many years. He’s not going anywhere. Neither are the 18 soundstages and other production and ancillary facilities on Sandy Creek Road.

Patterson now must produce income from that new business model, as Pinewood U.K. becomes not a partner but a competitor — one that has lasted since 1935. Whether that new income will replace the departed revenue brought in by an 84-year-old respected name known worldwide in the highest circles of the movie business is at present unknown.

Deadline.com also weighed in on that open question: “The space has been a key site for Marvel movies, so Pinewood’s exit and the Studio’s growing investment in ‘content companies’ does at least leave a small question mark over whether Atlanta [read “Fayette County”] will remain a go-to in years to come.”

I say let’s hope Patterson has the smarts and the pull to do what he said he was going to do. In the meantime, his CEO executive chair could get to be a very hot seat. Even Dan Cathy’s pockets have a bottom.

[Cal Beverly has been editor and publisher of The Citizen since 1993 and TheCitizen.com since 1996.]