News Column

'Walking Dead' producer talks zombie apocalypse at UGA

September 25, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 25--The AMC series "Walking Dead" will have legs as long as people keep watching, an executive producer of the record-setting cable television series told a University of Georgia audience Tuesday.

Some series have to end when their creators decide to try new things -- like another popular AMC series, "Mad Men," which is scheduled to end in 2015.

But comic book artist Robert Kirkman, on whose work the series is based, has produced more than 130 comic books and has ideas for about 250, "Walking Dead" executive producer Gale Anne Hurd told a mostly student audience of nearly 200 people Tuesday in UGA's Russell Research Library. Hurd was in Athens to receive an award from DiGamma Kappa, UGA's student broadcasting society.

"As long as the audience is watching we will keep showing it," she told the audience, many of them dedicated fans of the 3-year-old series.

Set in Atlanta after a zombie apocalypse, the award-winning show is by some measures the most popular cable TV drama ever; its third-season finale attracted a record 12.4 million viewers.

Hurd, 57, talked more to her young audience about TV and movie production and making it in the video entertainment world than about zombies, however.

She got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year, two years into "Walking Dead," but even before then Hurd was "The First Lady of SciFi," said UGA telecommunications professor Nate Kohn, who interviewed Hurd before opening the floor to audience questions.

Hurd was producer and co-writer of "The Terminator" and the producer of "Alien," among other familiar movie titles. She learned her trade working for legendary producer and director Roger Corman, whose low-budget cult classics include "Piranha," "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Death Race 2000."

"I learned everything about producing from Roger," Hurd said.

She started out as a production assistant whose tasks at one time included emptying a motor home toilet. But by starting from the bottom she learned all aspects of movie and TV production, said Hurd, now part of a team that makes what she calls a mini-movie every eight days for "Walking Dead."

She heaped praise on her employer, the AMC cable network, and a corporate culture that leads it to stick with shows, embrace new ideas and try new approaches, such as using Twitter and other social media to engage with viewers, and to radically change the way it schedules and presents shows. New viewers can catch up quickly on what's going on through Netflix, for example, or by watching a marathon broadcast of "Walking Dead" episodes.

"AMC previewed what's called 'binge viewing," she said.

The producers chose to film the series in the Atlanta area for two reasons, she said.

One is that Atlanta is important in the original comic book; survivors of the zombie apocalypse make their way to Atlanta because they've heard the city's federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found a cure.

But they're also filming in Atlanta because it's relatively inexpensive, said Hurd, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University.

"If there hadn't been a tax incentive, we would have shot somewhere else," she said.

Feature films today tend to rely heavily on action and special effects, while TV offers more of an opportunity for character development stories, she said.

"One of the reasons I'm in television now is that you get to create what I think are 16 hours of character-driven stories in half the time it would take you to make a feature film," she said.

Her advice to students looking to make it in the media business was mainly to work hard.

The fastest way to fail is "not to do your homework, or not be prepared when you have an opportunity -- or because you have a diploma, to think you're too good to do something," she said. "I think it's even more important for women to do their homework and be prepared, but it's important for everyone."

Years ago, she cried once while emptying that motor home toilet, and thought about classmates who were on the fast track to success as doctors or in other fields. "But then I thought, 'Other than these moments, I'm having the best possible time. I'm doing what I never believed I would have the opportunity to do,'" she recalled .

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Follow education reporter Lee Shearer at www.facebook.com/LeeShearerABH or https://twitter.com/LeeShearer.

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(c)2013 Athens Banner-Herald (Athens, Ga.)

Visit the Athens Banner-Herald (Athens, Ga.) at www.onlineathens.com

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