Film cameras begin to roll again in Louisiana after coronavirus shutdown; restrictions apply

By Kristen Mosbrucker 

Cameras are starting to roll again in Louisiana, with pent-up demand for movies and TV programming emerging out of the coronavirus pandemic that shuttered show business in mid-March and made shut-ins of content-hungry fans.

Much of the initial work is likely to be on stage sets in studios, but location-based filming is around the corner. Many of the location shots will be outdoors rather in close quarters indoors. And wherever movies and programs are shot, it will be under strict state and local safety guidelines as long as the coronavirus is still a threat.

"There's so much at stake. Our industry is requiring health safety inspectors to monitor the crew and taking temperatures, especially when you have asymptomatic people," said Trey Burvant, president of the Louisiana Film and Entertainment Association and founder of Second Line Stages, a film facility in New Orleans. "If your lead actor goes down, you're toast. Actors are taking big risks to walk out on a set and perform."

"You're going to have a rush for stage space," said Aaron Bayham, director of operations at Celtic Studios in Baton Rouge. Because it can be controlled, "it's going to be easiest place to film and you've got projects now backlogged," he said.

"There is a deficit of content right now and studios are eager to get back to filming," Burvant said.

Those in the state's film industry are just as anxious to get them back.

Last year, Louisiana certified $538.5 million in spending from film and television production activity across the state, with $167.5 million going to payroll. Since 2002, there has been more than $7 billion invested by the film and digital media industry in Louisiana, supported by often-criticized state tax credits. A study last year showed for every dollar spent on the tax credit programs for the entertainment industry in Louisiana — mainly the film tax credit — state and local governments get about 36 cents back in tax revenue.

"The spending activity during the course of a film is unmatched by other industries," Burvant said. "The typical television show has a $40 million to $50 million budget, and they shoot each episode, which means $3 million to $4 million being dropped into the economy at once."

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Studios have contracted with Central Casting of Louisiana in recent weeks to post casting calls for extras and body doubles for clients such as Amazon Studios. The casting calls posted online describe several outdoor scenes around New Orleans, with some appearing to be outside shops and in cemeteries and other isolated locations.

Baton Rouge's Celtic Studios has seen more productions reaching out to schedule projects and some are looking to do more scenes digitally than the traditional green screen, but no cameras have begun rolling yet. "Nothing in Baton Rouge that would start shooting in August, but certainly projects that could open offices in August and maybe be shooting by September," Bayham said.

"There's a lot of interest, but there's numerous projects that have asked about later this year and into 2021," he said.

“We have one (production) that’s filming as of Monday and we have another production filming in about two weeks and hopefully more in September,” said Carroll Morton, director of Film New Orleans.

There were about 15 different productions active in New Orleans when the statewide stay-at-home order was imposed in March, according to the city's film office. "The majority of those projects are still online and completing the shoots," Morton said.

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"We are looking forward for the crews to get back to work. The productions hire at least 85% local talent, and we have about 1,800 union members who work on our films," she said.

The hiring of local talent and contracting with Louisiana businesses for props, equipment, catering and other supplies or services required on large productions such as a television series or feature film is an extra boost to the New Orleans economy, which is suffering from a slump in tourism during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Television series cannot just change their locations and have been leading the way for returning to the city of New Orleans to film," Morton said.

Typically the release and television schedules are about five months out.

"Think about how much content is produced in five months. There is going to be a massive demand," Burvant said.

His stage company invested in specialized air filters for the indoor filming space and other personal protection materials for his clients. There are a few in the studio already.

Sensing that demand and competition for resources is coming, Catherine Ann Taylor, an independent filmmaker and alumna of Tulane University, already has jumped on the ability to film in Baton Rouge, having worked previously on another indie flick in the city.

The plan was to delay filming until next year because of the pandemic, but the director decided go forward because there's less demand right now than there might be in the coming months, especially if a coronavirus vaccine is released.

"It's a huge opportunity having the resources that you need if it can be done safely," said Taylor, who lives in New York City, and plans to submit the film for the Louisiana Film Prize.

Her short film took about two weeks in pre-production and was shot over a weekend outside Henry Turner Jr.'s Listening Room in north Baton Rouge. The film hired local actors and a crew of fewer than a dozen people, who all wore masks.   

Much of the film, known as "Thin Slicing," is based on an original play. It was shot overnight and nearly all outdoors. The short film is about a man and a woman who are arguing outside a bar and realize after sharing vulnerable details about their lives that they actually have feelings for each other.

"We filmed between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. We got our last shot two minutes before sunrise. It was miraculous," Taylor said. "Most of it was outside, so it was very dependent on light. It's a whole another day of shooting if you don't get what you want in that time period."

"There is a lot more interest in shooting exteriors," Morton said, "the new model is leaning toward being able to shoot in an outside space."

State guidelines suggest Louisiana productions should have a safety officer, restrict visitor access to the production areas and require masks for everyone but performers. Digital scripts should be used and other basic good hygiene enforced.

New Orleans has additional safety guidelines in place but it is not contradictory to state best practices, which were compiled in a collaboration among the state, businesses, unions and cities to reduce the spread of the virus.

The biggest facet of restarting the Louisiana film industry is continuous testing for anyone who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

"If you're talking about a film set, it's a very small ecosystem. People can distance, but they are still working together in a group situation; productions are testing three to five times a week," Morton said.

Some productions have more than 100 people working at the same time, but the new guidelines recommend a zone method where a select group have direct contact with the actors, who cannot wear a mask during scenes, while the crew may be physically split up in different locations to prevent crowds.

Burvant said the new safety protocols could add up to 30% to the cost of doing a film, and there is some concern about how that might impact independent filmmakers.

"And if you usually shoot 12 hours a day for three months, they are going to have to rethink the entire approach to making the film," Burvant said.

For the owner of FantomLight Productions, a full-service production business in Baton Rouge, the industry demands have already changed.

"The industry has changed a lot," said owner Kevin McQuarn. "I think festivals are a great example. Since they are streaming online, there's a lot of demand for some things like video but not so much for other services." 

The business was planning its first short feature film but that's now likely on hold, at least until November, he said.

"Everything had kind of stopped in March ... and things are starting to move forward," McQuarn said. “Some of us are doing well and some are not and still struggling to find their way. I think the independent film industry, we’ve always had to adapt to stay relevant and viable. COVID-19 is just another one of those challenges that we have to overcome."

The inaugural Louisiana Black Legacy Film & Arts Festival in Baton Rouge was supposed to roll in late June, but organizers pulled back due to safety concerns about drawing a crowd.

"We had to shut everything down and everybody has just scattered to the wind," said Troy Roberson-Lee, event organizer, producer and founder of VIP Event Management Services. "Independents like myself, we've had to start again at ground zero," she said.

The three-day long festival was meant to highlight Black artists from filmmakers to musicians and other art forms like dancers who have a connection to the African Diaspora. The festival is tentatively scheduled for October and will likely be a mostly virtual experience but she's still reeling somewhat from the new reality.

"We can still create because we have more time but it's a lot more difficult to bring the people together that you need," she said. "We're all just winging it a little bit. Financially it's really tough and everyone is so distracted."