No films or TV shows have been in production in Georgia since March, but the state’s faster opening over rivals New York and Los Angeles may give the local industry a boost, says the deputy commissioner of the state film office.

Lee Thomas of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, speaking at a June 2 virtual luncheon of the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks the state’s studios and production crews will get busy soon.

Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film Office.

Thomas said that the state did not shut down movie and television production crews during early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They decided for safety they would shut down. Very few stayed more than a couple or three days to close out those days of shooting,” Thomas said.

She said the state communicated with all of them.

“All are planning to come back to the state. They are trying to figure out how to pick back up,” Thomas said.

The production companies waited for a single point of guidance on how they need to operate with the coronavirus. The Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force released a white paper with guidelines for reopening move, TV and streaming productions. Multiple unions participated in preparing the paper, which was sent to governors in each state.

The white paper recommends measures including social distancing; personal protective equipment; sanitizing clothing, props, sets and locations; and limiting the number of people on set. Virtual meetings were encouraged for writers, auditions and performances when possible.

Thomas said the Georgia film office created its own “Best Practices to Reduce Contagion of COVID-19” guide. The guidelines are not mandatory, she said, as the office is not a regulatory agency. It gives production companies things to think about to lower the risk of infection department by department, she said, based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the Georgia Department of Health. Gov. Brian Kemp’s latest executive order allows productions to start with 25 or fewer people, or by following social distancing guidelines.

“We are in a really good place in Georgia in that I think we are opening sooner than New York or L.A.,”  Thomas said.

It helps that Georgia has 1.1 billion square feet of purpose-built soundstages and another 2.1 billion square feet of retrofitted soundstage space. That helped the industry in Georgia generate $2.9 billion in direct sales for local businesses and $9.2 billion in total Georgia wages in 2019 through 391 film and television productions.

Some projects scheduled to start in New York or that already were in production in New York may try to shift to Georgia, she said.

Some productions are slated to start in early June with pre-production, with possible shooting in July, Thomas said.

After talking to the different production offices about their projects, Thomas said she expects Georgia to be very busy for the next couple of months.

“Most of the stages that we’ve called have been spoken for late summer, early fall and some of them into 2021 dates,” she said.

Scheduling time on stages already was a scramble, Thomas said. “We’ll have to see how things shake out.”

Meanwhile, changes may come to controversial tax credits that have fueled the state’s film industry. Some adjustments to the tax credit, including mandatory audits and how they are awarded, were pending in the General Assembly when its session was disrupted by the pandemic.

A larger debate, as the state faces possible budget shortfalls from the pandemic, is whether the tax credits are worth it. A recent audit by the state Department of Audits and Accounts concluded that the credits cost more than they gain, which the industry and some business organizations dispute.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute has used that state audit to support its call to end the film tax credit, which has the support of Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, to help mitigate budget shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the luncheon, Thomas shared responses made by both the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the state Department of Economic Development (GCEcD). Both said the audit department inserted policy questions into an audit document.

“Specifically, GDEcD takes issue with the manner in which DOAA calculated the film industry’s net economic impact,” Commissioner Pat Wilson said in his response. “DOAA turned the true cost of the credit in 2016 (in foregone tax revenue of $667 million) into $1.8 billion by presuming speculative government spending patterns and then netting this figure out from the actual economic impact.”

Wilson said the state department did the same thing in determining the number of jobs the film tax credit program generated. He also took issue on using a 2016 audit when the film industry in Georgia has grown significantly since then.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber had its chief economist, Tom Cunningham, perform an analysis of the audit.

“Unfortunately, the audit report also contains several sections of analysis and assertions that are conceptually misguided or incomplete. More unfortunately, it highlights the results of those ill-conceived exercises as its major findings,” Cunningham wrote in his analysis.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.