Film production in Georgia will return — but feel very different.
After more than 40 years as an actor, Sheri Mann Stewart had finally taken the plunge to launch her own production company. A week after she wrapped shooting her first film for Mann Woman Productions, Atlanta went on pandemic lockdown.
Mann Stewart was suddenly left with a film on hold, an audition on hold, and the careers of her husband and two sons — all performers — on hold. Instead of ushering her first film — prophetically inspired by John Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” — through editing and post-production, she spends several hours each day on the phone trying to iron out issues with unemployment benefits that she has yet to receive.
“Nothing like this has ever happened,” said Mann Stewart an Atlanta native who most recently appeared in Tyler Perry’s Netflix feature film “A Fall from Grace.” “I think, one way or another, our industry will be changed.”
Like many other industries, the film and TV business has been shut down since mid-March, with only a few exceptions such as late-night talk shows and virtual versions of “American Idol” and “The Voice.” With plenty of content currently in the pipeline, streaming services and television networks have managed so far, but if production doesn’t restart soon, viewers will face a major drought of new shows to watch this fall.
Pressure is building to get production started as soon as possible, but the natural intimacy of a typical set with makeup artists, camera operators, producers, actors and production assistants constantly crossing paths, makes creating proper protocols a serious challenge.
“People are anxious to get back to work,” said Mark Wofford, general manager at Atlanta-based Production Consultants & Equipment, which provides motion-picture rental equipment. “But this has to be weighed against the need to make sure everyone is safe. It’s going to be a real balancing act.”
Georgia has become a major player in Hollywood production, courtesy of generous tax credits to film and TV production companies passed in 2008. It’s now the third-largest state for such content after California and New York. As the only state with no cap on its credits, Georgia has drawn big-budget films such as “Black Panther” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
Despite Hollywood’s liberal leanings — some in the industry called for boycotts after Georgia’s 2016 religious liberty bill and 2019 heartbeat abortion bill — the Republican-led state legislature and three Republican governors have consistently embraced the tax credit system. At the recent Georgia Film Day on March 11, Gov. Brian Kemp spoke before 200 industry supporters in the state Capitol atrium, extolling the $2.9 billion in direct investment and 50,000-plus jobs the business brought into the state last fiscal year. Weeks later, Kemp would issue a statewide shelter-in-place order.
In May, the Georgia Film Office released a set of nonbinding best practices for film and television productions to consider during the pandemic. The guidelines included holding remote auditions and virtual location scouting as well as reducing the number of extras used on set and placing clear barriers between actors to be removed just before the director yells “Action!”
Local studios are preparing to reopen this summer as they await multiple unions to accept unified protocols. Earlier this month, a task force composed of the various unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, sent approved health and safety guidelines to governors in California and New York with plans for final protocols to follow soon. “This document is an initial set of principles and guidelines that we all agree form a relevant and realistic first step to protecting cast and crew in the reopening of the entertainment and media industry in its two largest markets,” said a joint statement from unions, including the Teamsters, the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA. Face masks for live audiences, staggered mealtimes with no buffet-style setups, and daily screenings for COVID-19 along with a designated COVID-19 compliance officer, were among the recommended guidelines.
Studios have already begun to make big investments in COVID-19 friendly infrastructure. Since March, two of the largest studios in the metro area — Pinewood Studios in Fayetteville and Blackhall Studios in Atlanta — have each invested more than $1 million to retrofit their studios. One of the biggest costs: improving the HVAC systems on their sound stages and offices so they are comparable to that of hospitals in order to reduce the chances of airborne transmission of viruses. Major film and television productions can easily have hundreds of staff members working in tight indoor quarters, creating the kind of environment that public health officials have noted can increase the spread of COVID-19.
“I’ve had to become an expert in viral containment,” said Ryan Millsap, owner of Blackhall Studios. “Until March, I hadn’t given it a second thought. This is a big moment in our generation where disease has come to the forefront.”
Atlanta-based makeup artist Tracy Ewell has seen a virus or cold spread like fire on almost every production on which she has worked. She started toting a personal air filter to set up in the trailers and tents where she and her team spend hours getting actors camera ready. ”I am paid to be hygienic,” Ewell said. “I take full responsibility for my actor’s condition, but masks don’t work in my world.”
Ewell, who has worked as a department head on productions for Marvel and the Netflix drama “Ozark,” is not afraid of returning to set, but she knows that is a decision everyone will have to make for themselves. The initial industry guidelines for makeup artists included providing more time to allow for safety measures to be followed, but additional protocols need to be established before that kind of work can continue. “I would be comfortable having fewer people on set in my department if I knew they were going to have the time,” Ewell said. But more time means more money, and studios now have to make big investments at a time when they’ve posted big losses.
Just before the pandemic shut down productions nationwide, HBO finished its upcoming J.J. Abrams drama, “Lovecraft Country,” and Paramount wrapped Chris Pratt military science fiction movie “The Tomorrow War” at Blackhall. Millsap was about to sign with two other major studios for new productions when COVID-19 put the kibosh on that.
Since then, Millsap has generated zero revenue, shedding more than $1 million a month while keeping his 12 full-time employees on payroll. He said he has had enough money in the bank to keep his studio afloat but would be challenged if shows didn’t begin shooting by the fourth quarter. If all goes well, two major studios will begin pre-production at Blackhall in July with potential full-blown production by August or September, he said.
Frank Patterson, the head of Pinewood Atlanta Studios, said they have had to study every aspect of their business, from more limited security access to more sequestered work pods, dividing the studio into zones. They also hired a medical testing company, BioIQ, to handle the anticipated flood of COVID-19 tests they plan to use on a daily basis. “Some days, we’ll have 6,000 people on the lot,” he said.
The past couple of months have been “overwhelmingly stressful because I’m working with people I’ve known for decades,” Patterson added. “These are people I grew up within the industry. We have to make certain nobody gets sick. At the same time, these are friends who haven’t worked for months and have families to feed. We need to get this done now.”
Atlanta-based Tyler Perry Studios was the first in the country to announce detailed plans to shoot two of his BET television series in July. Perry has some advantages most other studios do not. He owns 330 acres of a former Army base and has at least 80 residences on the property which will enable him to more easily isolate crew and actors. He writes and directs his own TV series in a way that will enable him to finish shooting an entire season in less than three weeks. He has developed protocols to test everybody multiple times with contingencies in case anybody gets COVID-19. He has scaled back on-site crew and extras and is using his largest sound stage as a cafeteria with proper social distancing.
“It’s an enormous undertaking and an enormous cost to the budget,” Perry told Variety last month.
Mann Stewart had just been called for an audition for a Perry television production before the studio closed. She is unsure if that opportunity still stands but has continued with other auditions, including a recent commercial audition that came through in late May. Still, it is never far from her mind how so many aspects of the industry must change.
While writing a script for a play, she found herself debating if she really needed the characters to have a physical interaction.
“I try not to let it impact me and say I can fix it later but…,” said Mann Stewart, her thought left trailing.
Some studios are already pondering creative solutions to those kinds of concerns. As soon as the pandemic hit, executives at Atlanta-based Crazy Legs Productions created an advisory council of five medical experts to help them draw up 25 pages of safety guidelines. Last month, they began compiling a database of local actors who are in relationships with other actors. “We can cast a husband and wife as a husband and wife,” said Scott Thigpen, chief operating officer. “It’s a way to mitigate risk.” They are also considering using family members as extras.
The company, which launched in 2006 and now has 34 salaried employees, produces docuseries for TLC such as “Family by the Ton” and crime shows for ID, like “Dead Silent. ” They also began shooting films for the first time this year.
Industry insiders are confident productions in Georgia will bounce back quickly and fill sound stages as a backlog of content gets filled.
After months spent keeping their skills sharp and in some cases, auditioning via Zoom, actors across metro Atlanta are ready to get back to work, said Clayton Landey, president of SAG-AFTRA Atlanta local. He hopes summer marks that return but said the proper precautions are needed. Landey, a 48-year industry veteran, recalled a scene years ago when his character was being hit with a bullet. Everyone else on the set was standing behind safety glass. “I feel a little like that now,” Landey said. “I am interested to see what is going to be the new normal in terms of safety on set.”
The pandemic ended a theater run for Landey and stalled a film, which no longer has a date to begin production, but he has spent the past three months staying connected to other actors through virtual chats and meetups. Landey worries about the actors who may be suffering mentally while isolated from the career that allows them to channel their emotions into their work. Though acting is a field that prepares you for career ups and downs, this is unlike anything they have seen before, he said.
“Nothing in our industry touches what we are going through now. Typically when there are times of stress or hard times in the general population, we are working like crazy because entertainment is what gets you through the day,” Landey said. “This time, it is slapping us all.”