RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Fans of "The Hunger Games" are already turning up in North Carolina, seeking out places where the movie was shot, from old-growth forests to an abandoned mill town.
And the tourism industry is prepared to cash in on them, with everything from hotel packages and zip lines tours, to re-enactments of scenes from the film and lessons in survival skills.
The movie, which opens this weekend and is expected to be a box office smash, is based on a best-selling book about a post-apocalyptic world where teenagers compete to the death in fighting games.
It was filmed entirely in North Carolina, from the mountains, where fake trees were planted, filled with propane and blown up, to Charlotte, which served as the Capitol from the story — the seat of power where the teens are sent for training.
Also prominently featured in the movie is the Henry River Mill Village near Hildebran, about 70 miles from Asheville, which was the setting for District 12, home of the three main characters, Katniss, Peeta and Gale.
Although the mill burned down in 1977, the 20-plus remaining buildings, including the company store, make it look like a ghost town.
The village is private property, and the local sheriff's department is working with private security guards to keep people away, concerned about liability if someone gets hurt.
But fans are already coming. "I'm getting too many visitors," said the property owner, Wade Shepherd, 83, who hasn't read "The Hunger Games."
"Day and night, they're driving through, taking pictures, getting out and walking. I'm just bombarded with people."
North Carolina's trees also figure prominently in the movie. At first, pine trees tall enough to suit the filmmakers' needs couldn't be found. But Pam Lewis, film commissioner in the western part of the state when Lionsgate, the film company, was scoping out locations, found a 22,000-acre forest of old-growth trees in Asheville's watershed, and that's where the movie's arena scenes were filmed. The public isn't allowed in this protected watershed area, but plenty of other forests are open to visitors.
Filmmakers spent more than $60 million on "The Hunger Games" in North Carolina, and employed about 5,000 people, including stars, extras and crews, making it the largest movie ever made here. Other famous movies filmed in the state include "Dirty Dancing," ''The Last of the Mohicans" and "Bull Durham."
"The Hunger Games" is based on the first book from author Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy. It's about a futuristic world in which North America has been divided into 12 districts. Every year, a teenage boy and girl (known as tributes) are sent from each district to the opulent Capitol, where they're trained to fight until only one is left.
The state Division of Tourism has designed a four-day self-guided tour for fans. The first day includes stops at the Henry River Mill Village plus places where the stars hung out in Asheville. Next is DuPont State Recreational Forest near Brevard, where the arena scenes were filmed, followed by Shelby, where reaping scenes were shot in private warehouse space. A final day in Charlotte includes the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center's Knight Theater, where interview scenes with the teenage "tributes" were filmed.
For more adventurous visitors, a company called Hunger Games Fan Tours offers day and weekend trips to waterfalls and other spots in Transylvania County. As part of the tour, actors re-enact some of the scenes shot there, and guests are served food described in the story. Participants also learn survival skills like archery, camouflage, fire-building, how to use a slingshot and how to walk quietly in the forest. The tour even includes a competition — only instead of the loser dying, the winner gets a prize.
Prices are $79 for the day tour, or $389 for the weekend trip, with an overnight stay and a nighttime zip line tour in homage to the characters who jumped through trees. The tour will take guests to Triple Falls, where the character Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) hides after he's injured, and to the woods around Bridal Veil Falls, where fake trees exploded and the jacket worn by Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) catches fire.
But visitors can't run across Triple Falls like Katniss did in the movie — she was attached to wires and ran on a board. "That's not to be done by human beings," said Tammy Hopkins, co-owner of Hunger Games Fan Tours and director of the county arts council.
Asheville is offering package deals in partnership with local businesses. Promotions include a "Walk Like a Katniss Everdeen" package that combines a stay at Cumberland Falls Bed and Breakfast Inn with hiking at Chimney Rock State Park, and "The Capitol Experience" at Grand Bohemian Hotel, where the biggest adventure is a hot stone massage.
Of all the locations, the Henry River Mill Village has a backstory that's nearly as colorful as the plot of the movie. The mill, which opened in 1905, produced fine yarn. The village was designed as a planned community with company stores, walkways and green spaces. In 1966, a sheriff was shot and killed in the village by a mill worker. By the time Shepherd bought the town, three years after the mill closed, there were Thursday night poker games on the street, "and by Sunday afternoon, they were all drunk and shooting."
Shepherd lives across the river from the town, and says he bought the property "to protect my interests." He doesn't think he could make enough money to make it worth opening a tourist attraction, though he's considering a request to let a tour company bring a group through.
In the meantime, he's put the whole place — 72 acres — up for sale for $1.4 million. Potential buyers wondering about the real life-and-death stories that once unfolded here need only look at the Coca-Cola sign in front of the company store, which has a shotgun hole in it.
"This is better than the movie, isn't it?" asked Shepherd.
If You Go...
HUNGER GAMES IN NORTH CAROLINA: A variety of packages and tours are being offered in locations around the state where the movie was shot. From N.C. Division of Tourism, a four-day self-guided itinerary: http://www.visitnc.com/hungergames . Day and weekend tours in Transylvania County from a private company, http://hungergamesfantours.com. From Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau: http://www.exploreasheville.com/about-asheville/cool-asheville-stories/hunger-games/.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at: http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc