A Georgia Town Where ‘Stranger Things’ Is Shot Yearns for Production to Return

Before a hole could pierce open a parallel dimension, unleashing murderous creatures like a Demogorgon into the placid existence of Hawkins, Ind., there needed to be another invasion.

Hawkins, the fictional home of “Stranger Things,” had to take over the small town in Georgia where the hit Netflix show has been set since it debuted in 2016.

The old county courthouse in the center of Jackson, Ga., was turned into the Hawkins Library. An empty storefront became Melvald’s General Store. On the other side of the town square, a marquee was added to the front of a restaurant, transforming it into Hawkins’s movie theater.

But lately, Jackson has just been Jackson. “Stranger Things” retreated, along with most of the other movies and television shows filmed in Georgia, as the writers’ strike that began in May and the actors’ strike that followed in July reached far beyond Hollywood. The writers reached a tentative deal with studios in late September, and a ratification vote is underway. But actors are still negotiating with entertainment companies, keeping most TV and film production shut down.

As some of the nation’s most generous film tax credits have nudged movie and television studios to invest heavily in Georgia over the last 15 years, a number of cities and towns have tried to get a piece of the business. But the state’s embrace of the film industry has sometimes awkwardly collided with the conservative politics of its Republican leaders, who generally believe that resisting organized labor is a key to a welcoming business climate.

Some of the nation’s most generous film tax credits have nudged movie and television studios to invest heavily in Georgia over the last 15 years.Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

The economic pain inflicted by the work stoppages has prompted some elected officials, including the state’s labor commissioner, to reconsider Georgia’s relationship with the entertainment industry and the incentives that lured it in.

“I think those on strike better think long and hard about whether they think Georgia is a place where those incentives should stay in place,” the commissioner, Bruce Thompson, said in an interview before the Writers Guild of America reached its tentative deal.

But in places like Butts County, home to Jackson, some local officials have been more loath to criticize the strikes.

Michael Brewer, whose job as deputy county manager includes serving as a liaison to the film and television industry, acknowledged the disruption, particularly for consumers. “But I’m also trying to see it from the industry point of view,” he said.

“With inflation, with cost changes, the value of a dollar they made is not the same that it was,” Mr. Brewer added. “A lot of things have changed over the last few years. They have to make sure their rights are protected.”

The climate in Georgia, including its status as a right-to-work state where workers cannot be required to join a union as a condition of employment, has made organizing a challenge and left the writers and actors guilds with a limited footprint. The Writers Guild, which represents more than 11,000 screenwriters, has only a few dozen members in the state.

But many nonunion workers in Georgia’s film industry have expressed solidarity with their striking peers, whose concerns included decreased pay in the streaming era and the threat posed by artificial intelligence, even as they have struggled to make ends meet in recent months. The state typically has dozens of movies and television shows in production, but in recent months, filming has been limited mostly to reality series, like “Hoarders” and “Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta.”

“It’s kind of hard not to be salty about it, but I understand — the strikes needed to happen,” said Liz Bowman, who was a special effects artist for “Stranger Things” before the strikes began and has since been giving tours of locations from the show in Jackson. “I love the film industry, but I feel like sometimes you get these big studios and they forget that they have real people working for them.”

Hannah Thompson opened Hawkins Headquarters, a store on the town square with a “Stranger Things” theme that had been vacant for seven years.Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

The strikes have meant fewer tourists, who prefer to come to Jackson when “Stranger Things” is filming, hoping to see or possibly interact with actors from the show. The infusion of money that comes with production has dried up, taking away the corresponding boost for local businesses or the pay for shutting down stores or using homes for filming.

Jackson took advantage of its farmland and small-town appearance, interstate access and proximity to Atlanta to turn itself into something of a filming destination for movies and television shows. Lake Jackson became a popular location, as did Bucksnort Road, a long, lonely strip of pavement between sprawling fields.

Some in town have capitalized on the “Stranger Things” ties. An escape room attraction opened with the show as its theme. Bradley’s Olde Tavern — the stand-in for the Hawkins movie theater — has special drinks, like Demogorgon Blood (vodka, Dr Pepper, orange soda and grenadine).

The association with one of the hottest shows on television has not been to every resident’s liking; some preferred the relative obscurity of Jackson before “Stranger Things.” The show’s supernatural themes and monsters have not been entirely warmly received in an overwhelmingly Christian community. When the old courthouse was still active, judges did not appreciate the commotion caused by productions and would dispatch the sheriff to quiet them down.

More broadly, there have been clashes between Georgia’s conservative politics and a largely left-leaning industry. In 2019, actors and directors threatened boycotts after state lawmakers approved a bill severely restricting abortion access. And conservative leaders have said the industry is partly to blame for Georgia, once reliably Republican, becoming a swing state where Joseph R. Biden Jr. became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win since 1992.

But in Jackson, there has also been a recognition that the industry has injected vitality into a town that had been languishing. The spot where Hannah Thompson opened Hawkins Headquarters, a store on the town square with a “Stranger Things” theme, had been vacant for seven years.

“It’s like a little bit of life has been breathed back in because of ‘Stranger Things,’” she said.

The TV and film industry, including the production of “Stranger Things,” has injected vitality into Jackson over the years. Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

Even with the turbulence, Ms. Bowman, 29, has felt somewhat lucky, relishing the opportunity to connect with fans of the show from as far away as the Philippines who stop in Jackson for the tour (pizza and snacks included).

“I know a lot of stunt people that are working for GameStop right now because they can’t get jobs,” she said. “I know a lot of camera people who straight up went to go work for Best Buy.”

With the writers’ strike over, there have been encouraging signs. Mr. Brewer said he had gotten inquiries from location scouts after months of silence. Ticket sales for the “Stranger Things” tour have surged, Ms. Thompson said.

They hope that “Stranger Things” will come back sooner rather than later, as the series is planning its final season. Filming was supposed to start in May, right around when the writers’ strike got underway.

Sylvia Redic, Jackson’s city manager, keeps hearing the same question: “When is Season 5?” she said. “And that’s directly affected by the strike.”

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