Spitfire Studios never set out to become an international film house.
Even from its outset 11 years ago, the company’s founders always had in view a future filled of feature-length movies.
But Bollywood? That was something they never saw coming.
“Essentially the viewers in India are tired of their own country, and because of globalization, they want to see the rest of the world, and they want to see their actors and actresses play in that world,” Tom Hamilton, founder and partner at Spitfire, said during a creative-industry panel discussion in May.
Spitfire got hooked up with Indian director Hansal Mehta, who’d found a script in Hindi based on a true story of a divorcee who goes on a bank-robbing spree to pay back gambling debts.
Georgia’s tax credits were better than California’s, Mr. Hamilton said, which drove Mr. Mehta’s film, “Simran”, to a state whose status as the No. 1 destination for feature films in the U.S. has spawned a new moniker: “Y’allywood.”
Integrating the two work cultures was easier said than done, he added. Coming from a lower-cost environment in India, the team experienced sticker shock when it came to paying workers and contractors.
“To say that the Bollywood film was a cultural journey is an understatement. It was frustrating and hilarious and terrifying and probably the angriest I’ve been in many many years, but we all left as Facebook friends and we still talk to each other across the Web,” Mr. Hamilton said at the event hosted by the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Global Commerce Council.
Given these challenges, it’s unclear how readily Spitfire will pursue additional Bollywood films, but the exercise had one positive effect: showing the company that a whole world of opportunity lay beyond U.S. borders.
“We didn’t think we could play on a global stage. We didn’t understand it. It was just small thinking. Through the (Metro Atlanta Chamber) and through some other relationships, we found out that we could play on that stage, and we found out there was an appetite for what we brought.”
The company credits the tech industry liaison Grant Wainscott at the chamber for challenging its sense of myopia.
Tripp Rhame, another partner, traveled with Mr. Wainscott and an Atlanta delegation earlier this year to London, where the studio is now in talks with the BBC on a children’s show. The company has also explored the prospect of working with Chinese groups.
“If they can come here and make interesting content that satisfies that need for folks to see the world, then we’ve done our job,” Mr. Hamilton said.
Spitfire’s feature debut didn’t hit till 2013, delayed from its five-year goal by the recession of 2007-08. Now, it has four under its belt, including the 2016 film “Bleed”, written and produced by Mr. Rhame.
A ‘Wonderful Playground’ in Georgia
But as much as a global mindset helped, having a “wonderful playground” locally has been a key factor in the company’s success, Mr. Hamilton said.
Early on, Spitfire subsisted off commercials for clients like the Weather Channel, CNN and Cox Communications, but in 2008 discovered the state’s new and generous Film, Television and Digital Entertainment Tax Credit.
The credit awards provides up to 30 percent back in transferable tax credits to producers that spend at least $500,000 within the state in a given year. It’s not a direct rebate, but a credit that can be sold off to other corporations with larger tax liabilities.
The credit helped the state’s film industry go from virtually unknown to $9.5 billion in economic impact in the last fiscal year. That included 320 feature film and TV productions with direct spending of $2.7 billion, according to the state’s Film, Video & Digital Entertainment office.
Spitfire simply invested the savings back into the business, and with $575,000 put back in its pocket, the company could fund the production of “Bleed,” Mr. Rhame told the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
“It really cannot be understated that this film could not have happened without the program,” he told the newspaper. “The tax incentive was the reason the project moved forward.”
“Bleed” follows an expectant couple that moves into a new house, only to find themselves and visiting guests on a ghost hunt at an abandoned prison. A newer Spitfire film, “Folk Hero and the Funny Guy”, saw early success after being shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last year.
Released in mid-September, “Simran” has gotten mixed reviews back at home in India and modest box office receipts. By some accounts, the star power of Kangana Ranaut is the one thing keeping a lackluster script buoyant.
For Spitfire, though, it was a key moment in the company’s evolution, helping it secure a nomination for the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Global Impact Award for innovation earlier this year.
“We’ve been really lucky to work with clients and groups that have really been able push our message across the world,” Mr. Rhame said in the chamber’s Global Impact Award nomination video. “It’s amazing for us to get to do what we do.”