From Shutdown to Show Time

Georgia’s film industry bounces back.
Georgia Trend May 2021 Shutdown To Showtime Craig Heyl
Coordinated Efforts: Craig Heyl, COO and executive in charge of production at Trilith Studios Credit: Ben Rollins

If the state’s economy in general recovers anything like Georgia’s film industry has, we’ll be in for a big boom.

Coming off a record 2019 – when 391 film and television productions spent $2.9 billion shooting in Georgia – it all evaporated in one week as production after production shut down to avoid COVID. Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office at the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD), remembers celebrating those record-breaking numbers at the annual “film day” at the Capitol on March 11, 2020. “That was a Tuesday,” she says. “And then by that Friday, we were done.”

Atlanta’s big three studios – Trilith (formerly Pinewood Atlanta), Tyler Perry and Blackhall – became ghost towns. Productions stopped so quickly that sets and equipment were still in place, so Craig Heyl, COO and executive in charge of production at Trilith, notes that the studio couldn’t shut its doors completely. “Nobody really knew how to respond to this, so we were all going at [it] the best way we could,” he says.

In Savannah, which lacks a soundstage but is such a popular location shoot for movies and TV series that it had a record year in 2019, streets emptied of casts and crews.

Very quickly, teams at each of the studios started planning for how to get back up and running. Working with the various entertainment unions, and helped by state leaders and agencies that proposed and coordinated guidelines for safety but didn’t issue mandates, they propelled Georgia back to the top of the film world.

Savannah’s streets hosted location shoots starting in August with the first of three independent movies. Black Label Media’s feature film Devotion, about a pair of Navy fighter pilots during the Korean War, returned to production in February 2021.

Although there are other big threats out there, like a proposed entertainment boycott of the state to protest recent changes to Georgia’s election laws, it won’t be COVID that shuts things down.

“Now we’re just ripping,” says Blackhall’s  former Chair and CEO Ryan Millsap. “The industry has figured out how to deal with COVID really well.”

Bubbles and Zones

For Tyler Perry, the answer was to create a bubble dubbed “Camp Quarantine.” The movie and TV mogul managed to film an entire new season of Sistas in July without a single positive test for COVID-19. Sistas was one of the first shows to go back into production anywhere, and the setup worked so well that the studio then went straight into production with The Oval’s new season.

Perry and his team worked with infectious disease experts including physicians Carlos del Rio and Colleen Kraft at the Emory University School of Medicine as well as CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta to create a 30-page plan. Cast and a reduced crew were tested and quarantined at home, flown to Atlanta on private planes and then tested again upon arrival at the studio. Once they were on the campus they stayed there, 24/7, for two weeks in newly built quarters (thus the “Camp Quarantine” name). Everyone was tested every four days and wore masks except when filming scenes – Perry included. Two COVID compliance officers made sure everyone adhered to the guidelines.

The calendar in Heyl’s office at Trilith Studios still shows March 2020 – with a big red “X” – even though it’s a year later. Although the major studios and unions were all rumored to be crafting back-to-work plans shortly after shutdown (multi-union guidelines were released in June), Heyl and Frank Patterson, Trilith’s president and CEO, figured an independent studio with many different clients using its facilities needed its own plan. Plus, they were just about to launch the rebranding from Pinewood to Trilith when the pandemic struck.

Heyl says their plan was designed around four key areas. “No. 1 was how we were going to take care of our own team,” he says. That included plans for remote work where feasible, and testing and check-in protocols for people who came to the campus. The other priorities were studio access and lot management, facility improvements like upgrading air quality and sanitation, and on-lot protocols for how production companies would work on the campus.

“We developed methods for zoning the lots into different productions to keep the groups separated into their own quarantined areas,” Heyl says. “We worked on all-new security protocols for how you get on and off the lot. … We have nearly 3,000 production personnel on the lot at any given time. So managing how people come and go under the new COVID work protocols was critical.” So was working with all the productions – whose unions, guilds and trade associations might have different practices – to coordinate efforts and “not necessarily standardize, but make sure everybody understood what the other team was doing.”

Trilith also installed an air system made by Synexis, which uses a high-tech method to reduce microbes in the air and on surfaces. It was a substantial investment, but Heyl says it made their studio partners much more comfortable. “Our teams work in very large numbers,” he says. “Lots of people in very small spaces. … We [wanted to] make the work environments as safe as they could be.”

Like Tyler Perry Studios, testing was key at Trilith. The studio launched its testing program with BioIQ, an Atlanta medical testing company, and expanded to three testing vendors as the lots filled back up.

Production started again June 8, according to Heyl, and Trilith has been at full capacity since August. “We ended up being the first studio in North America that had a feature film up and running last year,” he says.

Millsap says that when the industry figured out how to resume production safely, “then they needed a place that was willing to let them exercise that discretion and Georgia was really the place to do that. We got such a big head start [over London, L.A. and New York].” Blackhall – which, like Trilith, is expanding – is booked for the next 18 months.

Demand for content has never been higher, Thomas notes, as people turned to streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ during the pandemic. GDEcD released best practices for return to work in May; Thomas says the department knew the unions would come up with mandates, but that GDEcD’s best practices were the first released in the U.S. for the industry. It was a way of letting production companies know “that we would be ready when they were,” she says. “I do think the fact that we opened up and let them self-regulate [sped up the return]. They have very stringent sanitation, zoning, testing – they’re testing at under 1% positivity rates. So it does seem to be working.”

“Here in Georgia, we have worked together to figure out how to get our soundstages open again,” says Jeffrey Stepakoff, executive director of the Georgia Film Academy (GFA). The academy, created as a collaboration between the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia to educate and train people to work in the state’s film industry, crafted an online COVID compliance course available to productions at no cost. Stepakoff says it’s been an incentive to get productions going again in the state. “I talked to a production in Columbus [where] instead of the producer spending … tens of thousands of dollars to get everybody trained, he’s offered the COVID compliance course to cast and crew to get everybody up and running,” he says. About 20,000 people had taken the course as of February.

Content on Demand

If you binge-watched the Ozark TV series or waited impatiently for the latest episode of WandaVision to drop, congratulations – you helped the state economy. You may also have pushed Georgia toward its next step in growing the film industry here: becoming the place where movies and shows get written (and funded), as well as filmed.

“We’re No. 3 in the country for film and television – No. 5 in the world,” says Stepakoff. “No. 1 for major motion film. And we don’t have any writers’ rooms here.” But that’s likely to change. Trilith is investing in content creation, the GFA has launched a new masters of fine arts (MFA) program in film, television and digital media at the University of Georgia. Even Tyler Perry Studios – where Perry famously has written everything himself – has said it’s now working with “young, up-and-coming filmmakers and new writers.”

Trilith’s new name actually incorporates its goal to create content – the word refers to three large stones (think Stonehenge) and Heyl says the studio has three pillars of business: its facilities, technology (like virtual production, which combines computer graphics and live action in real time) and content creation. “We have a couple of companies that roll up under Trilith Studios that are in the content creation business,” he says. “We love the business we get from our clients that rent our stages, but we’re also generating and building content ourselves. … We plan to have that as a very significant part of our business going forward.” Second-year students from the MFA program will spend time in residence at Trilith, too.

The Georgia film tax credit, which has been instrumental to bringing productions to the state, can also be used for content creation, says Stepakoff. Estimating that a TV writing staff accounts for about 10% of a show’s budget, he says that can be a significant advantage. “Georgia is the only state doing this,” he says.

Having that kind of talent will draw financing and investment, helping Georgia to truly compete with New York and L.A. “Once we have talent here, the agencies come, the financing comes, post-production – the whole ecosystem,” Stepakoff says.

Savannah has a different wish: a purpose-built soundstage, so the city can become a true home for productions, like Atlanta is now. Savannah is a draw because production companies can take advantage of a local incentive provided by the Savannah Economic Development Authority, in addition to the state tax credit. The city’s diverse looks are great for location shoots, says Beth Nelson, executive director of the Savannah Regional Film Commission. “We’ve doubled as Florida, New York, even London and Southeast Asia,” she says.

Now, she says, “We need a stage. That is really our missing piece.” A studio like that would lure TV series that want to reuse their sets season after season. State and city leaders are considering a plan that would turn Georgia Tech’s Savannah campus into a studio and relocate classes.

The coastal city should have plenty of talent ready to fill the needs of any studio. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) already has degree programs nurturing future directors, designers, actors and animators. Now it’s building a Hollywood-style film backlot and two virtual production stages (called XR stages), one in Savannah and one in Atlanta, to give students even more opportunities for training. Phase one of the backlot, which will feature a scene from the city’s famous historic district plus urban and suburban backdrops, opens this fall, as does the Savannah XR stage. The Atlanta stage opens in 2022.

Nelson, Stepakoff and Thomas all emphasize the workforce component of the industry. Thomas recalls way back in 1995 her office used to say they were “two deep,” industry jargon for being able to support two medium-sized shows with crews. “Now we have 59 projects filming at the same time,” she says.

“It’s about money and jobs and economic impact,” says Nelson, and not the glamor of the red carpet or celebrity spotting. Although that has its place, too – just ask Cherokee County, which recently released a “Filmed in Cherokee” mobile app that lets users tour some of their favorite film locations. In Georgia, it seems, everyone can be part of the show.

Moving Above the Line

The state’s tax credit drew production companies to Georgia, but at first they had to import crews. Georgia lacked a stable workforce trained in the film industry. That’s why Jeffrey Stepakoff, executive director of the Georgia Film Academy, himself a film and TV writer and producer, defines the Georgia Film Academy (GFA) the way he does: “We’re a state workforce program,” he says. Launched in 2015, the GFA is a collaboration between the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia to meet the needs of production companies.

At first students trained for “below-the-line” positions – crew roles in lighting, hair and makeup, electrical and camera operations, for example. “We’re teaching them how to make movies,” Stepakoff says. The GFA has registered almost 10,000 students in the past five years.

Now it’s teaching them how to write scripts – moving “above the line” to train those who shape the creative development of a film or series. That’s the next step in establishing the “full, complete industry” here, says Stepakoff. The GFA is also developing programs in gaming and esports and recently launched one in production accounting.

“We’re called the Georgia Film Academy, but in many ways we’re an entertainment arts conservatory workforce program,” Stepakoff says, noting that the Motion Picture Association of America calls the GFA the “gold standard” in film and TV production workforce training. “I think we should be a point of pride for all Georgians.”

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