* "The Walking Dead" is top-rated TV drama
* Georgia tax incentives attracts film and TV industry
* Town of 3,300 transformed by tourism
By Colleen Jenkins
SENOIA, Ga., March 29 Frank Hollberg III, whose
family has sold furniture in Senoia, Georgia since 1894, laughed
as he recalled the odd sight of watching a man walk through the
idyllic downtown holding a head in his hand.
The head was a prop and the man an actor filming "The
Walking Dead," the hit zombie-themed television series that has
drawn millions of fans worldwide and helped turn the small town
25 miles south of Atlanta into a thriving tourist attraction.
Senoia, pronounced "Seh-noy" by its 3,300 residents, had
seen its fortunes fade after the local cotton and agricultural
industries died off. But the town now boasts a retail district
that grew from six to 49 businesses in half a dozen years.
Country music singer Zac Brown has opened a restaurant and
live music venue on Main Street, and two home showcases by
Southern Living magazine's popular "Idea House" program brought
about 30,000 visitors to Senoia in 2010 and again in 2012, local
"It's been a hell of a lot of changes in this town," said
Hollberg, 77. "It's a different world."
Hollberg and other locals credit most of the newfound
popularity to the success of the weekly AMC cable network
series. "The Walking Dead" averages 7 million U.S. viewers ages
18 to 49, making it the top-rated drama for that demographic in
cable history, according to AMC.
Fans proved eager to get a behind-the-scenes look at filming
in and around Senoia, which for the show's third season was
transformed into the fictional town of Woodbury. The season
finale airs on Sunday.
They found a town that had stopped cutting the grass and
weeding the flower beds to foster an authentic post-apocalyptic
setting, said Mayor Robert Belisle. Stores displayed
zombie-themed T-shirts next to baby clothes and home decor
Some natives grumbled about having to jockey for parking
spaces, but many business owners said they were happy to
accommodate the show and its fans.
"When your sales are up 40 percent over the same month last
year, it must be a good thing," said store owner Jim Preece.
"Our Christmas was phenomenal."
The guest book by Preece's register logs signatures of
visitors who traveled to Senoia from across the United States,
as well as Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.
The tourist traffic continued after the cameras stopped
rolling, business owners said, aided by fan websites that direct
visitors to specific filming spots for each episode.
Brian Holland, a heating and air service technician who
lives in Columbus, Georgia, runs the Walking Dead Locations
website as a hobby. He said people email him daily asking for
help planning their trips.
"It started out as me running around on Saturdays taking
pictures of places we'd seen on the show, to talking to people
all over the world," said Holland, 40.
One recent weekday, show fans ranging from teenagers to
retirees posed for pictures by the fake Woodbury town hall and
bank and bought "Zombie Dark" coffee from the cafe that serves
as the Woodbury Coffee House on the show.
"My daughter is going to be extremely jealous," said Ted
Molnar, 60, who drove two hours from LaFayette, Georgia, with
his wife to check out the show's backdrop. A sticker on their
van read, "When the zombies come, I'll be ready."
The series has "forever redefined this town," said Scott
Tigchelaar, a developer and president of Raleigh Studios -
Atlanta, a film company whose 120-acre property in Senoia serves
as home base for the show's production.
"'Walking Dead' to Senoia is like 'Midnight in the Garden of
Good and Evil' to Savannah," he said, referring to the
best-selling 1994 novel set in the picturesque Georgia city and
made into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Georgia has enticed the film and TV industry to towns across
the state with generous tax incentives and dozens of direct
flights each day between Atlanta and Los Angeles, he said.
The state hosted 333 films, TV productions and music videos
between July 2011 and June 2012, generating nearly $880 million
in direct spending by the entertainment industry, according to
the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office.
Senoia is not paid for the filming, leaving local leaders to
find other ways to capitalize on the spotlight while preserving
the town's historic charm.
The downtown development authority installed sidewalk
plaques to highlight some of the two dozen movies and TV series
that have filmed in Senoia, including "Fried Green Tomatoes",
"Sweet Home Alabama" and "Drop Dead Diva".
Tigchelaar, a Canada native whose development company has
restored much of the downtown, said he and his brother-in-law
bought a trolley to give tours of various film locations
starting this spring.
A store with licensed merchandise for "The Walking Dead" is
set to open when production resumes in May and, later this year,
developers expect to break ground on a boutique hotel.
"Ten years ago to talk about a four-star hotel in Senoia,
people probably would have laughed me out of town," Tigchelaar
said. "Today, it's feasible."
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins. Editing by David Adams and David