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Gray opens Assembly TV/film studios with massive gala

Gray celebrated the opening of Assembly Studios with an extravagant black tie gala this past Saturday on studio property featuring a commissioned art mural, a large drone show and four major musical acts: Atlanta natives Cee Lo Green and Gladys Knight as well as Dionne Warwick and Sheryl Crow.

Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens joined the massive party with DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and Doraville mayor Joe Geierman, along with 2,500 invited guests.

“Everything went beautifully,” texted Gray TV CEO Hilton Howell, the mastermind behind buying the GM property and building out the studio, on Monday. “I was so proud of everyone. They dressed up, came early and stayed late. It was a night to remember!”

The party happened despite the ongoing actors strike. While the writers ended their 148-day strike earlier this month, the actors have remained on the picket lines since mid-July. This has kept almost all scripted programming on ice in the United States, leaving most studios in metro Atlanta empty.

Gray Television, which owns the second most TV stations in America and covering every major market in Georgia including the CBS affiliate in Atlanta, purchased 127 acres of the former GM site in 2021. At 19 soundstages, it is now one of the largest studio in metro Atlanta. And Gray signed a long-term lease with major production company NBCUniversal.

NBCUniversal, because of the strike, has not announced which films and TV shows it plans to shoot there. (The company could also sublease soundstage space to other companies.)

The New York-based media conglomerate owns the streaming service Peacock, filmmaker Universal Studios, the NBC broadcast network and cable networks such as MSNBC, Bravo and USA Network.

Howell told a state legislature joint panel on tax credits earlier this month in Athens that he expects NBCUniversal to spend at least $1 billion at Assembly in 2024.

Credit: RODNEY HO/

Credit: RODNEY HO/

On Monday, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he hopes the strike ends soon. (The producers and SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, are meeting again Tuesday.)

“We have productions waiting and some with soft holds on stages,” he said. “NBCU is ready to start immediately.”

As a result, the gala was devoid of A-list actors who might have been in town to shoot films or TV shows at Assembly.

The party was held partially inside the soundstage fronted by a New Orleans-style French Quarter facade. Other backlot facades include a block designed to emulate New York City brownstones, a grittier section with exposed fire escapes dubbed “Tribeca” and a more sophisticated district mean to stand in for streets in European capital cities.

“It was a really impressive event with high production value,” said Christopher Escobar, who owns Atlanta’s Plaza and Tara theaters. “It was great seeing so many different people from across different parts of the film industry and film community.” He said he hopes Gray Television will be active and invested in the arts community in Atlanta as a whole.

Mara Davis, a former radio host at Z93 and Dave FM who now works as a talent booker, called the party “a rager! Five-star everything and the best DJ in town, Yvonne Monet!”

Credit: RODNEY HO/

Credit: RODNEY HO/

Howell on stage Saturday night thanked DeKalb County for helping make permitting smooth enough for his team to finish building Assembly in less than two years. He also credited his developer Jay Gipson for helping making it happen.

“We did it the old-fashioned way,” he said. “We paid in cash.”

He also noted that 120 Georgia-based companies contributed to Assembly’s assembly.

Howell also pointed out in the audience Atlanta-based artist Steve Penley, who did a Georgia-themed mural for Assembly that was featured at the entrance of the event.

Gray earlier this year delayed building the next phase for Assembly, which would include condos, townhomes, apartments, retail and office space due to uncertain economic conditions.

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