Atlanta's Indie Film Community Faces COVID Head On
On Friday the 13th, owner of Atlanta's Plaza Theatre, Chris Escobar, had a funny feeling. That night, Escobar attended a pop-up art show at the theatre. The event was hosted in part with Videodrome and the Chicago-based Deadly Prey Gallery. Hand-painted movie posters from Ghana covered every square inch of wall space. This was Plaza’s second year hosting the event; last year was so successful with so many paintings sold that Escobar expected a huge turnout this time, hopefully, around 350 people. But, the event also marked one of the first nights Plaza enforced new social distancing guidelines in light of the new coronavirus. Instead of the animated crowd expected, the actual turnout was lackluster. Escobar noticed how people kept apart, how friends didn’t touch when they greeted each other or get too close when admiring the bright paintings.
“We only had, like, 80 people there,” Escobar said. “I could see the change in everyone.”
Across the city, filmmaker Chris Hunt had the same funny feeling. At the studio where he worked, a steady anxiety had been growing among crew members all week. They had just finished working on three shows and were slammed with the work of prepping for two more shows in just a few days. As they worked, signs of the virus started to creep in. People had stopped shaking hands when they saw each other in the hallway; instead, they’d greet one another with friendly, albeit odd, elbow bumps.
That same Friday the 13th, the studio Hunt worked for announced it was shutting down. Just six days after that fateful Friday, everything changed for good.
On March 19th, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued two executive orders, including one that mandated the closure of all movie theatres, effectively closing Plaza’s doors until further notice.
Months after the studio shut down, Hunt said that while the studio effectively communicated with workers about what might happen in the future, the spike in cases in places like New York City left him on edge. “Just the nature of what we all know about [COVID-19] is so abstract: a horrifying thing that floats in the air,” he said. “That type of [expletive] doesn't go away very quickly.”
Escobar’s days at the office and the nights of events, screenings and premieres have been replaced by endless emails and phone calls from home; all while keeping his four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter occupied. His days have become devoted to keeping his family and Atlanta’s oldest independent theatre afloat.
“I’m endlessly scanning through websites, loan programs and grant programs,” he said. “[I am] constantly reworking projections.”
Escobar’s focus right now is keeping the theatre in business, and Hunt’s is figuring out how on earth he’ll promote the projects he recently finished up. Throughout the Atlanta film industry, anxiety is rampant about what the longterm effects of a pandemic will be. As video-on-demand (VOD) and streaming platforms experience a spike in already booming popularity, the independent film community in Atlanta and across the United States faces increasing uncertainty about when people will feel comfortable enough to gather in a movie theatre again, and whether the demand and output will be the same.
THE RISE OF STREAMING IN THE FACE OF COVID-19
One Saturday in April, after Plaza closed, Escobar and his two children headed to the theatre. Some core employees were there, but otherwise the place was empty; perfect for a private screening.
After firing up one of the projectors, Escobar presented Trolls World Tour for his children and streamed the film for them on their very own big screen. The Universal animated feature is the first major studio release to be pushed straight to VOD and marks a big test for theatrical releases going forward. The Monday after the movie’s April 10 release, Universal announced Trolls World Tour had the biggest digital debut ever for one of its films, performing ten times as well as the previous record holder Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
This move didn’t come without backlash. John Fithian, chief of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told the Hollywood Reporter in March that cinema owners were counting on studios to push back the release of big movies, signaling to movie-goers that theatrical release still held importance. The decision to move Trolls World Tour directly to streaming was a big blow.
Since the pandemic hit the United States, many studios have heeded the advice of cinema owners, pushing back releases of big-budget films. The new James Bond film, the live-action remake of Mulan, and the ninth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise were all delayed.
At the time, Universal was the only studio that elected to bypass theatrical release entirely, but some movies like Emma and The Invisible Man had their theatrical runs cut short so that more audiences would have a chance to view them from their homes.
This isn’t the first time the film industry has had to make tough decisions in the face of a global health crisis. When the Spanish flu hit the United States in 1918, theatres in many parts of the country closed. “Embargo on Releases of Moving Pictures,” read a headline in the October 10, 1918, issue of the Atlanta Constitution. The story reported that the National Association of Motion Picture Industries had decided to discontinue all motion picture releases after October 15th.
“Proprietors of motion picture theatres seemed to be divided in their opinion as to the purpose of the drastic action proposed,” read the article. “Some of them asserted that it was a move on the part of the producers to hold back their feature pictures until attendance at the theatres seemed normal and they thus are enabled to obtain higher prices for their release.”
While the two pandemics share uncanny similarities, studios back then didn’t have the option of pushing new releases straight to VOD. But, regardless of what studios choose to do now, streaming platforms aren’t always accessible for indie filmmakers and their films.
In an interview with the Observer on March 27th, Kyle Greenberg, the president of the New York-based distribution and marketing firm Circle Collective, said while streaming platforms will speed up the distribution process for big studios, indie filmmakers don’t have a direct, quick pipeline to digital streaming. There’s also the issue of getting someone from that platform to watch your film in the first place.
“Some of these platforms are much more heavily gated than others,” the founder of RoleCall, an Atlanta-based virtual film studio for independent filmmakers, Stephen Beehler said. RoleCall started out in 2018 as a crowdsourcing option for filmmakers looking for casting, props, crew members, and anything else filmmakers would need. Now, the company has its own independent theatre at Ponce City Market, but it was only open for 31 days before the city forced its closure.
In response to COVID-19 and the lockdown that followed, Beehler launched RoleCall Watch, a subscription
streaming service that gives back 50% of its profits to the filmmakers themselves. Unlike Netflix or Hulu, anyone can submit a film through the website, which Beehler vets before streaming.
“I’ve literally watched nearly 1,000 films in the last two months,” Beehler stated. Beehler, who is a filmmaker himself, said even when independent filmmakers do get access to distributors, they’re often taken advantage of in the negotiating process. In 2015, the Writer’s Guild of America East surveyed 100 active indie filmmakers and found that more than 60% reported they’ve had issues receiving compensation for their movies. Two-thirds of those surveyed had a project that had been released digitally.
According to Beehler, decades of the “wait your turn” mentality, velvet ropes and ambiguous contracts have plagued the film industry. In short, the entertainment industry has normalized a culture that has a lack of respect for indie filmmakers. “What can be so hard about being a filmmaker is the product takes so many people to make and is so comparatively expensive,” Beehler explained. “For every one person who got a good distribution deal, there’s a thousand people that never saw a penny.”
The top-down culture of the film industry doesn’t just affect filmmakers, but everyone who could be considered “the little guy” in the film industry. “It can be scary, because we don’t know when we'll be back to work,” co-founder of the Atlanta Actors Collective, Kevon Pryce, stated. “If you’re a grip, you don’t know when this will all start back out to normal, where you can just go back to work.”
Tiauna Jackson, founder of the LA and Atlanta-based Jackson Agency, spoke specifically about how actors, writers, and filmmakers of color have been affected by the pandemic, especially those just getting started. When there are events that are recession-esque, she said, the people at the top will be looking out for those they already have relationships with. “We’re already seeing that,” Jackson told Oz. “We’re already bracing ourselves for the reality that continuing to introduce new writers of color will be hard.”
RE-OPENING GUIDELINES BRING MORE STRIFE
At a time when the future seems so uncertain, many Atlanta filmmakers and those in the industry are putting the brakes on promoting projects they worked so hard to complete. Now that Georgia has released a set of guidelines for getting back to work, they also have to worry about keeping sets safe.
Fortunately for Hunt, the pandemic didn’t interrupt any personal ongoing projects, only his work at the commercial studio where he’s employed. However, he’s currently sitting on unreleased projects with no plan in sight.
One of the last pieces he finished was called The Instrument, a short film that ironically focuses on a detective investigating the origins of a global, biological disaster. Hunt worries about when it will be the right time to release a project that hits so close to home. He notes that the film festival circuit has been completely interrupted this year. For example, the Atlanta Film Festival would have taken place from April 30th - May 10th but has been postponed to September. “I’ve got all of this content, all of these projects,” Hunt said. “How do I think about giving them lives, finding an audience?”
For some, the issue is not when to release, but when to get back to work. Suzan Satterfield, the managing partner of Picture Window Productions, and a writer, director and producer, talked to Oz about how the pandemic affected the shooting of her environmental docuseries EcoSense for Living. This year, their small crew had planned to start shooting in April, about a month earlier than normal.
Their shoot was delayed, and now Satterfield is concerned with safely returning to business. She’d ideally like to begin filming in July, but the need to travel out west to shoot raises many questions. “What is the safest way to travel? Do we risk flying out with all our equipment? If we’re in multiple locations, do we risk multiple flights? We’ll have people handling our gear; when we get our gear back do we wipe it all down,” Satterfield asked. “The ways in which we are used to working are going to have to change.”
Now that Georgia has released some guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID- 19 while shooting, the industry does have something to work with. However, the guidelines make it clear that the list of best practices is not mandatory, and that “guilds, unions, production companies, and studios may also have their own regulations.”
Atlanta filmmaker Asad Farooqui thinks that in some ways, the post- COVID world will be better suited to the independent film industry. As filming starts back up in the state, there’s a lot of anxiety over having large crews and what precautions need to be taken. Farooqui, who has made many short films and is working on a feature, has always worked on small sets and thinks the familiarity that indie filmmakers have with that environment will help them in a post- COVID world.
“I think what will happen is that it will benefit independent filmmakers because they know how to work on stringent budgets, which means smaller sets. When you have bigger movies, like a Marvel movie for example, you’re talking about 1,000 people on set,” Farooqui said. “I’m used to [a smaller set]. I’m more comfortable with it.”
The resilience of the community doesn’t only extend to its creators; Atlanta’s actors have been making names for themselves and grinding their way through the pandemic just the same. Hannah Fierman, an Atlanta-based actor known for her work in horror films like V/H/S, was supposed to do a feature in April, part of which was set to shoot in Ohio. When the governor shut Ohio down in early March, the feature shut down as well. “I think there was wisdom in that,”
Fierman told Oz. “But it was very disappointing. You know, we don’t get paid in advance, even though it was union, so we took a hit financially.” Fierman and Bethany Anne Lind, another Atlanta-based actress known for her work in Georgia-lensed film and television shows including Doctor Sleep, Ozark and Stranger Things, both spoke about how the community has stepped up and rallied around each other. “That’s been one of the most encouraging things, is seeing people really sticking up for each other and helping each other out,” Lind praised. “SAG-AFTRA is working tirelessly.” Lind continued to explain how she and her husband have their health insurance through SAG-AFTRA and that the union has been offering leeway to members who might be in a financial bind. The union has also held countless webinars to help members navigate things like unemployment.
Before the best practices guide for filming in Georgia was released, Fierman and Lind also spoke about what precautions they’d heard whispers of: everything from quarantining actors for two weeks before shooting to reducing the number of extras, to a rumor about filming actors separately and inserting them into the same scene with CGI.
The best practices the state released may not go as far as to ask filmmakers to film their actors separately, it does include recommendations to lessen the amount of background actors, considering alternate shot set-ups to keep as much distance as possible, and more. The document leaves testing protocol up to production companies.
While Lind is glad precautions will be taken once filming starts back up, she’s afraid the strictness will mean fewer opportunities for actors who aren’t movie stars. “If you’re going to shoot a three-person movie because that’s going to be the easiest thing to do, actors who live in Atlanta aren’t going to be top on those lists,” she said. “You’re not going to quarantine someone for two weeks for a one or two day role.”
Actors who make their livings off of small roles and shoots have anxiety about their profession, even as productions begin to open up. “The stories that we tell will be a little different for a while,” Atlanta Actors Collective’s Pryce said. “It’s still becoming apparent to me that this thing will change how life will move forward.”
ATLANTA KEEPS THE MAGIC OF CINEMA ALIVE
To keep above ground in the face of a pandemic, those in the indie film industry will do what they always have: get creative.
"Hopefully in the process of being [educational], that humanizes the struggle that everyone is going through. People who we see as incredibly successful are going through the same human struggles that we are.”
Ticket sales aren’t what keeps independent theatres like Plaza running. In many cases these facilities are kept alive with special events, such as screenings with director Q&As afterward, and venue rentals. Escobar said rentals of the space are the biggest source of revenue for Plaza, and even if the theatre opens in the summer, he doesn’t expect the rental economy to pick back up as quickly. In order to keep the magic of cinema alive, Plaza is streaming movies online with the help of indie distributors like Film Movement and Kino Marquee. A percentage of the ticket sales go to Plaza.
They’ve also started the Plaza Movie Club, a way to allow anyone who has ever contributed to the theatre to keep in touch through online screenings and other events, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, whose first virtual rendition was performed in April.
Sara Glassberg, a programming assistant for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and a frequent visitor of Plaza, recently enjoyed her first streaming experience through the theatre’s website. She chose Bacurau, a Brazilian film, and tuned into a live Q&A session afterwards. Glassberg doesn’t live as close to the theatre as she used to during her graduate school days at Emory University, so she appreciates the ability to stream something and fund the independent theatre without having to make the trek.
However, she explains that the streaming experience will never quite match that of a theatre. “It’s admirable,” she said of the way theatres and distributors try to re-create the live experience. “And it almost gets the job done, but you’re missing that community experience, the smells, the sights; especially in a theatre like the Plaza.”
Luckily, Plaza has found a way to rekindle that sense of community. Following the decision to begin re-opening the state, Plaza began hosting drive-in movies in two pop-up locations. The drive-in is contact-free and follows social distancing guidelines, allowing patrons to enjoy the nostalgic feeling of a summer drive-in guilt-free.
Of course, it’s not just indie theaters that have to deal with the fallout. Towards the end of 2019, filmmakers Jono Mitchell and Madison Hatfield had already set a release date for their film Jenna Gets an Abortion in late April and were ready for the premiere at the Plaza. The movie was based in part on Georgia’s “Heartbeat Bill,” and it was important to both Mitchell and Hatfield that the film premiere in Atlanta. The day they were forced to cancel their live premiere at the theatre was a dark one, but the power of the internet helped them reach a larger audience than they thought possible. The filmmakers kept their original premiere date, but moved everything online, using the streaming platform Twitch to set up a digital premiere. About 900 unique devices tuned in, allowing way more people to see the film on its opening night than could have fit into a Plaza screening.
“It doesn’t feel the same as being in a room with your community, hearing the laughter, feeling the emotion, watching people leap to their feet when the credits roll,” said Mitchell and Hatfield in a written statement. “[But] having that big of an audience all come together on one night to see one short film, felt like a real gift in a time when we all felt so isolated.”
Other creators and organizations haven’t had the luxury of putting all of their content online. Coffee, the creative director for Film Impact Georgia (FIG), had a mentorship program in the works through FIG for Georgia filmmakers with plans to launch in October. FIG wanted to create something like the Sundance Lab to offer pathways for Georgia filmmakers that didn’t exist before, but once the pandemic hit the U.S., their October launch date had to be pushed back and fundraising efforts came to a standstill.
“Most of the people who give to our organization are vendors and people who make money off of the film industry,” Coffee said. “We can’t really ask them to give us money for something like that.”
In the meantime, FIG has been getting creative with their virtual content. Coffee has been directing her energy into facilitating networking opportunities for Georgia filmmakers. Funny enough, being stuck at home has given FIG access to industry professionals they normally wouldn't be able to schedule. They’ve been able to host virtual meet-ups with people like Brian J. Adams and LeeAnne H. Adams, the showrunners of Dwight in Shining Armor, as well as James Ponsoldt, the director of movies such as The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour.
Coffee said FIG wanted to build on the plethora of free time that many have as a result of the pandemic. “If we shoot for the moon, who can we start approaching to really give people one on- one conversations with people they wouldn’t normally have access to?” she asked. “That is a really personal thing, and hopefully in the process of being [educational], that humanizes the struggle that everyone is going through. People who we see as incredibly successful are going through the same human struggles that we are.”
During a pandemic, services like RoleCall Watch, virtual programming, pop-up drive-ins, and the willingness of the community to help out is a lifeboat for filmmakers, actors, writers and more. For those starting out, there’s anxiety over the future of projects that came to a screeching halt, but the Atlanta independent industry continues to show resilience.
"What’s really awesome about independent filmmakers is that they’re extreme
risk takers and usually can defy some pretty daunting odds.”
“No matter how little money they have, somehow these independent filmmakers are able to make their film,” Beehler said. “What’s really awesome about independent filmmakers is that they’re extreme risk takers and usually can defy some pretty daunting odds.”