COVINGTON, Ga. — A production company owner's reported plans for filming action movies on 1,500 acres east of the Covington city limits surprised two county commissioners representing the area.
But state and county economic development officials said private investors often work apart from government to build major projects.
The news website Bisnow and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reported Blackhall Studios founder Ryan Millsap "is looking to bring action and adventure to a sprawling site in Newton County" on Elks Club Road near the new Eastside High School campus by late summer of this year.
The "action and adventure" to which Millsap referred is planned to include "Blackhawk helicopters and ... Humvees at speed” for use in films for his new Blackhall Americana streaming service, he told Bisnow and the AJC.
Millsap, a Newton County resident, said he and a group of investors bought the land for development of a campus to film and produce content for Millsap's new action movie streaming service, Blackhall Americana, Bisnow reported.
Production on films and series is slated to begin on the new campus by the end of this summer, Millsap told Bisnow.
District 5 County Commissioner Ronnie Cowan — in whose district the site is located — said he did not know about the plan until a reporter called him Monday.
He said he was not in favor of a movie studio operating on the site because it would not be conducive to the area. There are no other commercial uses nearby and the site is now zoned for agricultural uses, he said.
"I'm not too in favor of it for what they're proposing out there," Cowan said of the 1,500-acre site.
Cowan added that he believed Newton County has enough film studio operations already. The county already is home to two film studios, including Cinelease-Three Ring Studios on Georgia Hwy. 142 on the north side of Covington; and Triple Horse Studios on Technology Drive.
District 1 County Commissioner Stan Edwards said he learned about the project at the same time as the public Sunday.
“I was taken aback,” he said. “I should have been notified by somebody.”
He said he believed other “quasi-government entities” could do a better job communicating to elected officials about major projects that will affect areas the officials represent.
However, a filming area is better than a project like a 750-lot subdivision that would have a major impact on the area’s infrastructure and services, Edwards said.
Later, Edwards said he and Cowan "will watch it closely and let folks know whatever we find out."
"I believe the owner to be a reasonable person and he lives in Newton County so my hope is he works with us to minimize unwanted impacts on the community," Edwards wrote on Facebook.
District 3 County Commissioner Alana Sanders criticized the Industrial Development Authority for lack of communication and the funding the county government contributes to its operation.
"People thought I was talking out the side of my neck when I said these boards/authorities do not keep us informed and we pay them thousands of taxpayers dollars yearly," Sanders wrote on Facebook.
"It just doesn't add up especially when we use to pay economic development $250,000 and they decided to move from up under the chamber to the IDA Board and it increased to $400,000 last year."
Sanders added that the enabling legislation that reorganized the county government in 2016 "clearly states we should be consulting with the (Newton) chamber for economic development" despite the chamber transferring its economic development function to the Newton County Industrial Development Authority at the end of 2019.
"I said... everything I speak will come to light; especially now when it hits home," Sanders wrote. "It's OK when it's not in your backyard. This is how District 3 felt when warehouses were being forced on our community."
But Cowan said he did not believe the Industrial Development Authority or the Newton Chamber of Commerce knew about Millsap's plans.
"Obviously, it was a private development," Cowan said. "Private sales go on all the time."
Lanier Sims, chairman of the Industrial Development Authority, said the project “was a private transaction with no involvement of the IDA or (Georgia) Office of Economic Development.”
He said it was “not common to have a nationally-known, well-respected film entrepreneur live within Newton County and invest in Newton County. “
“The recent news story is a common occurrence with prospective developers and land owners within our region,” Sims said.
“The Newton County Industrial Development Authority is an advocate for the creation of opportunities for economic development throughout the county for existing and future businesses as stated in the Newton County Strategic Plan.
“Locally, film has always been a tremendous asset for our economy dating back since the ’60s,” he said. “We stand by the County to ensure that proper processes are followed as with any new development.”
Marie Gordon, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, confirmed the state government’s lack of involvement with Millsap’s project.
“The Georgia Film Office has worked with Blackhall over the years, but the state was not involved in this project decision,” Gordon said.
Though unconfirmed, the site appears to be three adjacent tracts centered around the intersection of Elks Club and Otis Nixon Farm roads that were sold in September and November of 2021 for a total of almost $14 million, according to Newton County tax records.
A small part of the Blackhall site borders the south side of the new 107-acre Eastside High campus near U.S. Hwy. 278 and Georgia Hwy. 142.
He said the property "is ideal for films involving military vehicles, exotic equipment, explosions and gun battles ... it is currently being used as a hunting ground, and its neighbors are used to gunshots," Bisnow reported.
The site contains "lakes and swamps and rivers and forests and fields and hills and dales. That's the nice thing about 1,500 acres," Millsap told Bisnow.
Millsap said it was "ultimately going to be a massive production campus not dissimilar" to film mogul Tyler Perry's 330-acre studio that encompasses a dozen soundstages, green space and 40 historic buildings in south Atlanta.
The company is "dedicated to producing action, espionage, military and crime drama series and movies" and "is expected to launch on a proprietary platform next year," Bisnow reported.
Millsap sold Blackhall Studios campus in Atlanta to Los Angeles private equity firm Commonwealth Asset Management last year for $120 million and the right to continue using the name Blackhall.
Blackhall opened in 2017 and was the site for the filming of such blockbuster films as "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" and "Doctor Sleep."
Newton County already is home to two film studios, including Cinelease-Three Ring Studios on Georgia Hwy. 142 on the north side of Covington; and Triple Horse Studios on Technology Drive.
Cinelease-Three Ring recently announced it planned to add eight new stages to give the studio complex a total of 14 purpose-built sound stages and a total of 276,000 square feet of stage space, 100,000 square feet of office space, and an additional 72,800 square feet of flexible space, upon its completion in 2023.
Millsap also apparently has other development plans for northern Newton County apart from Blackhall Americana.
He has a memorandum of contract filed with Newton County Superior Court to purchase 1,000 acres from BPV Real Estate Holdings LLC and Susan Wahl between Strouds Creek Road and Georgia Hwy. 11 for a "large industrial development," Bisnow reported.
He plans to partner with a major developer on the project that is partly in the Social Circle city limits and not adjacent to his planned Blackhall Americana site.
It also is northwest and a few miles from the planned 2,000-acre Rivian electric vehicle production facility.