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The Reopening Hunt: Resuming Production in a Time of COVID

Producers Charles D. King and Ryan Coogler on the set of Judas and the Black Messiah, photo by Glen Wilson/courtesy of Warner Bros.

Friday, March 13, 2020, two days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Jamin O’Brien had a check in his hand. The producer was headed to christen a new venture, an adaptation of the nonfiction bestseller The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace to be directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor. “I was literally going to deliver the deposit check for our production offices, which were going to open Monday, when we were shut down,” says O’Brien.

Now, a little more than a year later, O’Brien is preparing to navigate the world of post-COVID film production for the first time. He’ll return to sets where face shields and hand sanitizer are now as common as C-stands and gaffer tape. PCR tests and civil authority insurance have become crucial parts of the production lexicon. The logistical acrobatics performed by location departments must now be executed while also keeping everyone six feet apart. But when it comes to shooting an independent feature on location, O’Brien says one fundamental truth remains unchanged, even by the pandemic. “You’re always going to look for the best tax credit,” says O’Brien, whose films include Killer Joe and Eighth Grade. “If you’re trying to shoot right now, you’re definitely looking for the best value proposition in terms of tax incentive and local crew base. The difference is, now you’re also looking at reducing your number of extras, your number of locations and your number of days to offset the cost of shooting during COVID.”

Producer P. Jennifer Dana is also ready to begin work on her first post-COVID features. She’s been busy during the shutdowns, shepherding four films—including John and the Hole and The Violent Heart—through various stages of postproduction and distribution while dealing with shuttered post facilities, cancelled film festivals and empty movie theaters.

“Postproduction was definitely hindered by the pandemic. A lot of our filmmakers were in New York, and the post houses shut down,” says Dana. “There are technical aspects of how you finish a film—things like loop group and color correction—that normally require more than two people in a room. We were able to pivot and find workarounds, but finishing those movies became much harder and definitely took a lot longer.”

I Carry You With Me and Swallow producer Mynette Louie found herself in a similar situation. “I’ve spent the last year releasing three films, posting two more and developing other projects,” says Louie. “Thankfully, [when the shutdowns began,]
I had just wrapped a feature in New Orleans and landed back home in New York in mid-February 2020. I haven’t been back on set since.” 

While producers were able to spend their downtime molding future films, many below-the-line positions were left in a financially tenuous limbo. “I had just finished One Night in Miami, was expecting to go right onto another job, and it was just like a curtain fell,” says Louisiana-based location manager Win Riley.

The curtain fell on Cleveland’s Bill Garvey, too. Garvey’s career in locations first began in New York more than 25 years ago—inauspiciously, to be sure. “I walked out of my college graduation and into my first movie job interview wearing a suit and tie. I had no industry connections, no one to tell me that’s not how it’s done in the movie business,” says Garvey. “I got hired on the $100,000 low-budget movie right there on the spot and walked out of the interview carrying a stack of orange traffic cones to set for an overnight shoot—still in a suit, in the summer, in Long Island City.” Garvey moved to Cleveland when his wife’s mother fell ill, arriving just in time to work on the Ohio portion of the first Avengers film, which put a spotlight on the state’s relatively new tax incentive. He’s worked steadily since, including serving as location manager on the Oscar-nominated Judas and the Black Messiah. He planned to follow up Messiah with a Lionsgate comedy that was prepping to shoot from April through June of last year, but then Ohio entered lockdown. The state’s film industry is only now starting to show signs of resuscitation. 

“Last fall, multiple studios started scouting Ohio with the intention of filming this summer,” says Garvey. “We location scouts are fortunate that location scouting is able to be done alone—a COVID-friendly job description. I can’t even imagine how difficult it’s been for the other trades [that] are dependent on set work, which was almost nonexistent here last year.”

While Ohio hopes to ramp up this summer, other tax-friendly locations are already roaring back to life, leaving productions in those once-again bustling locales vying for resources. Paul Schrader returned to Biloxi, Mississippi, for the final days of The Card Counter, which was suspended when lockdowns hit, while Scott McGehee and David Siegel wrapped their low-budget Haley Lu Richardson drama, Montana Story, in, appropriately, Montana.

The New York credit was trimmed from 30 percent to 25 percent last April, as the pandemic threatened to wreak havoc on state budgets. But, still, says O’Brien, “It’s going to be hard to crew up in New York City this summer. Every time we interview somebody for a movie, if we don’t act on it in a week or two, they’ve been scooped up by another production.”

Atlanta-based location manager Kai Thorup is having his own crew scooped up as well. “Scouts are so hard to find right now,” says Thorup, who served as location manager on the recently released Coming 2 America. “The health and safety department, which is this new entity, seems to have really raided location people. When I called my crew when Atlanta opened back up for work, some of them were already working for Marvel in health and safety.”

Production in New Orleans has also picked up significantly, according to Riley. “New Orleans, from what I can tell, is thriving,” he says. “The new COVID protocols are challenging, but they’re not getting in the way of production right now. We’re adapting to figure out how to make it all work.”

Louisiana is one of many potential locations that O’Brien has explored as he prepares his next indie feature, Silver Star. “We’ve basically been looking all over,” he says. “We were looking at Louisiana, looking at upstate New York. Talent are looking to film in places that they feel safe, so we were even looking at places like New Zealand.” Ultimately, O’Brien landed on southern New Jersey, which offers a 35 percent tax credit—a five percent increase over the northern, more New York City-adjacent part of the state. He’s also planning another film, the family drama A Thousand and One, to be shot in New York, mainly in Harlem and Brooklyn. “I feel very safe in New York City,” says O’Brien. “The city suffered so much last year and was so impacted by COVID that I think people respect the protocols and the guidelines that are out there.”

The L.A.-based Dana is also in the midst of trying to set up her next feature—a James Ponsoldt film titled Summering. The coming-of-age story is scripted for California, but after missing out on that state’s tax incentive, which is selectively granted, Dana began searching elsewhere. “We started looking at Vancouver, but it’s incredibly busy there right now. A lot of TV migrated to Canada. So, people are working, which is good, but the crew base isn’t super deep at the moment. It’s hard to get crew, it’s hard to get locations and it’s hard to be a smaller show and compete in Vancouver.”

Dana is now focusing on Utah as a potential destination. The state offers a 20 percent rebate for local spend. “We shot a film called Brigsby Bear there a few years ago and had a good experience,” she says. “The rebate isn’t as much as Vancouver or Georgia, but the flip side is they do have a decent amount of local crew, and I think they’re well suited for smaller shows. A lot of commercials and smaller films have gone to Utah during the pandemic because the state was open in ways that California wasn’t, and everyone we’ve spoken to has said that Utah has really good protocols for shooting during COVID.”

For her next projects, Mynette Louie is thus far holding firm on her ideal locations. “The next two films I want to shoot take place just outside Los Angeles and in Juárez, Mexico, respectively,” say Louie. “As with most of my films, the locations are very much a part of the stories, so it’s been difficult-to-impossible to reconceive them for other locations. It’s definitely crossed my mind to shoot the L.A. film in Canada, and the Mexico one in Texas, but it just doesn’t feel right. We’ll have to either wait out the pandemic or figure out some way to shoot them where they were meant to be shot.”

When trying to entice businesses and homeowners to offer up their spaces, there are still varying levels of comfort. “Some people are still worried, and therefore a location that may have been filmed before has now said no. Other people are hurting financially and are glad to have the opportunity,” says O’Brien. “What’s interesting is that some of the more institutional locations that haven’t welcomed back their staff yet are actually allowing us to come in, whereas it might have been harder to film there before.”

Though she’s not boots on the ground in Utah yet, Dana says the state thus far appears welcoming. “It sounds like people are ready to go back to work, and people are OK with filming in their environment, whether it’s their house or their office,” she says. “I would say that’s less the case in Los Angeles right now. Folks in California are really film savvy, and they’re not interested in having 65 people come through their home, even if they’ve been tested.”

In New Orleans, Riley says the city has rallied around the return of production—a welcome sight for the Louisiana native. “It’s been a very warm response from people to filming. Tourism here, as it did everywhere, took a massive hit. We had Mardi Gras cancelled, which is a huge deal, financially and just for morale,” says Riley. “The businesses and homeowners are aware that it’s been a terrible year for everybody, and they generally seem to be happy that production is coming back and starting to thrive again.”

While people have been welcoming, scouting potential spots has become complicated by what Thorup calls “the COVID of it all.” “People are harder to reach to get to see locations,” explains Thorup. “You can’t just knock on a door anymore. People are working from home. Places are closed. Unfortunately, some places are out of business. It’s slowed everything down for scouting for sure.”

Once on set, the logistical challenges for location mangers have only become more complex. “COVID has changed just basic things like transportation. How do you get 100 people from crew parking to a set without having them sit next to one another in a van?” Riley asks. “It’s changed things, like how we do catering. You can only have so many people in a catering tent, so there’s staggered breaks for meals. All of those considerations have financial consequences.” 

Those consequences are felt most acutely by low-budget independent films. “Running and gunning it is the nature of indie film, right? ’Let’s go grab this or steal that.’ You can’t do that anymore,” says Dana. “It’s much harder to have a smaller footprint, from an independent film standpoint. You can’t just be four trucks in a parking lot right now.” Adds O’Brien, “The studios and streamers are just paying that extra money, but that’s harder to do with independent films. You don’t just have that extra money. You’re given an amount of cash, and you have to back into it.”

The financial ramifications of COVID are also a moving target. Says Louie, “I recently heard about another expense I hadn’t considered, which is removing mask imprints on the actors’ faces with visual effects! Indie films with limited budgets really aren’t suited for COVID-adjusted productions.” Even with an ample budget, managing the logistics on a post-pandemic set is not an easy task. “My location budget has increased dramatically due to an increase in prep days for sanitation purposes, renting circus tents in situations in which we would normally have rented church basements and a five- or six-fold increase in the number of porta-johns.” says Garvey. “Man, that’s the business to be in right now,” says Thorup. “On the show I’m on now we actually had to order restroom trailers from multiple vendors. When we get them we try as best we can to keep them through the run of the show; otherwise, you’ll never get them back.”

Thorup is a second-generation location manager. His mother began working in production in the early 1980s in Florida, and he followed her into the business. “Her first big job was the first season of Miami Vice. I was 11 years old, and she was a single mom, so I was always with her,” recalls Thorup. “The production offices were in a hotel in Miami Beach, so I spent that summer there. My mom kind of fell into it and didn’t really have a passion for movies, but I got bit by the bug.”

That youthful exuberance for the movies still lives in Thorup. He was once set to quit a particularly challenging Georgia location shoot over personality conflicts when he heard that Gary Oldman had just been cast as a tommy gun–wielding gangster. “Instantly, I was like, ’You know what, I’m just going to stick it out because I want to see that,’” laughs Thorup. While he’s grateful to be back at work, Thorup looks forward to the time when he’s crammed into scouting vans again or showing up on set just to see a legendary actor chew the scenery.

“On the scouts now, everybody has to self-drive, then you have to find parking for 20 people at some random guy’s house, which isn’t fun. I just miss being in the van and hearing all the conversations—producers talking about casting, directors talking about shots,” says Thorup. “And I don’t really get to visit set as much. I can, but I have to take all these extra steps and precautions to do it. Thankfully, it seems like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and hopefully, this won’t last forever.”

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