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Monday, November 24, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 1/12/2014 - Updated: 10 months ago

Film industry marches to Georgia

Critics: TV zombies, vampires do little to enliven coffers

BY DAN CHAMPMAN
ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Mayor Jim Sells walks by a famous site from ‘The Walking Dead’ in Grantville, Ga. The setting of a popular television show draws visitors wanting to see the places where it was filmed. Mayor Jim Sells walks by a famous site from ‘The Walking Dead’ in Grantville, Ga. The setting of a popular television show draws visitors wanting to see the places where it was filmed.
ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION Enlarge

GRANTVILLE, Ga. — Towns across Georgia will do just about anything for Hollywood.

In Savannah, the trees were stripped of Spanish moss to re-create the nation’s capital for a Robert Redford movie. And Grantville didn’t mow the grass for six weeks to give the already-apocalyptic downtown an even scarier look for The Walking Dead.

“They know we’ll bend over backwards for them,” said Jim Sells, the town’s mayor, who gives Walking Dead tours for zombie-loving fans from as far away as Australia. “And they’re putting Grantville on the map.”

This town, 50 miles south of Atlanta, is trying to parlay its 15 minutes of television fame into the economic redevelopment of a once-prosperous mill town. Mr. Sells, who owns most of the dilapidated buildings downtown, hopes the dead can breathe life back into Grantville.

Senoia, Covington, Atlanta, Savannah, and a few other Georgia towns also have been sprinkled with Hollywood stardust that promises to plump tax coffers and retail receipts. Ninety percent of Georgia’s 159 counties, for example, employ film industry liaisons.

Not all communities, though, embrace Hollywood and its rags-to-riches storyline.

“It has been an inconvenience to the city to accommodate the movie company, and it’s not having a big impact on downtown,” said Barham Lundy, a Grantville council member at war with Mayor Sells over the show. “It’s not attracting business types. It’s attracting tourists, and they aren’t the type to start a business.”

Georgia was a relatively sleepy Hollywood back lot until the state General Assembly in 2008 offered film and TV shows a whopping 30 percent production tax credit. The industry spent $934 million the last fiscal year in Georgia, up 6 percent from the previous year, according to the state’s film office.

Covington, with its town square transformed into the fictional Mystic Falls, has been a favorite for The Vampire Diaries. Producers also have turned Senoia into the fictional town of Woodbury — a setting for The Walking Dead, one of TV’s most popular shows ever.

“It’s been huge for Senoia. They’ve shot here for three years and are coming back again next year,” said Scott Tigchelaar, president of Raleigh Studios-Atlanta outside Senoia. “Episodic TV series are like an annuity — they come back and spend production dollars year after year.”

Mr. Tigchelaar and associates bought 22 mostly rundown properties in downtown Senoia in 2007 and turned them into offices, restaurants, and shops. At the time, Main Street offered only a half-dozen shops. Today, there are 50.

“We started the fire,” Mr. Tigchelaar said, “and The Walking Dead threw gasoline on it.”

Mr. Sells, who owns more than 200 rental properties mostly in Coweta County, dreams of a Senoialike renaissance for Grantville. The town about died when the textile mill closed in the 1980s.

The zombies, though, infused life into Grantville. The Clear episode, where zombie traps and a gun-wielding madman kill “walkers,” filmed downtown two Septembers ago. It showed on the AMC channel last March and instantly became a favorite of the show’s devotees.

Since then, 5,000 zombie tourists have taken the mayor’s (mostly) free tour. They bought meals, purchased souvenirs at two Walking Dead-themed stores, and filled their fuel tanks before high-tailing it back to Atlanta or elsewhere.

“You know what zombies do on break? They eat ice cream,” said Leon Dyes, who owns a downtown thrift store. “Overall, it helps the town if you got people coming in, especially during the tours. But when you’re closed down for three or four days at a time [during filming], you’re losing business.”

The Walking Dead has added $7,625 in permitting fees to the town’s coffers the last two years. Dumb and Dumber To, which spent one day filming in town last month, kicked in an extra $1,000. Grantville’s fiscal 2014 budget is $1.6 million.

“It brings revenue to the city. It enhances the image of the city. And it will help us bring business to the city,” said Mr. Sells, 63, a retired Delta pilot.

“We’ll do everything to accommodate them: site selection, crowd control, police, barricades, quick council agreements allowing them to film.”

Most towns follow Grantville’s suit. Some go beyond.

Spanish moss was stripped from oak trees in a Savannah square in 2009 so producers for The Conspirator could re-create Washington. The moss was painstakingly put back, with the filmmaker covering the cost.

Paramount recently shot some live-action scenes for SpongeBob SquarePants 2 along a seven-block stretch of Broughton Street in Savannah. They painted the exteriors of many of the buildings with bright colors, and the producers compensated nearly 140 businesses because of the inconvenience.

Not everyone was star-struck. A half-dozen business owners, according to local media reports, balked at the amount of compensation. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s office got involved when Hollywood execs threatened to blackball the city. The impasse reportedly figured into the dismissal of the city’s film liaison.

“Every producer has different needs, so we’ll do pretty much anything that’s reasonable and not against the law,” said Will Hammargren, Savannah’s interim film services administrator. “But the community has to be open to it. If producers have to fight residents to get access to things they need, they won’t come.”

In Grantville, Mr. Lundy and fellow council member Selma Coty say the inconvenience brought by The Walking Dead isn’t worth any fleeting recognition the show brings, they say, and were particularly incensed by filming in the city cemetery, where the truly dead lie.

Mr. Sells squired a location scout for the movie Term Life around town last week.

Uncertain if The Walking Dead will return next year, he nonetheless is planning an expanded tour and overnight events guaranteed to scare tourists.



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