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Film Industry, Zombies Boost Atlanta Area Housing Market

Welcome back to Property Lines, a column by veteran real estate reporter Alexei Barrionuevo. Every week, Barrionuevo will report on housing trends, real estate deals, and major business moves right here on Curbed.

Alexei Barrionuevo

For seven months of the year, real estate developer Scott Tigchelaar and his family are just as likely to see zombies roaming the streets of their Senoia, Georgia, neighborhood as they are to see their actual neighbors. But fear not.

"When there are 200 zombies standing outside your house, and one of them is having a cigarette and the other is eating a granola bar, it does sort of take the scary factor away," said Tigchelaar, whose family also owns a local film production company.

The zombies are actually actors in the hit AMC series The Walking Dead, which has been filming in Senoia since the show began six seasons ago. In the show, a 15-foot steel fence surrounding the collection of brownstones and single-family homes is supposed to keep the humans safe from the monsters. But is anyone safe from the temptation of Hollywood's deep pockets?

Certainly not those in the Atlanta area and other parts of Georgia, who are reaping the benefits from film and television production incentives that kicked off in earnest in 2008. The incentives have ushered in a wave of film and TV projects, boosting the housing market and even changing the timeline on construction projects, especially in the Atlanta area.

Aerial view of Senoia, Georgia before producers of the Walking Dead built a 15-foot wall around a new development in town. Photo courtesy Scott Tigchelaar.

Take Senoia, which is 40 miles from Atlanta. When a group of post-apocalypse survivors in the fifth season arrive in the "safe zone" of Alexandria, Virginia—the town Senoia doubles for—the Dead producers asked in 2014 to halt construction on an in-fill housing development and construct a wall around it so that the look could be maintained for the show. The result is that the seven families already living there, including Tigchelaar's, struck deals to live in the zombie zone during the filming months of May to November.

Such arrangements aren't so spooky for residents of Senoia, which has been a Hollywood backlot, from time to time, for more than two decades. Some two dozen film and television shows have been filmed there, including such southern classics as Fried Green Tomatoes, Driving Miss Daisy, and Sweet Home Alabama.

In 2014, producers of the Walking Dead asked to halt construction on an in-fill development and constructed a 15-foot wall around the buildings. Photo by Alexei Barrionuevo.

But The Walking Dead has made made the sight of production trailers more common in Senoia the past few years, and lately, dozens of Hollywood productions, both big-budget and small, have been flowing into all corners of the Atlanta area as a result of the film incentives. That has helped to tighten up the rental markets and create A-list celebrity sightings. And with the expansion plans on the books for Pinewood Studios Atlanta, the market is about to get even busier.

With the high-cost of unionized labor in Los Angeles, and the need for varied locations, the film industry is always looking around the country and around the world for tax incentives, usually in the form of rebates for money spent, to lower the cost of their productions. Canada lured Hollywood over the border in the late 1990s with a highly competitive tax-credit program before states like Louisiana, New York, and Georgia started fighting back.

Georgia passed an incentive in 2005 and then upped the ante in 2008 with a more competitive 30 percent tax credit. It is now the state with the third-highest level of film production. There were 248 films shot in Georgia in fiscal year 2015, with production budgets totaling $1.7 billion, according to state figures.

The movie-making boom is changing the outside perception of Atlanta. Just this month, Atlanta topped MovieMaker Magazine's list of "Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker" in 2016, rising from No. 16 last year. Relatively affordable housing ($1,003 per month average rent) helped, but it was also the realization that Atlanta was building a powerhouse industry that was less paparazzi-infested than La-La land.

Big-budget productions have drawn the big stars, leading some residents to make their stately homes available for rent for $10,000 or more, sometimes at more than double their normal rate, said Chase Mizell, an agent with Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby's International Realty.

Actress Amy Adams leased this house, located in Atlanta's prestigious Tuxedo Park, while she was filming Trouble with the Curve. It features a pool and guest house. Photo courtesy Chase Mizell.

Tom Cruise recently rented a home in Buckhead for $50,000 a month while working on his upcoming film, Mena. Mizell said he has rented a six-bed, six-bath home with a wine cellar and movie theater in Smyrna, to actresses Jennifer Hudson and Elizabeth Banks, for $12,000 a month. Amy Adams paid $18,000 a month to rent a six-bed, eight-bath home in Tuxedo Park in 2014 while she was filming Trouble With The Curve, he said.

Then there are the freelancers—the lighting, sound, and camera crew members who make the actors look good—who often travel where the work is. With steadier and steadier opportunities around Atlanta, they are flowing in from California, Louisiana, and the Northeast and looking to sign longer-term leases, said Maura Neill, an agent with RE/MAX Around Atlanta. They generally want a central location, and most want townhouses and condos, especially in the downtown and Midtown areas.

This house, located on 10 private acres at 65 Valley Road in Tuxedo Park, was leased by a production company to shoot scenes for What to Expect When You're Expecting (starring Cameron Diaz & directed by Kirk Jones). Photo courtesy Chase Mizell.

In the early days of the film incentives, these crew members' particular requests sometimes unnerved residents not used to film industry types. Neill recalled a professional sound guy who in 2012 requested a townhouse with a climate-controlled garage with no windows. "I was asking listing agents and property owners what could be construed as easily misunderstood questions," she said. The man needed the garage for a few massive crates of sound equipment. He ended up renting a townhouse in the Fourth Ward area.

The real Atlanta gamechanger is Pinewood Studios. Pinewood is the legendary British studio where the James Bond movies are filmed. But four years ago, Dan Cathy, the chief executive of the Chick-fil-A chain, helped persuade the Brits to build another mammoth movie-making complex over 288 acres in rural Fayette County.

The sign for Pinewood Studios near Atlanta. Photo by Alexei Barrionuevo.

The Atlanta version of the studio, which started with an initial $20 million plan to build five sound stages and offices totaling 305,000 square feet, soon became the go-to production house for big-budget Marvel superhero films, including Ant-Man and the soon-to-be-released Captain America: Civil War.

With a pipeline of projects several years into the future, Pinewood has big expansion plans that include a lot of new housing. According to documents filed with the state of Georgia, Pinewood plans to add nearly 2 million square feet of studio space, while building more than 1,300 housing units, hotels, and offices, over the next seven years. And new school to train future filmmakers, the Georgia Film Academy, plans to teach classes in Pinewood and build a dedicated sound stage there.

While some speculate the expansion will create a virtual "movie city," Tigchelaar said the housing was needed for the area and that Pinewood's ambitions would simply "accelerate" housing growth there.

Unquestionably, the movie industry has the power to do that.

As Tigchelaar explained to me on a recent visit to Senoia, the Mayberry-like town was on life support before film production generally—and zombie fanatics especially— breathed new life into the place. A decade ago, growth in the 150-year-old town had "flat-lined," he said. There were only five businesses on Main Street. Five families owned all the property downtown and didn't want to sell. But in 2007 Tigchelaar's real estate development company was finally able to persuade the owners to relinquish some 22 commercial properties—the majority of the developable downtown.

Before The Walking Dead started they set in motion a development to build up to 75 homes on 12 acres just across the train tracks from Main Street. Tigchelaar, who with his uncle also owns a film studio, Riverwood Studios, intended for the development to be used as a Hollywood backlot as well. There is a street that will be all brownstones—the first five of a planned 15 are already up—and another street of single-family homes, a sort of "Wisteria Lane."

"It gives us the ability to cheat different looks from different places," Tigchelaar said. "The brownstones can cheat Charleston, New York, Georgetown."

Tigchelaar got about halfway through development when the producers of The Walking Dead decided they wanted it to remain as-is. Alexandria had become the zombie survivors' safe haven. So they built the quarter-mile-long steel wall and essentially walled in the seven families, who were paid undisclosed sums for their inconvenience during filming months. A security guard sits in a car all day to prevent non-residents from entering the development, lest they see series spoilers.

Main Street in Senoia features a Walking Dead Store and a Waking Dead Cafe. Photo by Alexei Barrionuevo.

The residents aren't complaining. The town has prospered. Today there are more than 50 businesses on Main Street and the population has doubled to 4,200. Senoia has become a tourist attraction for Dead fans and nearby residents of Peachtree City, who don't have a main street of their own. There are Walking Dead tours, a Walking Dead Store with all manner of action figures and comic books, and the subterranean Waking Dead Cafe.

Tigchelaar is racing to capitalize on the growing need for housing in the area. He has another project underway on Main Street to build eight retail spaces and 10 upscale lofts, which he expects will be finished by the summer.

"There is no shortage of people wanting to rent them," he said.
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