Coronavirus puts local productions at a standstill

The COVID-19 pandemic has paused work on many projects within the entertainment industry. As a growing hub for film and television production, Atlanta has been especially impacted by this sudden lack of work. Actors, crew members and student filmmakers alike have received little consolation as to when the industry will be up and running again.

Jason MacDonald is an actor and the CEO of Drama Inc., a studio that offers classes, workshops and recording services for screen actors in the Atlanta area. 

Already, several of MacDonald’s upcoming projects have been affected by the virus, leaving his schedule for the coming months a complete gray area.

“I was supposed to do this movie with Woody Harrelson next month, and it’s been pushed indefinitely,” MacDonald said. “[Producers] say they’re going to make it, but who knows when? It could be July, August, next year. So, for me, it was terrible timing. I got these two great jobs, and they both got shelved.”

MacDonald’s projects are just some of many that are now in limbo. Although “The Walking Dead” was able to wrap production, its post-production work could not be done remotely, and the latest season has been delayed. Major studio films, such as Sylvester Stallone’s “Samaritan” and John Cena’s “Vacation Friends,” have also been put on hold.

Ryan Millsap, the CEO of Blackhall Studios, has already lost about a million dollars a month in revenue. For now, his company has been able to still pay salaries and cover the health benefits of full-time employees, but Millsap knows this is unsustainable in the long run.

“We definitely are going to need some sort of federal support if we’re not going to just bleed out, and that’s true for everybody,” Millsap said.

Already, all of Blackhall’s sets have been cleared, leaving 650,000 square feet of soundstages unused. Other major studios, such as Pinewood in Fayetteville, have halted all production and stopped building new sets indefinitely.

Projects in motion by Georgia State students have been similarly affected by the coronavirus.

Giovanni Tortorici is a Georgia State film major and member of Potluck, a production company he founded alongside a small group of student filmmakers in 2018. The group had several projects in the pre-production stages that were set to shoot in April, but Tortorici is now unsure how those projects will move forward.

“They’re projects that I really care about, and we’ve come far into stages of production, so of course we’ll make those once we get out of this,” Tortorici said. “But for some of them, I’ll probably have to reassess whether we should make them based on the climate of the film industry after all this is over.” 

In the meantime, Tortorici has used quarantine to get his creative juices flowing on future projects. He admits that this often involves roaming around his house with a camera just to see what he can make.

“When the stakes are so high in the world, it feels comforting to have as low stakes as I can creatively,” Tortorici said. “I’m using writing and film as a way to process things and also distract myself, so it’s a balance I’m finding. But overall, I’m feeling like my creative neurons are open for synapses.”

One question continues to dominate the entertainment world during this time: When will it all be over? For the thousands of hardworking Atlantans who rely on production work to make a living, the end of this standstill cannot come fast enough.

“It’s staggering when you think about how many people are now out of work in our industry in Georgia,” MacDonald said. “It’s really mind-boggling. And because so many of the people are contractors, they can’t get unemployment.”

However, with a statewide shelter-in-place order now in effect and rising death tolls around the country, not even leaders within the industry have answers regarding production and release timelines. For now, the preferred choice of action is still to put all projects on hold and stay up to date on the virus’s spread.

“How soon is it going to be safe for 40 people to get together again to make a movie at the studio?” said MacDonald. “I think we’re going to be finding a new normal of how we interact with each other, and I think people are going to be paranoid for a long time after this.”