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Big State, Small Screen: An Alaska TV Writer on the Power of Place

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On Sunday, Oct. 14, I'll be catching the season three premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead, the show that has managed to attract a demographically broad viewership and garner critical praise while being about -- of course -- zombies. The finale to season two was the most-watched basic cable drama telecast in history.

Unlike many viewers, what pulled me in wasn't the horror -- I had to be coaxed into caring about the undead after years of zombie flicks -- but rather, the sense of place. From the first episode, we are immersed in urban and rural Georgia. The humidity, the ambiance, the grittiness, and the non-L.A. look hooked me even before I got to know all of the characters or the long-arc plot.

The Walking Dead might not have been filmed in Georgia if the state wasn't so generous in return. Georgia tops the list of non-California states that have recently managed to attract TV film crews, to the tune of 36 shows spending $617 million production dollars. It's one of about forty states fighting to lure feature films and TV shows, using increasing incentives in what has been called an "incentives arm race."

Film and television production incentives offered by states climbed from $1 million in 2001 to approximately $1.3 billion in 2011. Every state wants to be the next Georgia, and states without a program have become as undesirable as an airline without a frequent flier program.

My own home state, Alaska, just renewed its 10-year film incentive program, one of the most generous in the country, supplying up to 44 percent of qualified expenditures to production companies in the form of a transferable tax credit.

Alaska is a top destination for reality programming (Deadliest Catch, one season of Ice Road Truckers) and the film scene has been heating up here. In November, the latest filmed-in-AK movie, Frozen Ground, a frightening based-on-true-events drama about a serial killer hunting strippers, starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack, will premiere.

But what we have not been able to bag -- despite incredible scenery, tons of story potential, and twenty hours of film-able natural light in summer -- is a scripted, episodic TV series.

Remember Northern Exposure, which ran for 110 episodes from 1990 to 1995? Filmed in Roslyn, Wash.

Seventeen years later, we're still waiting for our turn at the ball.

Well, not just waiting. Some of us are doing something about it. I'm part of a five-writer collaborative called "The Alaska Pilot Project" working full-time to develop TV scripts and concepts for stories set in Alaska.

Television shows are most often invented in rooms in Los Angeles, by staffers who have worked for years on other television shows. Breaking in from the outside -- and especially, from 3,000 miles away -- is a long shot. But we Alaskans live in a state of long shots and unexpected opportunities, like getting a big chunk of cold land from Russia, cheap. We're all gold panners here, willing to stand in freezing water for a while in the hope of a bonanza.

We'd love for any city or town in Alaska to be the next Albuquerque (location for one of my favorite shows, Breaking Bad), or Baltimore (The Wire), or New Orleans (Treme), to name three locations and shows that have been symbiotically, authentically successful.

And we're writing the material to prove that great characters and story ideas -- in addition to salmon and grizzly bears -- live here.

I'd personally like to believe that TV viewers get as much of a kick out of an accurate and atmospheric, real (non-L.A.) setting as foodies get from eating nourishing, locally sourced food. It's possible that a movement is heading in that direction, enhanced by the boom in state incentives programs. It's equally possible that this was just a decadal oddity, and that -- especially given most states' needs to belt-tighten -- the trend could decline.

What are your favorite set-and-filmed-beyond-L.A. shows?

Is your state's film incentives program on the chopping block or powering up?

Will you be noticing the Georgia landscape in Walking Dead, or just looking for the splatter?