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March 28, 2012

‘Hunger Games’: North Carolina wants you to visit Panem

Posted in: Movies

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) in a scene from "The Hunger Games," filmed in North Carolina. (Murray Close/Lionsgate)

You’ve read the books — maybe even twice — and now you’ve seen “The Hunger Games” brought to life on the big screen. If that leaves you, well, hungering for more, North Carolina has an offer for you: Come see it for yourself.

Tourism officials here are hoping that the blockbuster, filmed entirely in the Tar Heel State, will spur a new wave of travel by fans eager to see and touch the world of heroine Katniss Everdeen. And it’s helping things along with brochures and a Web campaign touting the Lionsgate film’s locations. Want to see the shanty where Katniss lives? Or the bakery that Peeta Mellark’s family owns? Then visit the Henry River Mill Village outside Charlotte where those scenes were filmed. Or learn survival skills in DuPont State Recreational Forest, where Katniss and her friend Gale Hawthorne hunted for food to keep their families alive.

With U.S. fans shelling out $152.5 million at the box office over the weekend and with 26 million copies of the books in print in the United States alone, officials are optimistic that the futuristic story of a nation under oppressive rule and the bow-and-arrow-toting girl who launches a revolution will be a boon to the state.

“I think tourism to the area will double and triple, based just on the inquiries we’re getting,” said Tammy Hopkins of the Transylvania County Arts Council, which is organizing a “Hunger Games” fan tour at Brevard’s Dupont State Forest, where scenes of the story’s games, in which 24 teenagers must fight to the death, were also filmed.

The abandoned Henry River Mill Village in Hildebran, N.C. For "The Hunger Games," the house on the left was outfitted as Katniss Everdeen's home in the Seam, part of District 12 in fictional Panem. (Margo Metzger/VisitNC.com)

“People are calling my house, all the hotels are calling me, people are emailing” about the locations, Hopkins added. “Just today, I got emails from people in St. Joseph, Mo., and Manhattan, asking if they filmed here.”

It’s not as if North Carolina isn’t already a popular destination. Such attractions as the Smoky Mountains and the Outer Banks have made it the country’s sixth most-visited state, with $17 billion spent by tourists annually. But “The Hunger Games” is something else entirely: a franchise picture with an enormous following — and sequels already on the drawing board — that state officials and business people are hoping will be the gift that keeps on giving.

Because of this, North Carolina has adopted a multi-pronged marketing strategy that relies primarily on social media targeting the film’s core demographic of teens and young adults. The tourism bureau’s website, which offers a special “Hunger Games” page, and what the department is calling “The Hunger Games Experience,” featuring tours, locations, venues and businesses that supported the making of the film, is being promoted on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on a “Hunger Games”-themed Pinterest board.

A German travel ad for North Carolina, pegged to the release of "The Hunger Games." (FTI Touristik)

With its already strong international outreach, North Carolina’s tourism office in Germany is getting in on the promotion, printing more than 50,000 “Hunger Games”-oriented fliers and posters that will be distributed to travel agencies and consumer travel shows. Online promotions are being done in German, and there will be a raffle, with first prize a trip to North Carolina.

“We love international visitors. They stay longer and spend more,” said Wit Tuttell, the state’s director of tourism marketing. “We don’t have the big iconic attraction like Disney World, but the beauty with this [film and promotion] is that it helps establish an identity.”

And while they’re visiting, they can check in to the Hotel Indigo in Asheville, where the film’s stars, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Woody Harrelson, stayed during the shoot.

Film-related tourism is nothing new here. “The Last of the Mohicans” has attracted visitors to the Chimney Rock area in the western part of the state, “Bull Durham” has helped bring tourist money into a city once known primarily for its tobacco industry, and 25 years after it was made, “Dirty Dancing” continues to attract visitors to locations in the Asheville area.

But “The Hunger Games” stands to far eclipse those tourism efforts. In this respect, New Zealand’s experience with tourism for “The Lord of the Rings” and Washington state’s for the “Twilight” series are instructive.

The average annual number of visitors to Forks, Wash., where the story in the “Twilight” films and books is set, had been about 10,000. But in 2008, after the release of the first of the films, that nearly doubled to 19,000, and by 2010 the figure was 73,000.

PHOTOS: ‘Twilight’ saga’s setting in Forks, Wash.

“The fans were very loyal to the place,” said Diane Schostak, executive director of the Olympic Peninsula Visitors Bureau, even though the films weren’t actually shot in Forks. “We think movies being made was fueling interest in the books, and people were coming to Forks.”

Since the first of the “Rings” trilogy of films was released in 2001, the number of global visitors to New Zealand has risen dramatically as well, by 40%, though only a small percentage of this is directly related to the films, tourism officials say. In the tourism business, that’s called “awareness” of the destination, and that’s what North Carolina is aiming for.

What movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Rings” mean “is you’re always spoken about, you become talked about, you need to make sure you work those opportunities very hard,” said Gregg Anderson, general manager of North American efforts for Tourism New Zealand.

To accomplish this, he says, you have to find things like scenery in the film “that will leverage your brand,” look for product opportunities like location tours and use the cast and crew “to tell how positive the experience was working there.”

An old company store, left, at the abandoned Henry River Mill Village served as Peeta Mellark's family bakery, right, in "The Hunger Games." (Margo Metzger/VisitNC.com; Murray Close/Lionsgate)

All those factors seem to be in play here, which is why North Carolina venues and businesses are anticipating a boom.

“I’m expecting a lot of business from it. You can see the location from here, you can point to it,” said Jim Sander of the Pleasant City Wood Fired Grill in Shelby, a small city near Charlotte that was the setting for many of the film’s key scenes. Sander’s restaurant was a favorite hangout for the production’s cast and crew.

“I think a lot of people just want to come out and see places like Triple Falls that were used in the filming,” said David R. Brown, forest supervisor of the DuPont State Forest. “We still have people coming out to see where ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ was filmed, and that was in the ’90s. We have more people than we can handle already.”

– Lewis Beale, reporting from Raleigh, N.C.

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