Editors’ Note: Deadline’s latest series, Reopening Hollywood, focuses on the incredibly complicated effort to get the industry back on its feet while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. Our goal is to examine numerous sides of the business and provide forum for leaders in Hollywood who have a vision for how production could safely restart in the era of coronavirus.
Tyler Perry has always been a maverick, rising from a struggling writer-performer to a film and TV mogul and studio owner. Speaking with Deadline over the weekend, Perry shared a plan to get production on his multiple TV series up and running in June at his Atlanta-based Tyler Perry Studios with a strict protocol that involves testing and sequestering the shows’ cast and crew on the sprawling lot.
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While the idea of quarantining the cast and crew of a show on a lot for several weeks at a time (ala a drama camp) has been floated before, what makes it feasible for Perry is the way he produces his TV series, which he writers and directs. One 22-episode season of a Tyler Perry series is shot in 2 1/2 weeks. Compare that to the eight months it takes for a broadcast series to shoot a 22-episode season (including hiatuses). His shows film entirely on the lot, which feature elaborate exteriors and interiors, including a replica of the White House. And it includes ample housing on the premises.
As Hollywood TV studios mull ways to safely resume production, this may be a time to also rethink the way production is done in terms of setup and efficiency. Perry cautions that the plan could be derailed if he cannot get even one of the key approvals he is seeking from the casts, the unions, the Mayor, the insurer and the CDC, among others. But he hopes that, if his plan comes to fruition, other studios could draw from it.
Here are details of Perry’s plan and its origin:
The shutdown & the initial idea
In the days leading to the planned March 16 production start of Season 2 of Tyler Perry’s BET series The Oval at the Tyler Perry Studios, Perry was closely monitoring the escalating coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
“I was growing more and more concerned, so I decided to shut down the studio a few days before our production start, just to keep everybody safe,” Perry told Deadline. That was a week before Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a stay-at-home order for the city and more than two weeks before Georgia Gov. Kemp issued a statewide shelter-in-place executive order.
As Perry made the decision to suspend production, he was already thinking ahead. “Many people in Georgia depend on these jobs for their livelihood. I started thinking about what a return would look like and how I could create a safe environment so people could work again with some peace of mind,” he said.
“My initial hope was to have rapid testing — five-minute test results and then everyone cleared goes to work. When I saw that, I thought that was a game-changer. But upon a lot of investigation I realized that there wasn’t the reagent for the rapid test, there wasn’t the swab for the test, there weren’t the cartridges for the test, so everything that had the promise of the test on a federal level turned out not to be so.”
The new plan: testing, housing, quarantining
Going back to square one, Perry took a different approach.
“Last week, I took 100 of my essential employees — including security guards and gardeners at the studio — and we did a test with a private lab. Thank god, out of the 100 essential workers, all tested negative,” he said. The test used has a 24-hour turnaround for delivering results. “My goal is to find a path forward to protect both the health and the livelihoods of my cast and crew.”
Perry’s plan to restart production is based on testing and sequestering the cast and a smaller-than-normal-sized crew at his studios for the duration of a shoot. “We would be looking at about 200 people in quarantine — that’s cast and crew, we would have to cut crew way back,” he said. The number also includes about 10 extras for each show.
The key to making the idea work is the efficient way Perry films his shows, all of which he writes, directs and executive produces.
“It takes me 2 1/2 weeks to shoot a season of 22 episodes, and all of my shows are shot on the lot — we never leave the lot for anything anyway. So everything is already there,” he said.
Also crucial to Perry’s plan is the unique setup of his studio. Officially opened last fall, the sprawling Tyler Perry Studios occupies 330 acres of the former Fort McPherson complex, a military base that used to house troops in barracks.
“This is the ideal place for this horrific situation we are in, in a sense that we can bring in the crew, test everyone, test the actors as they got there,” Perry said.
Perry has kept the 19 historic homes on the premises, including one in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt stayed en route to Warm Springs, GA.
“These houses are pristine, they are beautiful, and some of the actors and some of the crew already rent them when they are coming in from out of town to stay there,” Perry said.
Additionally, there are 10-20 houses on the lot built as part of a neighborhood in which to film the shows. Rather than build fake facades or set pieces with three walls, Perry had them constructed as functional residences with bathrooms and kitchens.
So all together, “we have the capacity to house about 90 people as of today,” Perry said. “We have enough of those to house all of the cast and some of the crew. What we are also doing is bringing in portable hotels to house the rest of the crew.”
How the Plan Would Be Implemented
The first step involves testing the cast in whatever city they are in to ensure they are negative for COVID-19 before they travel to Atlanta via private jet. “The health of the cast and crew is my priority. If anyone tests positive we would immediately ask that they seek help from their healthcare provider.”
When cast and crew arrive at the lot, each will be tested (including the actors again), with everyone heading to their rooms where they will be quarantined for 24 hours until results come back. “As soon as they all come back negative, we all go to work,” Perry said. “And because scientists are trying to determine how long someone becomes contagious after exposure and four days has shown to be the best estimate, we retest the cast and crew four days into shooting, as an additional precautionary measure.”
If somebody tests positive, “of course they can’t work, we have to remove them from the equation,” Perry said. “If a cast member tests positive, we would have to work around and shoot as much as we can around that person and not shoot any of that person’s scenes until they are cleared. That would push the production. We would do all that we can within the 2.5 weeks and come back and shoot the rest later on.”
Even though all actors and crew members would be tested at the start of the shoot, everyone — except for the actors when they are on camera — will be wearing masks out of precaution. Perry himself will be quarantined with his cast and crew, following the same protocol, as he directs all episodes.
To make it work with a smaller crew and fewer extras, Perry has written the scripts with the restrictions in mind.
“I was writing those shows at the time when this was all going on, so I was thinking about how do I contain it and make it smaller,” he said. “I have not written any big scenes with many extras. If it would be 10, that would be the most.”
The plan is not to have his crew be away from their families for long.
“We will do three weeks at a time, then take a week off so the crew would go home to be with their families. Then they come back, and we start all over again,” he said. “There is another testing process, everybody comes back, we lock down for three weeks while we shoot the next season of the next show.”
Timetable, Food And Extra Compensation
Georgia this weekend became one of the first states in the U.S. to begin easing restrictions on businesses. While the first activities allowed to resume do not include production, Perry said he hopes to start filming by early- to mid-June. If everything goes smoothly, he would be done filming all of his shows, beginning with BET’s The Oval and Sistas, in August. For now, Perry’s production restart plans apply only to his shows, not outside productions that also film at Tyler Perry Studios.
For Perry, the setup is similar to being on location, where the cast and crew are in a remote area. Payment will reflect that. “There would be additional compensation for the crew while they are there, similar to being a non-local hire,” he said of the 2 1/2-3 weeks cast and crew would stay on the lot. “It will be the equivalent to if you are on location in Siberia shooting, and you have nowhere to go, you have to build your own campground to make that happen, base camp.”
The difference is that Perry’s production compound is in the heart of Atlanta, though access to the city would be restricted while work is underway.
Food will be prepared on the premises. “We will also have an outside crew drop things off as they are needed,” Perry said. “The goods will go through sterilization before they are delivered to the quarantined area.”
Getting Everyone On Board & Securing Insurance
So far this is just an idea, Perry stresses.
“Every person would have to agree to this, department heads and the unions would have to agree,” he said. “My crew who have been working with me 15 years now, they are excited about it, they are excited about this idea of possibility of us doing this thing, like we are doing a summer camp for 2 1/2 weeks while we are working.”
While acknowledging he has an advantage because he shoot his shows so quickly, Perry feels that, in success, his blueprint could be used by others. ” I think that this may be a way for other studios to be able to get through this as we go,” he said.
Perry has had preliminary conversations with the heads of 3-4 unions so far. He is talking to Mayor Bottoms, he is reaching out to the CDC, and he is in touch with Carlos Del Rio, professor at Emory Vaccine Center, whom Perry calls “a godsend.”
“It is my hope that between now and then that the federal government has put together a plan for all the states to come together, and the federal government is leading the charge for there being contact tracing and testing not only for the symptomatic, but for everyone,” Perry said.
Securing insurance for production in the era of COVID-19 has emerged as a major issue for Hollywood as studios explore ways to resume filming. Those ways are expected to involve cast and crew signing waivers in order to participate.
“We are in the beginning of talking to insurers and insurance companies but absolutely, in order to be a part of this you would have to sign some type of release or waiver,” Perry said.
Safety Above All
While he said again how eager his crew is to go back to work, Perry remains cautious.
“Any of this falls apart between now and the next couple of weeks…” he warned. “If one of the union reps says no, if one of the cast says no, I don’t feel comfortable with it, or the insurance carrier says we won’t cover you, then none of this happens. I just thought that this was the best way to get us to work and get things moving. But all of these things have to line up. From the approval of the mayor, to the approval of the CDC, to the approval of Emory Health and Del Rio…all of these things have to line up for that to happen.”
For Perry, the stakes for restarting production are particularly high. Earlier this month, Emmy-nominated hairstylist Charles Gregory Ross, who had worked with Perry in the past (but not most recently), died of COVID-19.
“My entire crew knew Charles Gregory, and he died of the virus so none of us would take any chances,” Perry said. “You have to understand that the majority of my cast and crew are African American. We are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, so this has to be done extremely well and extremely right or it shouldn’t be done at all. I will not put anybody in harm’s way.”