Georgia’s Film Industry: Zombies, Vampires, and Superheroes
By Stephen Hartshorne
Zombies, vampires, superheroes, and dystopic visions of the future are all part of a boom in the movie and television industry in Georgia which has brought thousands of good jobs to the state as well as billions of dollars in revenue to local businesses.
Major movies made in Georgia in recent years include “Ford v. Ferrari,” “Black Widow,” Disney’s “Jungle Cruise,” and the Broadway-to-film adaptation of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Other popular movies include three “Hunger Games” features, “Captain America: Civil War” — where the Avengers’ headquarters was the Porsche Experience Center at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport — “Office Christmas Party,” Spiderman: Homecoming,” “Ant Man,” “Blind Side I and II,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Passengers,” “Pitch Perfect 3,” “Black Panther,” and many others.
Tyler Perry makes all his movies in Georgia and purchased Fort McPherson, a 330-acre former army base in Atlanta, for his studio in 2015. The studio has 12 production stages with lots of pre-made sets including the Oval Office, a prison yard, a coffee shop, a farmhouse, and a chapel. Productions can also take advantage of the 220 plus acres of greenspace on the lot.
Probably the most famous television show filmed in Georgia is “The Walking Dead,” with its iconic shot of Rick Grimes riding into Atlanta on a horse with the city skyline in the background on a highway that’s empty on the inbound side while the outbound side is jammed with abandoned cars.
But many, many other shows have been made in Georgia including some of the major networks’ and streaming services’ newest shows: “Ordinary Joe” (NBC), “The Resident” (FOX), “Monarch” (FOX), the new adaptation of “The Wonder Years” (ABC), “WandaVision” (Netflix), and “Stranger Things” (Netflix). Timeless shows such as “The Vampire Diaries,” “WWE Smackdown,” “Property Brothers,” “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” and hundreds of others add to the impressive list.
According to a July 2021 press statement from the Georgia Department of Economic Development, “during fiscal year 2021, the film and television industry set a new record with $4 billion in direct spending on productions in the state.”
That translates into 366 different films, tv shows, commercials, and music videos. And spending on these productions is only estimated to go up.
Georgia was the first state in America to reopen its film and tv production industries following the COVID-19 pandemic. The state even authored the “COVID-19: Georgia Best Practices for Film and Television” guide to help production in other locations bounce back.
One of the largest movie studios in the world, Trilith Studios (recently rebranded from Pinewood Atlanta Studios and home to many of Marvel Studio’s productions), is in Georgia, in addition to Tyler Perry’s, and many other studios and sound stages are springing up all over the state.
This means lots of good jobs for Georgians and revenue for Georgia businesses, but there’s another bonus for the state: movie and television tourism.
Thousands of people from all over the world come to the state to take selfies at the locations where their favorite movies and shows were filmed.
And that leads to the creation of movie and tv tour companies that take visitors to these locations and provide anecdotes about the filming and the actors from locals who worked on the sets as extras and technicians. There are also themed restaurants, museums, and other related businesses.
I was the guest of Georgia Tourism on a trip that took us to Atlanta, Senoia (home of “The Walking Dead”), Covington (home of “The Vampire Diaries,” and “The Dukes of Hazard”), Peachtree City (“Sweet Home Alabama”), and Savannah (“Forrest Gump,” “Glory,” “The Longest Yard,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and many others).
Attracting Movie Producers
Georgia’s efforts to attract movie and television productions date back to 1973 when Governor Jimmy Carter observed the economic impact of the movie “Deliverance,” which was shot in northeast Georgia.
“Deliverance” is not exactly the movie that comes to mind when one thinks about promoting tourism, but it convinced Carter to offer tax incentives to movie and television producers and brought a slew of big-budget productions to the state, including Burt Reynolds’ “Smokey and the Bandit” movies, “The Big Chill,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Longest Yard,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and many others.
The incentives have been refined over the years so that they benefit producers, the State of Georgia, and local businesses. Producers spending more than $500,000 get tax credits on their expenditures which they can sell to Georgia businesses.
So the state awards about $600 million in tax breaks to create an overall impact of $7 billion, and more than 85,000 jobs.
Success Begets Success
Then, of course, Georgia has the advantage of year-round sunshine, just like Hollywood, but with lots of wide-open spaces, as well as Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, one of the busiest in the world.
And success begets success: Georgia now has a base of technical professionals that producers can draw on so they don’t have to transport crews from Hollywood and put them up at hotels.
Georgia also has designated representatives in every county who are “camera-ready”, meaning they can assist producers with permits, casting, and other forms of cooperation that can save them time and money.
I was impressed with the way the Georgia Film Bureau, the Georgia Film Academy, and Georgia Tourism work together to make the movie and television boom work for the people of the state.
Whenever movies and tv shows are filmed, the Film Bureau works with colleges and universities to give interns the opportunity to work on the set, which often leads to full-time jobs — good ones, too.
Giant Alien Ribcage
Our tour began in Atlanta, the hub of Georgia filmmaking, where we took the Atlanta Movie Tour, visiting the Marriott Marquis with its amazing elevator that reminded Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence of “a giant alien ribcage.”
The elevator is where sexy tribute Johanna Mason takes off her sexy leather outfit. During filming, the elevator stopped at the wrong floor and a hotel guest got a real eyeful.
We also visited the Walking Dead overpass and took a bus tour watching clips from famous movies while visiting the actual locations.
We dined at Two Urban Licks, which was featured in “Anchorman 2” and is a favorite with movie stars from many productions.
The Home of the Walking Dead
Then it was off to Senoia, the home of “The Walking Dead,” where Atlanta Movie Tours has a guided tour led by locals who have actually played “walkers”. (The show never uses the word “zombies”.)
We saw many of the locations used in the popular show and noticed the town has signs up that say, “Please do not mow,” so the grass will have that post-apocalyptic look.
The show has had a huge impact on the town’s economy. The town had five stores on Main Street in 2006; now there are 50, and the population has doubled.
Visitors can eat at Nic & Norman’s, run by producer Greg Nicotero and star Norman Reedus, where there’s a chance of running into members of the cast and crew.
Marvel Movie Headquarters
We also toured the amazing Trilith Studios, which has 24 enormous studios across nearly 1,000 acres and is the second-largest production facility in the world, where many Marvel movies are made. We had to sign a confidentiality agreement, so I can’t tell you about the movie they were filming when we were there, but I can say its $1-billion budget is the largest in the history of motion pictures.
Many other productions were going on at the same time, of course, with lots of set building. The studio has its own Home Depot.
Across the road, the owners are building what is in fact a whole town to house actors, technicians and other residents.
Pinewood Forest, as it is called, is a model of modern urban planning with 1,300 “front doors,” shops, artisan studios, community gardens, dog parks, and a performing arts center.
We also took a golf cart tour of nearby Peachtree City, a beautiful resort town where “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Joyful Noise” were filmed.
We dined at a banquet on Peachtree Lake held by Zac Brown’s Southern Ground, and organization that provides camping experiences for kids of all backgrounds and abilities.
The Hollywood of the South
Our next stop was Covington, known as the “Hollywood of the South.” It’s the home of “The Vampire Diaries,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “The Dukes of Hazard,” as well as “My Cousin Vinny,” “Cannonball Run,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” and many others.
Covington has been a center for movies and tv since “A Man Called Peter” was filmed there in 1954.
The town square is the location in “Cannonball Run” where Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise land an airplane to pick up a six-pack of beer.
In “The Vampire Diaries,” which filmed there for eight seasons, the town is known as Mystic Falls, Virginia, and thousands of tourists come each year to see the locations where the show was filmed.
The show has stopped filming but is now airing in Europe and elsewhere, so now tourists are coming from all over the world.
Visitors can take the Vampire Stalkers Mystic Falls Tour and dine at the Mystic Grill, wgere I experienced the ecstasy of fried meatloaf. I thought it was impossible to improve on meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but I was so wrong.
A Trip Back in Time
We stayed at another iconic movie location: Twelve Oaks, an historic antebellum mansion that was spared by General Sherman’s army on its march across Georgia. Margaret Mitchell sent a picture of the mansion to the producers of “Gone With the Wind” to show them what she wanted Ashley Wilkes’ stately home to look like. GWTW, of course, was filmed in Hollywood.
The building had fallen into serious disrepair when it was rescued by its current owner Nicole Greer and converted to a bed and breakfast. The place is beautifully furnished with period furniture and our stay there was a real trip back in time.
Live Oaks and Spanish Moss
We ended our tour in Savannah, the city of live oaks and Spanish moss, where hundreds of movies have been made, notably “Forrest Gump” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “The Longest Yard,” “Glory,” and “Roots.”
We took the Savannah Movie Tour, strolled along with city’s historic waterfront, and stayed at the historic President’s Quarters Inn on Oglethorpe Square. We dined at an amazing farm-to-table restaurant called Cha Bella, saving room for dessert at Leopold’s Ice Cream.
We also visited Savannah’s beachfront, Tybee Island, which is also a hotbed of movie and television production. We visited the chapel featured in Miley Cyrus’ production of “The Last Song,” based on the Nicholas Sparks novel. Other Tybee productions include “Baywatch,” “Dirty Grandpa,” “Spongebob: The Movie,” and “Gifted.”
We took a dolphin-watching tour around the island with Bull River Cruises and had a great dinner at The Crab Shack. We stayed right on the beach at the Hotel Tybee.
In the cab on my way to Savannah Airport for my flight home, I chatted with my driver John, who told me about working as an extra on movie sets. It fits in well with his schedule as a driver. He’s been in six movies this year!
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