CASTING DIRECTOR MENTORS A STATE INDUSTRY

WHAT MAKES ATLANTA A GOOD FIT FOR FILM? We knew we had something more to offer, what most other states wouldn’t have in the same depth, and that was the fact we had a great crew base here in Georgia. We had an experienced talent pool. We had a community that understood the value of the things we had, and we had the locations and things that would really benefit the filmmakers.

STORY: Michael Jacobs
PHOTOS: Sara Hanna

Shay Bentley Griffin could be considered the grandmother of the Georgia film industry. The casting director and CEO of Chez Studios has advocated for production in Atlanta and the rest of the state for more than 30 years. A California native who has lived most of her life in Georgia and has a home and office in Buckhead, she helped persuade Hollywood to shoot TV shows such as In the Heat of the Night and I’ll Fly Away in Georgia with local actors. She nurtured budding talents such as Kyle Chandler, Walton Goggins and Ray McKinnon. She helped launch the Georgia Production Partnership, and with Ric Reitz, Wilbur Fitzgerald and the late Ed Spivia, formed the committee that crafted and won passage of the crucial entertainment tax incentive program while Sonny Perdue was governor.

Now, in addition to enjoying her grandchildren and some farming, Griffin wants to nurture homegrown preproduction and distribution operations while producing an unnamed TV series she’s working on. “How in the world did I end up getting into a business that wasn’t supposed to happen here and have a career that everyone told me I couldn’t have?” says Griffin. “How could one be more blessed than that?”

How did you get involved in the film industry?

I opened up a model talent agency. Georgia was sort of in the film industry, so I decided I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to see if I could help the talent that lived here have a better opportunity at being in those films. I started making trips out to California, always with the attitude that we could save [film and TV production companies] money. When I finally realized that those were the magical words—“We can save you money”—I moved into being a casting director.

What makes you good at recognizing talent?

I look for things that maybe other people wouldn’t have even thought about. And I not only learned how to identify those people, but how to help them be better. For the series shooting here, if you don’t have the talent, you can’t stay very long. I used to say it’s like a mini movie of the week every week, so they have to keep an ongoing flow of talent.

How did you get the tax credit in Georgia?

We were starting to see the work leave, and Canada almost took us out. When Governor Perdue went into office, we beat on the door, and he listened to us. He said, “Don’t bring me a tax credit. Think outside the box.” Well, we realized we weren’t even inside a box to think outside of it. What it ended up being, at the end of the day and after all of our research and efforts, was a tax credit, and we needed it to be substantial enough to compete with every state in the Union.

Has the industry in Georgia grown to where it’s too big to fail?

I would never be that person who wouldn’t believe it’s possible, but I sure do think it’s improbable. We are way too strong in what we do and what we know and how we function to be easily wiped out, especially if we keep the idea of building the product here ourselves.