Canadian studio operators have been watching the growing Hollywood backlash against Georgia’s restrictive voting laws and are betting the major studios will soon bow to pressure and shift production out of Atlanta.
Paul Bronfman, CEO of Comweb Corp. and chair of Pinewood Toronto Studios, says supporting calls for a production boycott over the Georgia situation is about morality, not competing jurisdictions for Hollywood production.
“It’s not that Atlanta is a direct competitor to Canada. There’s a bigger point here. It’s morality and the right of people to exercise their democratic vote. And what’s going on in Georgia, and spreading, is anti-democratic and it’s anti-everything we stand for. So I would be very disappointed if the major studios continue to go to Atlanta and try to hide under the table. That state should be blacklisted,” Bronfman told The Hollywood Reporter.
Passed by a Republican legislature and signed into law by a Republican governor, the new voting law has been heavily criticized by observers as being overly restrictive — it curtails the use of dropboxes, enacts strict new ID requirements for absentee ballots, makes giving water and food to those waiting in line a crime — and targets the state’s Black populations. Antoine Fuqua and Will Smith have withdrawn production of their slave drama Emancipation from Georgia, becoming the first major project to leave the Peach State because of the new discriminatory laws.
While calls for a boycott grow, Alex Godfrey, vp of studios at William F. White International, a Canadian studio operator and production equipment rental giant, sees Georgia’s generous production tax incentives serving as a magnet to keep local producers like The CW, Marvel, Netflix and HBO Max in Atlanta.
But Godfrey recalls two years ago when Hollywood production shifted to Canada in the wake of Georgia’s “heartbeat” abortion bill, which was eventually struck down by a federal judge, and before that when concerns were raised over that state’s anti-LGBTQ adoption legislation.
“At the end of the day, time and again, the producers down south have proved it’s all about the bottom line, until the bottom line become too morally expensive. Then they look elsewhere,” Godfrey told THR. And sparking that production withdrawal from Georgia is increasingly major A-list talent on studio and streamer projects raising concerns and opposition.
“It’s a force play, because talent are now becoming very moral and are rightfully able to stand up and sway production elsewhere,” Godfrey added. Canada’s draw for Hollywood producers as they possibly eye alternative jurisdictions remains the availability of studio space countrywide, and the ability of production hubs in Toronto and Vancouver to continue to remain in quarantine bubbles amid a third wave of coronavirus infections and stay-at-home orders.
And here a faster COVID-19 vaccination rollout in the U.S. and infection rates in Canada edging closer to levels south of the border threaten to rework Hollywood’s pandemic-era calculations. “The tables have turned because the U.S. rollout of vaccine has been readily available for everyone. So they (Hollywood) see an end in sight to the pandemic. They’re banking on that,” Godfrey said.
Extra and stringent measures are being introduced north of the border to ensure major Hollywood studios and streamers can keep safely shooting movies and TV series on bubble-wrapped film and TV sets. That includes rolling out rapid COVID testing via antigen screening to complement lab-based PCR tests that are still the norm on Canadian film and TV sets.
Dr. Peter Blecher, chief health officer at FH Health, has worked closely with Netflix Canada and Amazon Prime to accompany continuing lab-based COVID testing with rapid antigen screening on site for productions by Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other major U.S. producers. “We have now helped many different productions from many studios to not only stay safe, but we’ve helped avert an outbreak of micro-clusters that we identified early,” Blecher told THR.
He adds turnaround times for PCR tests, which requires a deep nasal swab of crews, creatives and talent, include same day service as swabs are collected in the morning and results come back before midnight so producers can make quick decisions on next-day staffing of their film sets.
And while the rapid antigen tests, which are done on a film set and return results in around 20 minutes, are not as sensitive as lab-based PCR tests, they can be effective in identifying infections across a production with hundreds of crew members and talent. “The PCR tests are the gold standard,” Blecher insisted.
“But on the day of shooting, everyone gets a rapid antigen test as well,” he adds. For U.S. producers, the mix of COVID testing regimens remains a logistical challenge when you have red zones and green zones to ensure social distancing, especially on projects with many extras moving around set, and trained nurses and paramedics taking hundreds of swabs for COVID tests each day.
“It’s tough to do, but the industry has responded in a responsible and comprehensive way,” says J. Miles Dale, the Oscar-winning producer on The Shape of Water. He also produced Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, which had Walt Disney purchasing expensive machines to do antigen screening on the Toronto set, in addition to lab-based PCR tests.
“We wanted to know very quickly about test results,” Dale recalled as the turnaround time for PCR test results from private labs occasionally stretched to as much as 72 hours when they had to meet competing test processing demand from public health authorities.
“We did quite a bit of rapid (tests), whether for overflow or somebody new coming in or someone had the sniffles we needed to check. It was a great backup to have,” Dale adds as he recalls going to medical school last year to get the latest in COVID testing from doctors, epidemiologists and other Hollywood producers.
Elsewhere, William F. White International early on during the pandemic began booking all on-site business, including production equipment rental pick-ups and returns, by appointment only due to a government directive. But what began as a COVID safety measure has become permanent at the equipment rental giant as it removes the need for trucks to line up, with their engines idling, and cause a bottleneck for loading or unloading production equipment rentals.
“The scheduling process is part of the software piece we now build in. You make an appointment, we have a concierge at the back door, you check in and go through the COVID processing, go back to your vehicle and someone will come help you load or unload,” Michael Drabot, vp and general manager at William F. White, tells THR.
“It’s important to know when the real push is on, we can schedule equipment processing much better,” he adds of the improvement in traffic flow for industry customers as Toronto’s becomes a major epicenter of Canada’s pandemic.