Small Towns, Big Business
The film industry has become an important economic resource for the state of Georgia, but this does not only include the City of Atlanta. The industry has greatly impacted rural towns around the state. For some of those small towns, film productions have brought life back to their streets. For others, the lens has uncovered hidden gems to a world that now wants to see them, live them, and experience them outside the screen.
The Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD) reported that the film and television industry set a new record of $4 billion in direct spending during the 2021 fiscal year on productions in the state.
“The growth of Georgia’s film industry is truly exciting, impacting every corner of our state from communities to small businesses to individual Georgians,” said GDEcD Commissioner Pat Wilson before speaking directly about the work the Georgia Film Office is doing to ensure large and small communities are ready to continue to capitalize on the industry.
GEORGIA’S CAMERA READY COMMUNITIES
In 2010, the Georgia Film, Music, & Digital Entertainment Office (FMDE) launched the “Camera Ready Communities” program. With the bloom of film productions in Georgia, the program is designed to help identify liaisons throughout communities in Georgia to help as an extension of their office when assisting production companies. This would simplify the process and help effectively provide accurate local information and resources to production crews. With a more streamlined process and better local information, smaller towns are more likely to benefit and capitalize on the opportunity.
Usually, production companies looking to film in Georgia first reach out to FMDE with general questions. They have a database of pictures and information previously provided by each Camera Ready liaison. Once they have more specific questions about each local town, the liaison steps in as a great resource.
Liaisons usually come from the local convention and visitors bureau or economic development authority. They are experienced and trained, and are experts on anything related to their county. Liaisons are a source of information pertaining to local contacts for permits, local services, lodging, local recommendations, and even resources to help hire local talent. “Some production needs and questions are best addressed on the local level,” notes the state government.
Not a beginner at hosting film productions, one of the first counties to be Camera Ready was Rabun County in Northeast Georgia.
It was over 50 years ago since Rabun County had become the setting for movies and commercials. Long before the Camera Ready program and the “Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act” passed, Rabun was already on the map.
In 1972, Burt Reynolds’ “Deliverance” shone the light brighter on Northeast Georgia. Despite the smaller previous productions, it was this movie that changed things for the small towns located two hours north of Atlanta. Not only did it put Rabun on the radar of other filmmakers, but it also put it on the radar of those looking to explore the outdoors.
"I think the movie was the single most important thing as far as impact that happened to Rabun County," said Louise Dillard during an interview in 2018.
Dillard is the owner of Dillard House, a local famous restaurant where Burt Reynolds himself would stop by to eat and talk to locals. Continuously, he shared his love for North Georgia and talked about the fond memories he had from shooting along the Chattooga River. “Deliverance” was just the beginning of his love story with Georgia. He went on to shoot six more movies in Georgia after that.
The movie attracted not only other film productions to the northeasternmost county in the state but also tourism. Through the film, people began to discover Rabun County’s rivers, and drafting and tubing became local attractions. “Due to its [“Deliverance”] popularity, three outdoor adventure companies were founded in 1972, and all three - Southeastern Expeditions, Nantahala Outdoor Center, and Wildwater - are still operating 50 years later,” said Pete Cleaveland, a New York native who has called Rabun County home since 25 years ago.
One of the top-selling points for Rabun County, which makes it different from the rest, is the fact that it is 75% national forest. It is the only county in the state with three state parks - Black Rock Mountain State Park, Tallulah Falls State Park, and Moccasin Creek State Park. The beautiful historic Downtown streets, the welcoming smiles, and the breathtaking outdoor spaces make Rabun County an attractive place for tourists and film productions, which have continued to increase over the years.
“It was a slow night, and all of the sudden I looked out the kitchen window into the dining room and saw Robert DeNiro standing at the hostess station,” said Rosalva Martinez, who was then cooking at a former local restaurant Rumorz Haz It. “It was him. I knew it was him. He stopped by to make his own dinner reservations. You don’t expect to see that happen in this small town.”
Robert DeNiro was in town shooting “Killing Season” with co-star John Travolta and a full production crew.
Rabun County has seen other A-list celebrities, such as Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd who made the Northeast Georgia mountains home for a few weeks while shooting “Wanderlust” in a nearby town.
“Hillbilly,” “Manifesto,” “Lawless,” “Trouble With the Curve,” and “Christmas on the Range” are some of the productions where the streets of Downtown Clayton or the rivers and mountains of Rabun County can be spotted.
“Standing Up” made the beautiful small town its full set, becoming the first film to shoot completely in town.
Productions like this have an incredible economic impact on Rabun County. “When shooting outside a certain circumference out of Atlanta, production has to house their team there,” explained Pam Thompson, owner of Dillard House Stables and Camera Ready liaison for Rabun County. “So, when they did ‘Standing Up’ here (Rabun County), the direct spending into the town was tremendous.”
According to records taken by Thompson, four movies shot in Rabun County immediately after the Camera Ready program went into place had a total economic impact of $3.4 million on the county.
“It is exciting for our small town to watch the film and see our beautiful area,” said Rabun County resident Sonya Shook. “It also brings business to our area.”
As Thompson explains, when film productions come to town, they spend money locally on things such as rentals, hotel rooms, services, doctors, groceries, gravel companies, car repairs, office space, camps, extras, and so much more. They are buying things they need for the production, and they are consuming at local restaurants and stores while in town.
“It’s very exciting to have films shot in our town,” says Rabun Martin, owner of Lulu and Tully Mercantile in Downtown Clayton. A production crew had asked to paint a wall outside her business. She agreed with the condition that they left it better than they found it, since it was a project she had been meaning to tackle herself. “They did. They came back and left it just like [they] promised they would,” Martin recalls, excited about the whole experience.
“Everyone needs coffee,” says Ivy Million, General Manager at White Birch Provisions. “We definitely see an increase of customers when there is a production in town. We love it.”
“Film productions are the ultimate tourist,” says Thompson about the impact on the local economy. “They come during the off-season and spend money.”
Along with economic benefits, film productions have also helped establish landmarks in small towns around Georgia. Such is the case for Juliette, Georgia.
Just an hour south of Atlanta, Juliette sits in Monroe County. A small town developed by the coming of the railroad in 1882, it became home to an important piece of the classic film “Fried Green Tomatoes.”
The 1991 film is an American comedy-drama directed by Jon Avnet and based on the 1987 novel “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.” In the story, a housewife who is unhappy with her life befriends a colorful and cheerful elderly lady in a nursing home who inspires her to change her life for good.
In the movie, as the name clues us in, a key location is the Whistle Stop Cafe. Juliette had just the right place for it.
The building had served as a grocery store from 1927 until 1972. It was already iconic and essential since then for the people of Juliette. It was one of a kind, selling "everything from the cradle to the grave,” as its owner Edward L. Williams, Sr. said.
In 1972 after its closing, the store was rented out as a real estate office and then an antique store. It was then that the production team for “Fried Green Tomatoes” decided to make it the Whistle Stop Cafe for the film.
After the filming wrapped up, the new owner, Robert Williams, decided to keep it as the Whistle Stop Cafe and partnered with Jerie Lynn Williams to make it an actual restaurant. Since then, people from all over travel to Juliette for a chance to eat at the famous Whistle Stop Cafe.
The menu includes - of course - the famous fried green tomatoes and a few other classic southern dishes mentioned in the film. Fans can find some of the original items used in the film on display and incomparable hospitality that only the South knows how to do.
With visitors from all over the world, small Juliette is a must-visit in Georgia where the legend of “Fried Green Tomatoes” continues years after the production was filmed.
Film productions also have the power to bring ghost towns to life. Such is the case for the City of Grantville in Coweta County - 45 minutes southwest of Atlanta.
A town that almost vanished after the closing of a cotton mill became the perfect film location for AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” It is known that the series has featured various towns throughout Georgia, and Grantville was one of them.
The abandoned and dilapidated buildings, faded structures, and isolated small town feel were perfect for the post-apocalyptic setting of the series. “Lawless” and “Broken Bridges” found Grantville just as attractive for filming for very similar reasons. However, it wasn’t until the “The Walking Dead” episode aired that waves of tourists from all over the world started to show up to the rural southern town.
Tourism gave Grantville a new life.
Grantville created an opportunity to showcase their town and the film locations for the popular series. Morgan’s hideout apartment from Season 3 is one of the main attractions. It is still intact and looks just like it was portrayed in the “Clear” episode with writing on the walls, animal cages, and rifles. Self-guided and guided tours are available, and even the opportunity to rent the apartment right next to it through AirBnB.
There are at least nine film locations to visit in Grantville. Another of the fan-favorite stops is the “Away with you” wall which leads one of the characters to the place where he would burn the bodies of walkers.
In past years, the popular character from the series “The Notorious Negan” even came as a guest tour guide. Fans had the opportunity to not only see the film locations in person, but meet one of the main characters.
Tourism increased, and so did the rural town’s size. The 2000 Census shows a population of 1,309, and by 2010, the Census shows that population more than doubled to 3,041. More tourism means more opportunities and more jobs.
After “The Walking Dead” came through Grantville, other film productions such as Jim Carey’s “Dumb and Dumber To” have come to town over the years, bringing optimism for the growth and development of the rural town which now relies heavily on the film industry.
If there is any doubt that Georgia is the new Hollywood, Covington would prove anyone wrong. Making it to the list of rural towns that have hosted film productions and now have an array of tours showcasing film locations, Covington takes it a step further. An actual Walk of Stars, downtown Covington displays 30 pavers representing the television and film productions that have filmed in Newton County.
Covington has been the set for numerous productions since 1954, including “Vampire Diaries,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “My Cousin Vinny,” and “Dukes of Hazzard.” They are proud of it and make sure anyone who crosses their town knows it.
Year after year, the town has welcomed thousands of visitors who look to see iconic filming locations for some of their favorite productions in person, especially “Vampire Diaries.” Based on this, local fans of the show saw an opportunity and made it into a successful business, Vampire Stalkers.
What started as a simple desire to spend more time with the cast of “Vampire Diaries” as fans, turned into a great opportunity for six mega fans of the series. During the filming, they spent most of their free time hanging out on set. To better explain to family and friends what they were doing, they began to call it Vampire Stalking. The name stuck around, and today it is the name of their company.
Created by fans, Vampire Stalkers presents Mystic Fall Tours in Covington, giving visitors an incredible experience with behind-the-scenes commentary and access to filming locations of the CW series. They also run the local museum which showcases actual screen-used items in “Vampire Diaries” and other films shot in Covington. All items were directly donated to them by CW and Warner Brothers and are for display only.
Entry to the museum is free, but Vampire Stalkers expanded their profit opportunity with a merchandise store and the establishing of a new adventure, expanding their horizons to other films through their company “Hollywood of the South.”
Large and small towns across Georgia continue to see the benefits of the film industry. The opportunities continue to arise, and the world continues to discover more about the beauty of the nature, cities, and people in our state.