Georgia, home of 'Stranger Things,' stole Florida productions and now targets its tourism

Stranger Things production sites include cities in Georgia, including Jackson and Atlanta.
Stranger Things production sites include cities in Georgia, including Jackson and Atlanta.
Published Apr. 14, 2017

TAMPA — First, Georgia used tax credits to lure big budget films and television series away from Florida — even stories about the Sunshine State.

Now, Georgia film and tourism officials are leveraging this thriving production industry to snare Floridians on vacation.

Those working with film and tourism in Florida say there's little they can do about it because the state has quit offering incentives of its own.

"This is like if Florida State and the Florida Gators decided to quit playing tackle football for flag football," said Tony Armer, St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner. "We're flag football and Georgia is competing for a national title."

Officials from the Georgia Film Office and the Department of Economic Development were in Tampa this week promoting their state as a place to see the settings for your favorite tales from the screen.

They met with travel writers, bloggers and others in communication before heading to Jacksonville on a tour to promote so-called film-induced tourism.

Florida topped all states as a source of visitors to neighboring Georgia in 2016, said Emily Murray, a spokeswoman for the tourism wing of Georgia's economic development department.

"Florida is a big market for us," Murray said, "with people driving through Georgia or people who live in Florida and looking for a weekend destination.

Georgia's production industry was worth $7.2 billion to the Georgia economy last year, the state said, $5 billion of which came through indirect spending — crew members going out for dinner, for example, or fans booking hotels to visit the location of their favorite movie or television show.

Take the city of Senoia — "Woodbury" in the AMC zombie-apocalypse series The Walking Dead.

Fans with an appetite for more than just a screen fix have spent nearly half a million dollars in Senoia over the past four years with Atlanta Movie Tours alone.

"That is me giving a conservative number," said Carrie Burns, the tour operator's chief executive officer. "I think the people we bring may spend much more."

The influx of tourists has driven the number of storefronts in Senoia, population less than 5,000, from six to 50, said Lee Thomas, Georgia's deputy film commissioner.

Another popular Georgia destination for film and television fans is Tybee Island near Savannah, Thomas said, recently the setting for the movies Bay Watch, Dirty Grandpa, Live by Night and Gifted.

The stories in Live by Night and Gifted take place in the Tampa Bay area, but producers skipped the authentic locations in favor of state incentives.

The Tampa Bay area has experienced the economic impact of film-induced tourism, notes film commissioner Armer, with the 2011 film Dolphin Tale and its sequel, shot at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and produced with $5 million each in state incentive money.

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In 2010, before the first film was released, the aquarium's annual attendance was 163,000. In 2015 after the second one hit theaters, visitation reached 800,000, according to the aquarium.

Last year, the Florida Legislature declined to renew the state's production incentive program, making it harder for Armer to land productions. Opponents say the program hasn't spurred enough economic growth. Even the Department of Economic Opportunity, which houses the state film commissioner's office and with Gov. Rick Scott is battling lawmakers to preserve other business incentives, hasn't asked them to extend the film program.

One new effort under way during the current session of the Legislature would launch a new, public-private film fund that can invest in productions seen as having the greatest potential economic impact. SB 1576, sponsored by Jacksonville Democrat Audrey Gibson, is scheduled to be heard in a tourism subcommittee on Monday. A companion bill introduced in the House is awaiting further action.

Meantime, Armer said, big budget movies will likely continue choosing states that provide incentives, he said.

Not every production brings a surge in tourism.

The 2016 suspense film The Infiltrator starring Bryan Cranston filmed scenes in the Tampa area and kept the Tampa name in its true-life story line. But with a box office gross of just $15 million, it didn't generate the fan base for a measurable tourism impact.

Still, says one local tourism agency executive, attracting more visitors remains a potential benefit from landing productions.

"You can't judge it all on one example," said Patrick Harris, Visit Tampa Bay chief marketing officer. "Georgia didn't get to where it was with one film."

Another television series filming in Georgia is Netflix's science-fiction hit Stranger Things, with Season Two set for an Oct. 31 release.

Atlanta Movie Tours, which also takes visitors to Marvel movie locations around Georgia's largest city, is adding a tour of the city of Jackson, where much of Stranger Things is filmed.

That's welcome news to Stan Hogan, who owns Jackson Drug and a RadioShack where scenes were shot. In recent months, even without a tour, he has welcomed hundreds of fans to his business, with most of them making a purchase.

Said Hogan, "I think Jackson will be another Walking Dead situation."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.