In recent years, many movie and TV productions have set up outside of California in fair climate Southern states. But where exactly is the Hollywood of the South?
by Lee Howard
The stakes are high with two Georgia-shot television shows about the undead starting their new seasons this month. “The Vampire Diaries” is the flagship production in Covington, an hour east of Atlanta, and “The Walking Dead,” which dominates the industry south of the city, is centered around Senoia.
In recent years, Atlanta has often been referred to as the Hollywood of the South. With over 700 movies shot in Georgia and 333 movie and television productions in 2012, more than $3 billion was generated for the state, a top five production destination in the country. Atlanta and its satellite towns are at the epicenter, and the state’s biggest success story is “The Walking Dead,” America’s most-watched show in cable history and an international phenomenon.
But when using the term “Hollywood of the South,” small town Covington would like a little more respect and some accuracy. In September 2011, in a clever move driven by its tourism division, Covington-Newton Chamber of Commerce trademarked the name, stealing the thunder from its rivals and from Atlanta itself.
“We coined Hollywood of the South as a trademark phrase for Covington,” says Ron Carter, assistant director for tourism at the chamber. “We own the trademark. We can determine how it is used. Our Hollywood connection is pretty heavy.”
60 Years of Movie History
Productions were sparse in Covington at first, but by the early ’90s business really picked up, largely due to television show “In the Heat of the Night.” Now the town is celebrating 60 years as a movie venue. Oscar-winning film “My Cousin Vinny” came to town and Brad Pitt’s “”Kalifornia” a year later, among many other titles. Business kept booming, especially when Georgia’s generous 2008 tax incentive encouraged productions to move there.Recent productions in Newton County have included 2011’s “Footloose,” 2012 movies “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” and “Flight,” and in 2013, “Prisoners” and “Ten,” starring former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But movie production is a short fling compared to the more committed relationship of a television show coming into town, spending money and creating jobs year after year, and that’s where Covington has really scored high. “We have been very lucky. “The Vampire Diaries” is our fifth television series that’s been filmed in the area,” says Carter. Even after a television series ends, its fans continue to make pilgrimages to the various locations, spending tourist dollars along the way.
“Probably ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ ‘In The Heat of the Night’ and ‘The Vampire Diaries’ are our top three draws,” continues Carter. ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ made country cool in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They used the downtown square, a lot of the dirt roads in the area. They only filmed five episodes here then took it out to California, but we are still considered the original Hazzard County. ‘In the Heat of the Night’ was a TV show that ran from ‘88 to ’95, and they used the downtown area, local schools, the hospital, everything to make this part of Mississippi.”
Scenes from Reese Witherspoon’s 2002 film “Sweet Home Alabama” were shot in this part of Georgia, which doubles as Mystic Falls, Virginia, on “The Vampire Diaries.” Clearly Covington and Newton County are a go-to Southern destination for the industry, having played host to over 75 productions and counting.
But We’re the ‘Other Hollywood’
That’s not to say that other Southern locations are not prominent movie destinations with their own Hollywood claims. Wilmington in North Carolina likes to be known as “Hollywood of the East” and is home to Screen Gems Studios, the largest facility of its kind in the country outside of California. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is where the more famous vampire show “True Blood” is filmed, in Raleigh Studios, whose website is not alone in referring to the state capital as “Hollywood South.” Since Georgia followed Louisiana’s early 2002 tax incentive lead, it now has sister facilities to both of these studios.
“The Walking Dead” is based out of Raleigh Studios near Senoia, a small town that, for season three, doubled as Woodbury, the zombie apocalypse community run by the governor (played by David Morrissey). The show returns to Senoia for part of its current fourth season.
Senoia has been revitalized, or more aptly, re-animated, over the past few years, undergoing an extensive program of “historic infill” – adding new buildings in keeping with the existing late nineteenth century buildings, creating a functioning town that’s picture-perfect and has a sought-after timeless quality.
Scott Tigchelaar, president of Raleigh Studios Atlanta and co-founder of the town’s redevelopment initiative, Historic Senoia Project, has the numbers. “In 2007 there were six businesses on Main Street. Today there are 50,” he says. “Our plans are to continue adding to Senoia’s historic infill, both to make Senoia a more attractive tourist destination as well as a more versatile filming location.”
In 2012 in Senoia, country singer Zac Brown opened Southern Ground Social Club, a live music venue, bar and restaurant. The town is full of gift and antique stores benefitting from increased tourism. And a new addition arrived in May 2013, The Woodbury Shoppe, a busy spot for “Walking Dead” fans stopping to buy souvenirs from the show.
“The Walking Dead” is the main focus of the industry in Senoia. The small town has also hosted “Footloose,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Lawless,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” all featured on the Southern Hollywood Film Tour that operates out of nearby Peachtree City. Atlanta Movie Tours also covers Senoia as well as movie and televisions locations in Atlanta itself.
Television show “Drop Dead Diva,” now in its fifth season, is set in Los Angeles but filmed in and around Senoia. The main character is a shallow model who dies and comes back as a plus-sized lawyer, experiencing a rebirth of sorts. It’s fitting that “Drop Dead Diva,” “The Walking Dead” and “The Vampire Diaries” are associated with Atlanta, which has the phoenix as its symbol, rising from the ashes as it did almost 150 years ago after its Civil War burning.
The undead have become a welcome sight in Atlanta, in terms of the economy. “The Georgia-filmed ‘Zombieland’ in 2009 definitely kicked off an epidemic of zombie/dead projects across the state,” reveals Stefanie Paupeck at Georgia Department of Economic Development. “We have had numerous zombie/horror/vampire feature films, television movies and series shot in Georgia, including ‘Teen Wolf,’ ‘The Collection,’ ‘The Crazies,’ ‘Coma,’ ‘The Signal,’ ‘Halloween 2’ and ‘Conjurer.’”
Horror and fantasy have long had their place in Atlanta, home, since 1987, to the world’s largest fantasy and sci-fi convention, Dragon Con. Its annual parade is attended by an increasing number of people dressed as characters from the world of entertainment.
The South’s antebellum haunts are also an advantage when it comes to success in movies and television. Civil War flashbacks are key to “The Vampire Diaries” stories, for example. Just a short drive from Raleigh Studios is an unmistakably Southern farmhouse that became Hershel’s Farm (pictured) for “The Walking Dead”’s second season. Like some of the locations in “The Vampire Diaries” and “True Blood” down in Louisiana, it adds an authentic touch of Southern Gothic that doesn’t exist on the west coast.
It’s not just Californian enterprises that have taken advantage of Georgia’s assets. The UK’s Pinewood Studios – home to James Bond and Harry Potter movies – announced in April 2013 that it was opening its first U.S. facility in Fayetteville, Georgia, just a 20 minute drive from Senoia.
The center of gravity may be moving south of Atlanta when it comes to movie and television production, but Covington intends to fight back. In 2013, Triple Horse Studios announced plans to build a unique $100 million facility in the area, in the hope of encouraging larger productions.
Hollywood Stars in the South
Atlanta shares more than just the same latitude as Los Angeles these days. Movie stars transplanted from California to Georgia are out and about. They occasionally hit the headlines when shooting in the area. In June 2013, John Travolta posed for photos with a wedding party staying at the same resort in Vinings, just north of Atlanta. Less happily, a month earlier, Reese Witherspoon made the news when she was arrested after an altercation with a no-nonsense Georgia cop.
There’s a constant stream of big-name productions in Atlanta. For 2013 alone, the list includes “The Hunger Games” franchise (starring Jennifer Lawrence), “The Internship” (Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn), “Identity Thief” (Melissa McCarthy), “Anchorman: The Legend Continues” (Will Ferrell), “Last Vegas” (Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas) and “Dumb and Dumber To” (Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels).
Atlanta can trace its Hollywood connections at least as far back as 1939’s “Gone With The Wind” premiere on Peachtree Street, a glamorous three-day affair in front of the world’s press.
Today, movie stars enjoy a relatively welcome break from the glare of the paparazzi in Georgia. They do, however, have to contend with the Deep South’s humidity. “The Walking Dead” stars, often filming scenes in the woods around Senoia, have fallen prey to ticks and bugs too.
Nevertheless, actor Norman Reedus, who plays crossbow-wielding redneck Daryl Dixon on the show, told me, while filming season 2, that he’d embraced life in the Peach State, where he lives for half of the year during filming. “I went back to New York, and I just wanted to come back to Georgia. I’m really feeling in love with it here. I bought a 1979 F150 Ford truck and I’m in Georgia so a lot of people I’m meeting are like, ‘You’re my boy, you’re my redneck boy!’”
Lesli Linka Glatter, one of the top directors in television today, includes South-shot shows “The Walking Dead,” “Nashville,” “True Blood” and “Homeland” in her credits. She enjoys working in the South but calls California “home” and believes it should be more pro-active, just like Southern states.
“I think there should be tax breaks in California,” she said while on the set of Homeland in North Carolina. “It is kind of crazy that there isn’t. That’s the base of the film business. It would be great to be home. I miss sleeping in my own bed, I miss my family, but … There is a lot of shooting here [in the South]. Atlanta is crazy now.”
Early on the scene in Atlanta was Tyler Perry Studios. Perry, from New Orleans, started with nothing when he moved to Atlanta. Since 2006, he has run his own studio in the city. He helped fight for the state tax incentive and while promoting his film “Good Deeds,” he talked about his love for Atlanta as a production hub. “I am definitely on the forefront of wanting that to be the next Hollywood because I love the town, I love the people,” he said. “It’s been the Promised Land for me and I think it will be for a lot of other people.”
Covington’s Undying Spirit
Tyler Perry is thought to have secured new studio space southwest of Atlanta. But Covington is banking on movie producers and fans looking east. In another masterstroke, Covington has paved the way with Georgia’s answer to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. It’s Walk of Stars, unveiled in November of 2012, currently totals 35 pavers featuring actor names and production titles, with more being added.
Senoia also started a walk of fame. Bronze plaques in the sidewalk signify the two dozen or so movie and television projects shot in there since 1988.
In Covington, there are several pavers beside the landmark courthouse, where many productions have been shot. Next to it, a real Mystic Grill restaurant is being completed, named after the place where “The Vampire Diaries” characters hang out on the show. There’s also a Hollywood South and a Mystic Falls store in the town’s Church Street Antique Market on its historic square.
These venues are destinations on Mystic Falls Tours, run by Jessica Lowery (pictured below), who was born and bred in Covington. Lowery was laid off from her job as a special needs teacher when the U.S. economy headed south, in the metaphorical sense. She discovered an entrepreneurial spirit, bringing her income back from the dead in 2009, when she turned her Vampire Stalkers blog into tours of “Vampire Diaries” locations. “We started doing actual tours to the set at the end of season 1,” she says. “We’re now into season 5 of filming. I was really worried in the beginning, I’ll be honest, that once we went through a season or two most of the fans had come that were gonna come. But it’s grown. It’s so crazy. We went from doing really small groups to these big groups several times a week. Now most tours average out at 20 to 25 a day.”
Her guests come from far and wide – Germany, France, Brazil, Australia – and all 50 states. When they’re in Covington, they might be lucky enough to catch a shoot in progress and they always experience re-enactments of favorite scenes in the very places they were originally shot. “Fans stake each other – it’s all in jest but they absolutely love it! We do a ton of photos,” adds Lowery.
Guests are also directed to local businesses such as Scoops ice cream parlor where the show’s main star Ian Somerhalder buys his favorite milkshake. “We try to put a local part in it. If you’re a fan of the show, then obviously you wanna eat where the cast eats, you wanna shop where they shop,” says Lowery. “It’s a great thing to bring them here and give them something to do. Maybe before, they were going to make a day trip or stay one night. An average guest for the tour now stays four nights. So that’s a big deal.”
Ron Carter credits Lowery’s tours with boosting the town’s tourism. “From a tourism standpoint, we were up, in 2012, 32 percent,” he says. “We had over 25,000 visitors and the increase was due mainly to her tour and ‘The Vampire Diaries’ show. We continue to see this same trend for 2013.”
Another reason for Covington’s success is that certain groups in town have pulled together to create supportive, mutually beneficial relationships. Lowery’s tours are officially sanctioned by the local chamber of commerce. Both have forged strong ties with the television show itself. I met Lowery and Carter at Worthington Manor (pictured below), an antebellum mansion in Covington that doubles as the mayor’s home, Lockwood Mansion on the show. The Georgia Department of Economic Development arranged the visit, but normally the only way to gain access to the house is via Lowery’s tour.
She clearly has a strong bond with Worthington Manor’s owners Benjamin Dameron and Ralph Miller, who help out when ‘The Vampire Diaries’ shoots there. “I bake cookies for them when they come. They treat us like family, we treat them like family,” says Dameron, who reveals – stalkers take note – that the cast favor the Italian restaurant Amici Café by the old square.
“There are six or seven restaurants on our downtown square,” says Carter, summing up Covington’s appeal. “It’s such a pretty little town. Our courthouse (pictured) is probably the most photographed courthouse in the Southeast. We are the quintessential small Southern town.”
That element is key to movies like “Footloose,” where drama happens in a small town that looks familiar to us all but, in Covington’s case, has that extra touch of movieland sheen to it.
It also helps that Covington is fairly close to Atlanta and that the area was largely spared by Sherman’s March to the Sea at the end of the Civil War. “The eastern part of our county is very rural so it can be 1810 or 2013,” adds Carter.
Putting another stake in the ground, Lowery is launching a Hollywood of the South tour to cover famous productions from the past as well as future releases.
As enterprising as it is, Covington, like some of the main characters in “The Vampire Diaries,” lives on and on in television and movies. It also has a useful weapon to wield: If anyone else tries to use the specific phrase ‘Hollywood of the South,’ they could be presented with a cease and desist notification, which Covington hopes is the legal equivalent of a stake through the heart.
Tour & Viewing Info:
Mystic Falls Tours meets at Covington’s Visitor Information Center, 2101 Clark St. Tours are wheelchair accessible with prior notice. Read a full interview with Jessica Lowery here.
Photo Credits: The Walking Dead Atlanta copyright of Gene Page; Welcome to Mystic Falls, Senoia water tower, Senoia Coffee & Cafe, Hershel Farm and Vampire Diaries characters by Lee Howard; Andrea and the Governor on Main Street in Senoia on the set of The Walking Dead copyright of Gene Page; Covington Walk of Stars, Mystic Falls Tours operator Jessica Lowery, Worthington Manor and Covington courthouse by Lee Howard.
Lee Howard is a British freelance film and TV journalist and a travel writer and photographer. He swapped rainy London for sunny Atlanta in 2010 and is catching up on Deep South sights, acquiring a taste for grits along the way. Check out his new website wayinto.com/atlanta, and contact him at [email protected] and on Twitter @leeehoward.