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Friday, April 4, 2014 - 1:30pm

Behind The Scenes Of Savannah’s Hollywood History

Savannah is no stranger to making movie magic.

If there’s one place one place in Savannah that has the inside scoop on those decades of cinema history, it’s Leopold’s Ice Cream on Broughton Street, where ice cream and Hollywood collide.

Behind the bustling counter, employees dish out flavors like chocolate and Japanese Cherry Blossom, but in the rest of the store, owner and movie producer Stratton Leopold dishes on all things big screen.

"If I'm not on a picture,” says Leopold, “I tend to be here scooping ice cream."

But for Leopold, Hollywood is never far away-photos and mementos from some of his productions line the walls.

He started out as a location manager and casting director in the 1980s and says his hometown of Savannah was a hotbed for films.

"We were busy here. I mean, it was non–stop pictures. I think it was a non–stop couple of years here. Then it was a function of needing the background. If it was period Washington, period New York, whatever, Savannah would play for that.”

Films like Glory in 1989 made Savannah a star, though Leopold says tax incentives in other states started pulling many productions away.

But in 1993, a film with an odd name and an even odder title character put Savannah back on the map.

That film was Forrest Gump.

Savannah Dan has been a tour guide in the town for the last six years. He knows all about the film’s legacy in Savannah, especially the popularity of the famous, but non-existent bench.

"Do you know when that movie came out, it won six Academy Awards and here comes the world,” says Dan. “ 'Forrest Gump, where's the bench? Want to see the bench. Want to sit on the bench get my picture...' We ain't got a bench! That was a movie prop."

He says Forrest Gump and "the book," Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, kicked tourism into high gear in the mid–90s.

"Because they all want to come here to see, 'Well, I heard this movie was made here. I heard that movie was made there and we've had more movies than people have ever heard of filmed in Savannah."

William Hammargren heads up the city’s Film Services Department.

He says his job is to balance the wants of the production companies with the needs of Savannah's residents and businesses.

"Everybody loves Savannah. There's nobody that comes here that doesn't want to come back and shoot. So, it's just really great to take people out and show them the history."

For the most part, business is good. Numbers from the film office show productions spent more than $12 million in Savannah in 2012 with an overall economic impact of more than $26 million.

"We're in the process of crunching the 2013 numbers. We definitely issued more permits than we ever have before,” said Hammargen. “ A number of those were smaller projects. I think we're going to just beat what we did in 2012."

He says the film industry is experiencing a surge in growth here because in 2008, the state started offering tax credits of up to 30 percent for projects produced in Georgia.

Jay Self is the spokesperson for Medient Studios. Medient is an international production company and a combination of state tax credits and local incentives is drawing them here to Effingham County, just 25 minutes west of Savannah.

"Medient Studios is kind of the next step for Medient,” says Self.

The1500 acre property will become the home of Medient's new state–of–the–art sound stage complex.

The company plans to include housing and entertainment venues in the later phases of the complex. But according to Self, Medient's first priority is on the stages, which he says will create more stable work for the area's film crews.

"Your workforce is working and then not working, then working and then not working. Something like Medient brings a consistency,” he said. “ We have production after production after production so you can support long–term employment."

Self says Phase 1 construction should begin in the next 8 weeks.

At Leopold's the next 8 weeks will bring an endless line of ice cream orders and tourists curious about the magic of movies. And Leopold believes for this city, the credits will never stop rolling.

"I think as far as Savannah, Savanah's a friendly city,” he says. “As long as we maintain that equanimity and that friendliness, it will be fine here. I think generally speaking, it's a good future here."