Inside UGA’s burgeoning MFA in Film, Television and Digital Media program, with Neil Landau

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Applications for the MFA in Film, Television and Digital Media program are due by February 15, 2023. Apply today.

Adamma Ebo and her sister, Adanne Ebo, creators of "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul," visit with Neil Landau and students in the MFA Film and EMST program.
Adamma Ebo and her sister, Adanne Ebo, creators of “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” visit with Neil Landau and students in the MFA Film and EMST program. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

The film industry in Georgia is flourishing. Generating $4.4 billion for the state last fiscal year, productions made in Georgia include a long list of box office top-earning feature films, streaming programming, commercials, music videos and independent films. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Black Panther,” “Stranger Things,” and “Loki” are just several of the hundreds of productions made in Georgia in recent years. 

So, it only makes sense for the University of Georgia to have a top-of-the-line MFA film program, capable of pumping highly trained filmmakers into the marketplace. In this episode, we speak with Neil Landau, the executive director of the Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media program, about what the program has to offer. Landau explains the growth of the program, the new partnership with Athena Studios, which includes a 14,600-square-foot student studio space, the advantage for students provided by Georgia’s bustling film industry, the impact that the program’s many mentors, who are legendary producers, A-list screenwriters and award-winning show runners, have on students enrolled in the program, and more.

Grady College co-sponsors the MFA Film program along with Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Listen to the podcast episode on Anchor, or your preferred audio streaming platform, by clicking here or following the links above.

UGA MFA Film program gains momentum in year three

Like any good script, the plot of the UGA MFA Film program is continuously adding developments and enriching its story.

The Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media is accepting applications for its fourth cohort with some exciting plot developments including a partnership with the new Athena Studios, less than five miles from the UGA campus; growth of the Distinguished Industry Mentor program that includes professionals like Chuck Hayward (“WandaVision”), Davita Scarlett (“The Good Fight”) and Damon Lindelof (“Watchmen”); and the ongoing partnership with Georgia Film Academy at the program’s second-year homebase, Trilith Studios.

January 15, 2023 is the deadline to apply for the Fall 2023 MFA Film cohort, educating students in skills to become above-the line writers, directors and producers in Georgia’s burgeoning film industry. The UGA MFA program remains rich in resources and one of the most affordable of its kind.

“We are on the cusp of our program blossoming into a world-class film school, blazing a trail with our exceptionally dedicated faculty, customized curriculum, and setting up the infrastructure to operate our program on a studio pipeline model,” said Neil Landau, executive director for the UGA MFA Film program.

Landau, an award-winning screenwriter, creative producer, author, and professor, was named executive director of the program in September, but has been directing its screenwriting classes since the inaugural classes in 2020.

Landau continued: “From development to green light, we’re ready to serve the needs of uniquely talented, diverse, emerging filmmakers and storytellers not only from the South, but also from the greater U.S. and around the world.”

Athena Studios

Joel Harber (third from left) cuts the ribbon at the new space at Athena Studios dedicated to use by EMST and MFA Film students for five years. The studios will help students forge a “path to create and work in Athens and Georgia,” Harber said.

The MFA Film program is rich in studio space and technology resources, including the new addition of a learning center and studio space at Athena Studios in Athens. The MFA’s two-year curriculum also allows students to take advantage of renovated studio space and state-of-the-art camera equipment at Grady College during the first year of the program, and Georgia Film Academy space at Trilith Studios during the second year.

“When we designed our state-of-the-art production space, it was important to include a dedicated soundstage to educate and train the next generation of TV and film production professionals,” said Joel Harber, CEO of Athena Studios. “Studio space minutes from UGA’s campus is a powerful combination that will help power the Georgia film industry’s pool of talent and resources in the years to come.”

Ribbon cutting ceremonies for the 14,600-square-foot student studio space were held Nov. 4, 2022. Undergraduate and MFA Film production classes will begin there in January. Additionally, the Athena Studios space includes offices, room to build multiple sets and a learning center to conduct classes.

Athena Studios is a massive complex currently committed to build 350,000 square feet of space to serve what is now a $4.4 billion film industry in Georgia, according to latest reports from the Georgia Film Industry. The first phase of nearly 200,000 square feet of studio space will be complete by January.

Distinguished Industry Mentors

Also key to the UGA MFA Film program is the impressive roster of industry professionals connected through the Distinguished Industry Mentor experience, including Chuck Hayward who will serve as the program’s artist-in-residence in Spring 2023.

The Distinguished Industry Mentor program enlists more than 40 of the industry’s most prominent screenwriters, directors, and TV showrunners — including David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”), Allison Liddi-Brown (“Friday Night Lights”), and Peabody Award-winner Steven Canals (“Pose”) — to share their expertise with students via master classes, mentoring sessions, and networking.

Hayward is a screenwriter and producer earning two Emmy nominations for “WandaVision” and “Ted Lasso.” Hayward is currently writer-producer on “Life and Beth” starring Amy Schumer. As an artist-in-residence, Hayward will lend his insights and expertise to the MFA students, as well as providing personalized mentorship. Hayward was introduced to the program by Landau, and went on to mentor recent MFA Film graduate Kelvin Summerhill (MFA ’22) providing direction and generous funding for Summerhill’s thesis project.

UGA MFA program

The UGA MFA program taps into faculty members experienced in the industry of film production from Grady College of Journalism Mass Communication and Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Landau describes the MFA Film program as interdisciplinary, providing students with the opportunity to find and hone their unique voices as visual storytellers. They not only write original, feature-length screenplays and TV pilots, but also direct at least three short films. Landau continues, “We’re training them to be hyphenates in the industry; whether that’s as writer/director or writer/producer, we’re preparing them to be innovators and trailblazers.”

The intensive program is designed so that the first year is spent on UGA’s campus in Athens, Georgia, taking core classes and learning production basics including writing, storytelling and filming, among many other skills. The students produce their first film in the Fall semester, telling a story in roughly four minutes, using only natural sound or music and no dialogue, and their second short film (8 minutes, incorporating lighting and sync sound) in the Spring semester.

The second year is devoted to students completing their thesis film projects while residing in the town of Trilith, located next to the studios where Marvel movies are filmed. Classes are conducted in a custom-built suite featuring theater-quality A/V projection and sound system, editing bays and collaboration space. Studio space for additional training and productions is available across the street through another MFA program partner, the Georgia Film Academy.

The MFA Film program will host a virtual open house on Tuesday, Dec. 6 from 7 to 8 p.m. EST.
Register for the virtual Open House here.


Athena Studios donates space to Grady College, partners with Talking Dog

Athena Studios, a new $60 million sound stage development in Athens, Georgia, is set to have a huge impact not only on film production in Georgia but also on Grady College.

Specifically, the developer of Athena Studios, Reynolds Development, enlisted the help of Talking Dog Agency, a student-run advertising and public relations agency, to oversee its ground-breaking announcement and marketing efforts. A student-team handled all the announcement materials, media relations, graphics and photography when the studio broke ground on Nov. 16, 2021.

When the studio opens in 2022, it will also donate one of its studios for exclusive use to Grady students in the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies for five years. The studio space will be a custom-built, 14,600-square-foot sound stage for film and television production. Features include a 28-foot ceiling and double-truck doors allowing for a vehicle as large as a semi-truck to deliver sets and equipment to the studio.

“When you talk about experiential learning, rarely do you gain access to a site that replicates the working environment of film and television professionals,” said Charles Davis, dean of Grady College. “This opens enormous possibilities for the Entertainment & Media Studies department, and we are grateful for this special opportunity given to our students by Athena Studios.”

The Athena Studios space will be used by undergraduate students and will complement the recent renovation of studio space on the first floor of Grady College designed for graduate students in the MFA in Film, Television and Digital Media program. The MFA students move their studies to Fayetteville, Georgia, and to Trilith and Georgia Film Academy studios during their second year of studies.

Having the accessibility from campus to a studio of this size will be a huge benefit to undergraduate students, as well as Georgia Film Academy, which is expected to use the space in partnership with Grady College.

Athena Studios is a partnership between Athens-based commercial real estate development and brokerage firm Reynolds Capital and local developer Tim Burgess.

Athens Studios Groundbreaking
Those breaking ground on the new Athena Studios project included (from left): Charles Davis, dean of Grady College; Lee Thomas (ABJ ’87), deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development; John Raulet, vice president of Raulet Property Partners; Joel Harber, president of Reynolds Capital and CEO of Athena Studios; and Jeff Stepakoff, executive director of the Georgia Film Academy.

Once completed, the 45-acre campus located in Clarke County will feature more than 350,000 square feet of purpose-built space for film and television production providing multiple sound stages, support buildings, production offices and a state-of-the-art educational facility.

“Making sure we plan and deliver a best-in-class project has been a priority from the very beginning, and we are excited to be able to offer one of the best purpose-built soundstage campuses in Georgia utilizing the latest construction methods and technology,” said Joel Harber, president of Reynolds Capital and CEO of Athena Studios.

As a native Athenian and UGA alumnus with a successful track record in commercial real estate development, Harber wanted to help bring this industry to Athens, not just for one feature film but indefinitely.

“Watching such tremendous growth in the film industry in Georgia over the last eight years has been great, but we haven’t really seen productions filming in Athens. Not having a proper sound stage space has really kept our area from realizing its full potential,” Harber said. “By developing a first-class soundstage campus and providing educational space for the University of Georgia and the Georgia Film Academy, Athena Studios will not only help put Athens on the map for film and television production, but also help grow the talent ecosystem in Georgia in a great city near its flagship university.”

Often content is developed in Hollywood, filmed in Georgia, then shipped back to California for post-production work. Having both creators and the labor force required to produce content are key pieces of the puzzle.

“Athena Studios will not only provide a purpose-built film campus for productions to bring exciting new content to life, but it will also provide space to help educate and train the next generation of film professionals. Hopefully over time more components of the industry like development and post-production will grow in Georgia and Athens specifically making it more than just a great location to film,” Harber said.

Construction on the project started earlier this month and the first phase is scheduled for completion in November 2022.