Georgia towns willing to do it all for Hollywood

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Posted: Sunday, December 22, 2013 12:00 am

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

In Savannah, the trees were stripped of Spanish moss to recreate Washington, D.C., 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 backlot 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 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.

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,” Tigchelaar said, “and ‘The Walking Dead’ threw gasoline on it.”

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, have infused life into Grantville. The “Clear” episode, in which zombie traps and a gun-wielding madman kill “walkers,” filmed downtown two Septembers ago. It showed on the AMC channel last March.

Since then, 5,000 zombie tourists have taken the mayor’s 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. Georgia 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.

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