Georgia film production action picks up as COVID intermission wraps up

Gov. Brian Kemp greeted friends with an elbow bump at a March celebration of the Georgia film industry at the Capitol days before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on Georgia businesses, including film studios. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Update: This post was edited at noon on Oct. 27 to clarify that the estimated number of productions and economic impact of the film industry in Georgia came from the Motion Picture Association.

Actor Gloria Bishop of Decatur is back on the job after seven months off work. She walked off set March 13, the day before Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health state of emergency, and didn’t return to work until Sept. 30.

“There are hiccups where somebody will test positive and they have to step down for however long it is and remove the people that were in the proximity of the person that tested positive, and everybody has to get their two rounds of negative tests,” she said.

“But it is what it is, and we’re trying to be safe, and we’re trying to be healthy, and I would rather go through those precautions, I would rather wear a mask than not work.”

For many of Georgia’s film workers like Bishop, jobs dried up overnight when COVID-19 cases publicly appeared in the state, prompting business shutdowns and stay-home orders.

“It did drop off very quickly, and the state didn’t actually formally shut it down, but certainly the productions decided that it was risky,” said Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment office at the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “There were a couple that kind of scrambled to finish up if they had one or two days left, get them in the can before they broke, but we had an awful lot of projects that were in pre-production. We had some that never got done, and then they came back recently, and they were the first ones out of the gate.”

Direct spending from film and TV production in Georgia fell to $2.2 billion in the 2020 fiscal year that ended June 30, down from a record $2.9 billion in the previous year.

By May, the state had put together an early plan for reopening with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Georgia Department of Public Health and feedback from major studios, Thomas said.

In June, Kemp declared film and TV production open for business in the state, joining with the six members of the Motion Picture Association to announce plans to bring back and hire an estimated 40,000 production workers, to work on 75 productions and pump more than $2 billion into the Georgia economy over the following 18 months.

“The entertainment production industry is coming back and ready to jumpstart the Georgia economy by creating jobs and generating greatly needed investment and spending in communities across the Peach State,” Kemp said.

Thomas said she would not be surprised if the Motion Picture Association’s estimate ends up too low. As of Friday, there are 27 films and television series in production in Georgia.

“I think we’re going to have a great year,” Thomas said. “These projects, they’re in various stages of production, and some of their paperwork we have, so we kind of have an idea of what’s happening, some others we may not have, but through talking with people about how many people have holds on their stages, how many people have second and third holds, I think it’s going to be a very good year, and there’s no reason to think that we’re not going to beat last year this year. I don’t think that’s going to be any problem.”

Studios

Georgia’s studios are banking on filmmakers returning to the state.

Earlier this month, Fayette County’s Pinewood Atlanta Studios, with credits that include Marvel blockbusters like “Avengers: Endgame” and “Captain America: Civil War,” announced it is rebranding as Trilith Studios and expanding its campus to a 935-acre mixed-use development including the studio’s 1,400 homes and more than 60 on-site businesses.

Beth Talbert, vice president of studio operations at Eagle Rock Studio in Atlanta, said she’s keeping very busy too.

“I actually started getting calls in April, May and June about new productions that they wanted to get started as soon as the pandemic was over and they could go back into production. So I’m relatively certain that my facilities are going to be full for 2021, and I’m even getting inquiries for next year at this time, which is very unusual, that never happens.”

One major attraction drawing filmmakers to the state is its 2005 tax incentive program. Under it, film, television and digital entertainment companies can receive up to a 30% tax credit if they spend $500,000 or more in Georgia and include a Peach logo in their work.

State auditors challenged the tax credit program’s return on investment in a January report. An analysis found it was generating less economic impact than supporters suggested and that millions of dollars in tax credits were improperly claimed for projects that did not originate in Georgia or for expenses that were not related to production.

And support for the tax credit softened among some state lawmakers when the COVID-19 shutdowns cratered state revenues prompted lawmakers to consider steep budget cuts in June, including $1 billion to public education. Film tax credits drain the state budget of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

New restrictions are set to go into place in January that will increase the scrutiny on production companies looking to take advantage of the tax credit. In fact, Kemp hosted a film-friendly crowd at the Capitol March 12 to celebrate the state’s return on the tax credit just days before the pandemic upended daily life.

Talbert said she thinks the tax break is popular enough with lawmakers that it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.

“There’s always a worry that it might go away someday, but I don’t see that happening anytime in the near future, based on our conversations with people at the Capitol and the support that we feel like we have from our representatives,” Talbert said.

“It’s been proven in other areas of the country, Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina, once their tax incentives went away, their business went away,” she added.

The looming increased scrutiny may also reduce criticism of the credit, Thomas said.

“It’s going to be a welcome change,” she said. “I think everybody wants to make sure that this program is sustainable. So I think they’re happy to see these changes made.”

It is also easier for filmmakers to get work done in Georgia during the pandemic than in other states, Talbert said.

Georgia has less stringent coronavirus-related requirements to reopen than places like New York and Los Angeles.

“They haven’t been able to open up as easily as Georgia has, because we don’t have as many regulations in place for what can and can’t happen in the state,” she said. “That’s why we’re recovering earlier and that’s why Hollywood is coming here, because it’s a place that they know that they can come here and safely work and not be hindered by restrictions.”

Hollywood’s unions, including SAG-AFTRA, the Directors Guild of America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have signed an agreement with major film studios on safety protocols for restarting production, including frequent testing for workers.

Eagle Rock has made changes to improve safety, Talbert said, including a new Ultra Violet filtration system for the air conditioning and hand sanitizing stations around the studio.

Testing

Atlanta’s Tyler Perry Studios was one of the first production companies in the country to reopen, shooting complete seasons of multiple TV shows over the course of a few weeks in the summer.

Perry, the director of the Madea series of films, tested cast and crew before flying them into Atlanta on private jets and sequestering them in private rooms until their results came back. Crew members were not allowed to leave for 14 days and received multiple tests. Masks and social distancing were required. Some of the cast and crew tested positive on arrival, but the bubble Perry created appears to have prevented the disease from spreading at the studios.

Other studios are employing similar testing requirements, and testing capacity and speed have increased since the summer.

For workers like Bishop, COVID-19 testing, or as she calls it, the nasal invasion, has become a part of life.

Actors can get paid for their time if they are testing for a job, but the testing regimens companies require can make it harder to book jobs in advance, she said. An actor might be required to test negative on Monday before a gig Wednesday, which means they will not be able to work Monday or Tuesday.

“It’s just a scheduling conflict,” Bishop said. “Some of the productions, you have to test multiple times if you work more than one day for that production. So it’s a juggling act, and people have to turn down jobs because they can’t make a COVID test because they’re already working on another production that day, so they can’t work another production later that week because they can’t make the test.”

Often, background actors need to take another rapid test before they are admitted to the set because a positive test would require an expensive work suspension.

And once the cast and crew are on set, things look radically different, Bishop said. Everyone is masked and socially distanced except actors on set, Bishop said.

“Before, we could sit and eat food and drink our water or soda or coffee, but now we have to keep them on constantly,” she said. “The crew has to wear their masks, and they have to wear a face shield, and someone comes around and they will have hand sanitizer so you can sanitize between takes.”

Bishop credits the new rules with helping her feel safe on set. And more than anything else, she’s happy to get back to the job she loves.

“As an adult, you get to play pretend and dress up and get to be somebody else for the day, and you get paid for it. You get to forget about whatever else is going on in the world for that day,” she said.

“If you can’t laugh and joke about it, then why are you in the business?” she added. “You learn to recognize your friends by just their eyes. But it’s what you make of it. If we all just adhere to the rules and regulations and just wear your mask, then you know what, we’ll get back to normal.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.