The Past, Present & Future of the Hollywood of the South
Hollywood of the South” is a term used for all of metro Atlanta these days, but one Georgia city has the phrase trademarked: Covington began using the nickname decades ago and made it official in 2011. Recently, the city has also been “Mystic Falls, Virginia,” New Orleans, the Smoky Mountains and Selma, Alabama, to name a few of the real and fictional places it’s doubled as on screen. But going forward, Covington and the rest of Newton County deserve to be recognized by name for what they are in and of themselves: a favored region for location filming with plans to grow even further as a major center of production.
Covington has a long and rich film history, going back to the Oscar nominated 1955 biographical drama A Man
Called Peter, and through its hosting of TV series such as The Dukes of Hazzard and In the Heat of the Night in the
‘80s and ‘90s. “
I can vividly remember In the Heat of the Night filming around town,” says Robert Faulkner, who grew up in Covington and now works as both a location coordinator and assistant location manager. “Everyone would get excited when Carol O'Connor would come around. There's always been that film presence, but nothing like it is now.”
That past experience has helped the city’s continued interest in the industry, and vice versa. The people of Covington are accustomed to hosting Hollywood, and Hollywood is familiar with the area’s reputation for being so film friendly. “It’s easy to film here, and people don't think twice about it because we've been doing it for so long,” affirms Jenny McDonald, the director of tourism for Newton County and the official liaison for production in the area. “Covington was one of the first Camera Ready Communities,” she reminds, referencing Georgia’s program that assists filmmakers and productions through a streamlined process. Ask anyone in the area, and they’ll vouch for McDonald’s expertise with the area and the film industry, recognizing that she’s one of the best things to happen to Newton County as a production destination. And she’s passionate about that rich film history, so much that she recently started a pop up exhibition called the Hollywood of the South Film and Television Museum, which showcases props and set pieces from movies and TV shows that were shot in the area.
“It's nice to see that the community has come up a lot more to encourage film,” says Steven Spelman, a props assistant whose credits include Marvel superhero blockbusters and the Hunger Games movies. “The area is very friendly to the arts.” Spelman was so taken with the area that he and his wife recently moved to Covington and set up their own multimedia art studio, Wildwood, in their barn. He says that even while there’s always a fair amount of production in town, it’s never been overwhelming from a residents’ point of view. “It's never slowed us down or gotten in our way,” he claims, “versus when I lived in Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta, where every time you turn down two different streets there's a lot of stuff going on.”
And that’s with Covington having been the home base for The Vampire Diaries from 2009 until this past spring. The series was a huge hit, putting the area back on the industry map in a big way. “TV shows entrench themselves in the community, which is awesome,” McDonald says, while acknowledging its impact. “They spend dollars here, use local resources. Vampire Diaries became part of our community. It became second nature to us.”
Despite such a popular series being headquartered in Covington, Spelman sees his new home as “still a sleepy little community. It hasn't gotten to that pretentious stage where everyone's bought up the property and everything's jacked up price-wise.”
Little has changed about the character of Covington from the past to the present, which keeps the city unique and attractive to productions. “We've maintained the integrity of our downtown,” McDonald says. “It actually looks like a backlot, which is a huge draw for the film industry because they don't have to do much.”
In addition to the old-fashioned look of downtown Covington, McDonald also points to the surrounding area’s diverse appeal to productions. “We've got five cities within Newton County, and each city is small but has its own personality,” she says. “You go ten minutes from downtown and you're in Porterdale and you have what I call the river district and the old cotton mills. Then you go ten minutes east and you have farm land, you've got horse farms, you've got dairy farms. You've got beautiful country homes within Newborn and Mansfield. Then you go to the other side and you've got Oxford College. You have all these different personalities to choose from. It just makes it easy to pick a lot of locations.”
Such variety isn’t just great for bringing different kinds of shows and movies to the area. It’s also convenient for projects like the new Amazon show Lore, which Faulkner worked on this year. “Lore is not a typical TV series,” he explains of the anthology program based on the popular podcast of the same name. “It had to take place in different time periods and different countries, like Germany in the 1500s, Maine in the 1800s. Covington was able to do that.”
"They don't use traditional street lights anymore.
And filmmakers love it..."
“Company moves cost a fortune,” points out local sound mixer Aaron “Cujo” Cooley. “Productions want to avoid moving as much as they can. Covington and Newton County are nice to shoot in, because you can get so many different looks in so many close places; you don't have to move on.”
More and more productions are discovering the advantages of filming in Covington as others discover and have good experiences here. “I've worked with a lot of people who've been surprised at how much Covington has to offer,” Cooley shares, confessing that he was also once unaware. “I never really thought about it until I actually got in the business and saw it from the inside and became fully aware of it.” He points out that improvements are constantly being made that help to lure new productions, too. “Covington has redone all the lighting in the square to make it film friendly. They don't use traditional street lights anymore. And filmmakers love it,” he says. “Even Porterdale, which has revived the downtown, has had pretty good growth over the last 10-15 years. Bringing productions to the town helps exposure.”
Faulkner adds that the local governments themselves are incredibly easy to deal with. He recently worked in Covington, Porterdale and Oxford and found each one very accommodating while still keeping the interests of their citizens in mind. “They didn't just say yes to everything,” he acknowledges, noting that instead of flat out rejections, the officials always offered alternatives. “They just do it right and efficiently, which is refreshing. So much more streamlined. Good communication. That's one of the biggest positives, especially for the locations department.”
“They just do it right and efficiently, which is refreshing..."
It’s not surprising that many people who work in the industry are making the Covington area their home, whether
they’re returning or relocating. “There's a good crew base here, a lot of people that live in Newton and commute every day to Atlanta or the studios when there’s no shooting in Covington,” Cooley recognizes, adding that obviously they all prefer when there is something shooting nearby. “Any time you can work close to home is a good thing.”
Spelman agrees: “I always try to work locally. I've been down the road from Sleepy Hollow, and it helps that I can just show up and talk to the prop master or meet with the art director. When you source everything locally, you don't have any shipping time. The turnarounds tend to be faster. I can go work in my shop, get it done, then deliver it, and if there are any issues they can be dealt with immediately. A lot of the people I've been dealing with seem to appreciate that.”
Another local film professional who appreciates so much production in the area is Nicole Kanoy, an animal wrangler and snake safety expert whose claim to fame should be that she kept Ian Somerhalder and the rest of the Vampire Diaries cast from being bitten on a daily basis. For her, though, it’s about being able to balance her profession with her home life, which involves three kids and 80 rescue animals. “It allows me to be a bit of a better mom with my schedule,” she says of the close gigs, which has also included work on TV shows The Originals and Sleepy Hollow. “I love it, too, because I can drive by and say, 'This is what we did there,’ and my kids are like, 'Oh, that's so neat!' My work is cool and they're proud of me. They can relate to what I do because they can see it.”
About the current state of the industry in town, she adds, “There's just so much work, so many jobs. A lot of people that I knew out here in high school never went to college and were very limited in their future. They're now specialized and working. It's provided so many jobs. And the town looks great. And everybody here has heard of it now. It helps the people who are willing to work hard make a living.” And the non-industry locals benefit, too. “I have friends in all kinds of businesses in town. Any time a production moves in, they tend to benefit,” Cooley says. “All the restaurants get extra business, the retail stores get extra business, and local law enforcement ends up with extra overtime.” (Editor’s Note: people working on Georgia productions are solid citizens. Law enforcement works overtime providing security on sets and locations . . . not making arrests! GP).”
Spelman, who also mentions having friends from high school who now work in or alongside the film industry, also commends the locals for not being jaded by all the productions. “They know what's going on,” he says of the people of Newton County. “Nothing freaks them out. They still get excited about it. It’s this sweet spot where they're still excited about it but they're not really intimidated by it.” With Lore, he says he really made an effort to utilize local businesses wherever possible, too. “Restroom vendors, equipment rental vendors,” he specifies. “Covington is coming along in terms of vendors that cater to the film industry.”
Some companies, such as Burgess Amusements and Special Events, have even started catering to the industry directly. “As the film industry has grown over the past seven years, so has a need for our services,” says Burgess president Ron Dudik, Jr., who tells of the pleasure of working with The Vampire Diaries and providing items for Fourth of July celebration scenes shot in downtown Covington. Dudik recognizes that businesses like his benefit especially from positive buzz within the community. “Through word of mouth and the reputation of providing quality equipment and services, Burgess has become involved in many more productions.
When Nicole Greer bought the historic Twelve Oaks plantation in 2011, she only intended to turn the house into a bed and breakfast and event space. But even before she closed on the property, Billy Bob Thornton was knocking on her door hoping to use the location for his movie, Jayne Mansfield’s Car. Unfortunately the timing wasn’t right for that, but Twelve Oaks quickly became a hotspot for film shoots (including Vacation and the upcoming Life of the Party). “I didn't anticipate it,” Greer admits. “It happened organically. Then people talk about you.”
Of course, the B&B also serves the industry’s need for high-end lodging for above the line cast and crew who require “more privacy, more discretion.” Greer has had experience with accommodating A-list talents who refuse to stay at the local chain hotels, for instance, but need to stay close to the filming location, not in Atlanta. “That’s an hour commute, and traffic is severe,” Greer points out. “It makes more sense to put them here.”
Twelve Oaks also hosts a lot of guests who want to stay in the plantation house that inspired the look of one of the homes in Gone With the Wind. “They copied a lot for the set,” Greer states, also acknowledging the property was used in other older movies before her time as owner, including 1977’s False Face (aka Scalpel). Others look to the B&B as an option while in Covington visiting Vampire Diaries locations and general film tourism interests.
Regarding Vampire Diaries tourism in the area, McDonald confesses, “It's huge,” and she attributes this offshoot of the film production impact to helping to bring Covington’s downtown back to life. “We get people from all over the world coming here. It's amazing. It will blow your mind. In 2015, for the tourism industry in Newton County alone it was $125.6 million in direct tourist spending. That was an increase of $5.4 million from 2014. $3.7 million was generated in local tax revenues, and in state tax revenues it created $5.14 million. Another number that's impressive is the payroll in the tourism industry: in 2015, $23.35 million for 1,140 jobs for Newton County.”
“When you drive in, you're in ‘Mystic Falls,’" McDonald adds, recognizing why Vampire Diaries fans are so attracted to the show’s filming locations. She also thinks the local businesses just “get it,” given how many restaurants and bars and ice cream parlors have created special menu items inspired by the show. McDonald recognizes that Covington still looks like the setting of In the Heat of the Night, as well. “We still have fans come back 21 years later to see ‘Sparta, Mississippi.’”
Despite The Vampire Diaries concluding this past season, nobody seems too worried about the loss of the show for the film or tourism industries in Covington. “There is concern any time a show ends,” McDonald confesses. “There was the same concern with In the Heat of the Night. It's like lightning in a bottle. We've been very, very fortunate to have two very, very popular TV series. But what we're trying to do right now is target the international market, because they're about two or three seasons behind. Then we're expanding into Porterdale, because the spin-off show, The Originals, is on the air for another year. We've still got a while.”
McDonald is also positive that Covington will continue to be attractive to Hollywood. “Covington treasures its downtown and look and will make sure it keeps that quaint small town feel. That won't change.” Meanwhile, she’s personally looking to appeal to more tourists with her museum. “If it’s popular, we’ll find a permanent space for it,” she says. “And it will become another attraction.”
Then there’s the opening of Three Ring Studios, which promises a bright future for the city, as well. Rahim Charania, head of the enterprising new “Google-esque” campus for production, believes it is the next step in the evolution of movie studios. “The way movies are being made today is very different than how they were made even a decade ago,” he acknowledges. That’s why he’s made sure Three Ring will be “tailor-made for the future of content development.”
“It seems like for that studio, they're planning way ahead to have an influx of traffic and extra power and sewage,” Spelman says of his positive outlook on the infrastructure in place for Three Ring. “It seems they're doing their due diligence of planning ahead, instead of building a studio then trying to retrofit the area around it.”
"Georgia isn't going to slowdown anytime soon...”
Charania admits that a lot of the groundwork was Covington’s own doing, and that’s why he ultimately decided on the location, affirming that the city and county were head and shoulders above the competition: “We were very much excited about the level of capability the city of Covington brought to the table with regards to the TV and film industry. We wanted to invest in a city that those on the West Coast and actively engaged in this business already had familiarity with. There's also a sense of life and community in Covington and an understanding of the industry and an eagerness to service it.”
Encouraging for the studio is the county’s invested interest in its success, with McDonald working with Charania on making Covington’s relationship with Three Ring the most synergistic enterprise possible. “We're going to work hand in hand and have local resources available to productions that land at the studio,” she vows.
With history and infrastructure in a place like Covington and an innovative new studio like Three Ring now established, it’s easy to trust in Atlanta’s role in the industry as strong and long lasting. “Georgia isn't going to slow down anytime soon,” Charania believes. “We've got a couple years or even a decade before that changes. We want to create an atmosphere where a group of actors, directors and crew can see Covington as their home. We want to bring longer term productions to Georgia.”
It’s no wonder that he sees the city as having more potential than a comparative nickname implies. “Covington is not "Hollywood of the South." Covington is Covington,” Charania professes. “In its own way, it's a unique area that is ideal for so many things involved in content development throughout not just Georgia, but the nation as a whole.”