Towns across Georgia will do just about anything for Hollywood.
In Savannah, the trees were stripped of Spanish moss to recreate Washington 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 below Atlanta, is trying to parlay its 15 minutes of television fame into the economic redevelopment of a once-prosperous mill town. 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 have also 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 town’s embrace of a television 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 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 long been a favorite for “The Vampire Diaries.” Producers have also turned Senoia into the fictional town of Woodbury — headquarters for “The Walking Dead,” one of the most popular TV 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, where the show is filmed. “Episodic TV series are like an annuity — they come back and spend production dollars year after year.”
Tigchelaar and associates bought 22 mostly rundown properties in downtown Senoia in 2007 and turned them into offices, restaurants and shops. Then, Main Street offered only a half-dozen shops. Today, there are 50.
“We started the fire,” Tigchelaar said, “and ‘The Walking Dead’ threw gasoline on it.”
Zombies bring life
Mayor Sells, who owns more than 200 rental properties mostly in Coweta County, dreams of a Senoia-like renaissance for Grantville. The town about died when the textile mill closed in the 1980s.
Downtown wears that haunted, hollowed-out look that “The Walking Dead” loves, but many locals hate. Even the freight trains hustle through town without slowing.
The zombies, though, infused life into Grantville. The so-called “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 devotee’s favorite.
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.
“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 another $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 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 “SpongeBob SquarePants 2” along a seven-block stretch of Broughton Street in Savannah. The producers compensated nearly 140 businesses because of the street’s closing and the difficulty customers had reaching the stores. They also painted the exteriors of many of the buildings with bright colors.
Not everybody was star-struck. A half-dozen Broughton Street business owners, according to local media reports, balked at the amount of compensation. Gov. Nathan Deal’s office got involved when Hollywood execs threatened to blackball Savannah. The impasse reportedly figured into the dismissal of the city’s film liaison.
Don’t mess with …
“Every producer has different needs, so we’ll do pretty much anything that’s reasonable and not against the law,” said Will Hammargren, interim film services administrator for Savannah. “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.”
“SpongeBob” has finished filming in Savannah and the buildings were restored to their previous color at Paramount’s expense. Some of the eye-pleasing awnings installed by the studio remain. The production company also pressure-washed Broughton and repainted curbs and crosswalks.
Messing with Georgia’s environment to shoot scenes is a sure way to raise citizens’ ire. Producers for “X-Men: First Class” received special environmental dispensation in 2010 to film on the beach on Jekyll Island. Environmentalists decried the quickie permit given by the state’s natural resource agency, especially since no public hearing was held.
A sand dune was flattened and tons of very white sand were dumped on the beach. But locals and tourists were also dismayed by the days-long shoot on the state park’s north end. A popular fishing pier was off-limits and guarded by state troopers.
“Nobody, particularly visitors, was made aware of how much of an inconvenience the film project was,” said David Egan, co-founder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, a citizens’ group.
Enmity swirls in Grantville too. Lundy and fellow council member Selma Coty say “The Walking Dead” has done too little, economically, for their town. The inconvenience of road closings and the lost business isn’t worth whatever fleeting recognition the show brings, they say.
They were particularly incensed by filming in the city cemetery — where the truly dead lie — and called a special meeting of the City Council to discuss the matter. The mayor accuses Lundy and Coty of an anti-development agenda. (They deny it.)
Sells squired a location scout for the movie “Term Life” around town last week. Uncertain if “The Walking Dead” will return next year, Sells is nonetheless planning an expanded tour and overnight events guaranteed to scare tourists.
“We’re anticipating something really exploding for us here,” he said. “Grantville is fertile, unplowed ground.”
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