How Georgia Hopes to Lead Hollywood's Return to Production

Adobe Stock

High-profile projects from Marvel, Netflix and Universal will soon rev up production in the state as others try to nab precious studio space: "We have people circling like sharks."

As the film and TV industry attempts to restart after a COVID-19 shutdown, some states like Georgia hope to be trailblazers. Home to Tyler Perry's sprawling film studio, Pinewood's Atlanta outpost and other production facilities, the Peach State is establishing itself as a pioneer in the industry's quest to get back to work.

Perry was one of the first Hollywood players to lay out his plans to restart production. The producer — who said he'd fly actors on two of his TV shows, Sistas and The Oval, to Atlanta on his private jet and keep cast and crew quarantined on his 330-acre studio campus throughout the duration of filming in July — detailed on-set safety protocols May 20 in a 30-page document titled "Camp Quarantine." But he's far from the only producer who's been plotting a return to filming in the state.

While studios are wary of naming specific projects and target shoot dates due to the volatile nature of the pandemic (after all, Georgia set a new single-day record on July 1 with 3,000 new COVID cases in 24 hours), sources say that some of the major projects expected to start or restart production in the state in the coming months include Universal's feature adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, MGM's Sylvester Stallone action pic Samaritan and a pair of Disney+ series: Loki and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. In addition, at least two major Netflix projects plan to return to Georgia: comedy thriller Red Notice, starring Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot, and Stranger Things. Sources say the cast of the latter was told season four production would tentatively start back up again on Sept. 17.

“Georgians want to get back to work and show that we can not only beat this virus but be leaders in this industry to hopefully encourage America to get back to work,” says John Rooker, founder and owner of Atlanta Metro Studios (AMS), where HBO’s Watchmen filmed.

Georgia, which has lured Hollywood productions in recent years with its uncapped film incentives program, says it plans to hire an estimated 40,000 production workers across roughly 75 upcoming productions. Together, those projects are expected to invest $2 billion into the state’s economy over the next 18 months. The industry first got the green light to get production back up and running when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp officially released the state’s protocols for film and TV production on May 22, two weeks before California released its filming guidelines.

"Thanks to the 'Best Practices' for set safety released by the state, in addition to the guidelines provided by the national guilds and unions, we look forward to helping thousands of crew members and support service personnel get back to work safely," says the state’s film commissioner, Lee Thomas. "It will help Georgia maintain its position as one of the busiest production locales worldwide."

A large part of that return to work will be led by Pinewood Atlanta Studios. President and CEO Frank Patterson has spent the past few months exploring how to make the facilities safer, investing $1 million in new safety protocols. The film studio has brought on BioIQ, a medical testing firm that will monitor the wellness of entrants, and Synexis, a biodefense company that uses tech to try to reduce viruses, bacteria and mold in the air.

"We've put a whole lot of thinking into how we should do this safely, and I think we're going to learn and iterate a lot in the next few months in terms of how these protocols work," says Patterson. Though he isn't at liberty to name any of the projects starting up soon, sources say Pinewood has two feature films and multiple streaming shows (including The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki) beginning preproduction this month, with the aim to start filming as early as August.

Some studios are testing out protocols with smaller productions first. Atlanta Metro Studios, for instance, recently hosted a commercial shoot. "It was a good dress rehearsal for when production comes back full speed," says Rooker, who notes that he has a large show (which he also can't name) returning in July that will be using their entire facility for the remainder of the year.

Over at Atlanta-based Blackhall Studios, which saw HBO's Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams-produced series Lovecraft Country and Paramount's Chris Pratt thriller The Tomorrow War conveniently wrap production just before the shutdown, chairman and CEO Ryan Millsap has focused on the physical aspects of making the facility safer — that means looking at getting rid of door handles and swapping out all the bathroom fixtures for touchless ones — in an effort to get his facility ready for the rush of projects he's anticipating post-virus.

In fact, there are currently six productions vying for space at his studio, and he has room for about two. "Right now, we have people circling like sharks," says Millsap. "It's just a question of who can finally pull the trigger in a world where everybody wants to be working but nobody knows exactly how to work — and it's going to come down to whoever is ready to go tomorrow."

In an effort to remain competitive, others in the state are building out new production facilities that are pandemic-proof. Patrick Millsaps, a lawyer and political consultant turned film producer, is constructing a brand-new 1,500-acre studio complex in Albany, Georgia, named Kane Studios that will not only offer 800,000 square feet of purpose-built soundstages, 300,000 square feet of production offices and 3,000 acres of backlot — it will also be able to sequester an entire production the way that Perry’s studio can.

"We hopefully won't open until post-vaccine of this pandemic, but Bill Gates keeps calling this Pandemic One, so we're making sure the things that we've learned during this pandemic are a permanent part of what we're building," says Millsaps, adding that the studio is slated for a 2022 debut. “In this business, where people are always crammed in on top of each other, we just thought, why not make this the safest and healthiest studio on the planet?” 

Surely, now more than ever, Georgia’s wide-open spaces are appealing to cast and crew coming from densely packed cities like New York and Los Angeles. And in another recent win for the state's film supporters, concerns about its controversial abortion legislation were attenuated this week when the Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Louisiana. Though a Georgia Senate discussion about the uncapped film incentive program may have briefly worried some, ultimately the Senate Finance Committee's approval of a bill that requires audits for all film and TV projects that claim the credit seemed to quell any concerns about potentially more significant changes to the program.

"There’s a really beautiful element to what's happening in Georgia and the support that we're getting at the political level to return to production," says Millsap, noting he gets regular calls from the governor's office and state senators asking him when he's getting production going again. “They know that entertainment is one of the few sectors that's going to come up out of COVID like a rocket ship, and everything I hear from all of my relationships with politicians in Georgia is that they are ready to rock and roll this thing.”

A version of this story first appeared in the July 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.