Quiet on set: Filming in Georgia's cemeteries is complicated

COLLEGE PARK, Ga. (AP) — There aren't many worse sights than someone messing with your mother's grave. That's what Warren Bond walked up on at the College Park Cemetery two and a half years ago.

Bond saw fresh dirt atop the grave of his mother, who died in 1997, and a film crew. Shocked, he immediately thought the worst, but it turns out the crew was just making it look like a new grave.

"I'm still furious," said the 75-year-old College Park native about the Jan. 25, 2017 incident.

And just last month, a crew without a permit filmed a whole funeral scene at the same cemetery — including tapping into a nearby fire hydrant. Bond, a photographer, took pictures of crew members sitting on gravestones.

After Bond told the city about both incidents, City Manager Terrence Moore said the College Park City Council earlier this month banned filming in cemeteries in the southern Fulton city of about 15,000 residents.

It's a bold step in a state that has worked to build a reputation as the Hollywood of the South and offers an online listing of cemeteries for film crews to use.

Moore said he knows of no other communities in Georgia who bar filming in cemeteries. The film industry has boomed statewide since 2005 when the state approved the most generous tax incentives in the country for those who want to make and edit work here.

Big-budget Hollywood films like the "Avengers" and "Hunger Games" series come here because there is no cap on the tax credits. That has led to studios, editing hubs and post-production companies opening in Georgia, creating demand for skilled employees.

Georgia is often listed as America's No. 3 overall production center for film/TV behind California and New York. A Film L.A. report found Georgia's 17 major movies made it first in the world in 2016 in total feature film productions.

There's a reason. The film tax credit program has cost taxpayers more than $1 billion since 2009, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state tax data and a 2016 Georgia State University study.

Though the film boom has brought billions to the state, it seems the use of local cemeteries was an unintended consequence.

Cities are generally open to allowing filming inside cemeteries because they are public spaces that are easy to plan around. And cemeteries are useful storytelling backdrops for filmmakers. Add some rain and moonlight, and you have a spooky setting.

Moore said filming in such a sensitive location poses risks to the city. Crews can block public right of way and use city resources improperly, like the fire hydrant.

He said the city's film ordinance is friendly, but "some had taken liberties with that."

Bond said he feel there needs to be more laws and regulations around filming in cemeteries. He sees it as an issue of decency for both the living and the dead.

Georgia's film website categorizes more than 8,000 statewide spots for film scouts. Of those, 97 cemeteries are listed — from St. Marys on the Florida border to Blue Ridge by the Carolinas.

The state's online "Guide to Georgia Film Locations" suggests filming at the 58-acre Decatur Cemetery.

Decatur spokeswoman Renae Madison said the city charges $1,000 for the first day and $500 for subsequent days to film at the cemetery, making it the most expensive place to film in the city.

Madison said she doesn't know of any major problems in the past with people disrespecting the grounds. She said the last filming there was in April for the HBO comic book show "Watchmen," which is set to premiere this month.

The state's online Guide also tells filmmakers to check out Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, made famous by the movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

John Brannen, cemetery events coordinator for the city of Savannah, said Bonaventure gets about a quarter-million annual visitors. The city handles about 10 cemetery filmings a year, and he said they reject as many applications as they get.

"Funerals always come first," he said.

He said they reject all supernatural shows out of respect for those buried there. Brannen said his job of approving permits for tours and filming was created about 15 years ago due to the demand and need for oversight.

"Problems do come along in the sense that some studios want to get away with things," he said, adding that crews will want to dig a hole or cut plants to get equipment in a better spot. ". . . They require constant supervision."

Maybe the state's most popular cemetery for filming is the 48-acre Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. It has more than 70,000 graves — including the city's first black mayor Maynard Jackson, golf great Bobby Jones and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Gone With the Wind" Margaret Mitchell.

Sam Reed, city employee and sexton of the cemetery, said they probably allow more than 50 filmings a year. In his 22 years at the cemetery, he said people are usually respectful — even if they don't know they aren't supposed to sit on headstones.

He said it is common practice for film crews to bring their own tombstones and flowers so as to not record or disturb any actual gravesites. Reed said he will walk the site with a film crew beforehand to see if they need trees limbed or bushes trimmed to get equipment in.

Oakland has hosted large-scale productions, he said, like in 2013 when "Fast and Furious 7" filmed a funeral scene there and for Tyler Perry's 2007 movie "Daddy's Little Girls."

David Moore, co-executive director of the Historic Oakland Foundation, said Oakland is a city park and is treated like one, with people taking picnics and walking dogs. They do more weddings than funerals, he said.

"It is hallowed ground, and there is that element. We're not Piedmont Park, we're not a ballfield," he said.

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Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com