Testing . . . testing . . .
That's a word on film officials' lips these days as Wilmington seems poised to see a resurgence of film activity this fall. Studios' decisions to bring projects here now and in the near future may well depend on the ability to do frequent tests for COVID-19 and maintain a safe environment for cast and crew members.
With reports that Scream 5 and a Hallmark Channel movie with the working title of USS Christmas are both preparing to film here this year, industry officials here are talking about procedures that minimize the risk of virus exposure so other studios will have the confidence to proceed.
“Projects are hiring safety crews and have developed protocols, such as wearing masks, taking temperatures, and testing,” Bill Vassar, executive vice president of EUE Screen Gems in Wilmington, said Thursday of the productions setting up here. “It’s a whole new way of doing productions.
“They want to keep as many people as possible away from the actors,” Vassar added. “If one of them got sick and died, the studio would lose millions of dollars.”
Wilmington Regional Film Commissioner Johnny Griffin is optimistic about protective measures, noting that both projects are observing current industry-accepted guidelines for testing, sanitizing, social distancing, and use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“I feel that we are well prepared. We have been facilitating discussions between clients and the state and local health departments, hospital, and local healthcare providers,” Griffin said in an email Friday. “There seem to be ample testing supplies, PPE, and quick testing turnaround. I feel we are as well prepared as we can be, and our clients seem impressed so far with the ability of the region to support their needs.”
Since two film projects are preparing to start production in Wilmington this fall, could there be others waiting in the wings?
“We are hopeful but nothing is confirmed as yet,” Griffin said. “We are having ongoing discussions.”
The area’s relatively lower numbers of COVID-19 cases could be a factor in its favor, according to the film commissioner.
“We have had discussions with projects that have looked favorably on the lower COVID numbers in Wilmington specifically and in North Carolina more generally,” he said. “However, everything changes daily in every state so it’s a constantly evolving situation. But the fact that we do not have mass public transportation and crowded areas makes it easy to social distance and not feel cramped.”
Wilmington has always been attractive to film studios because of its abundance of skilled, experienced crew members. While in recent times North Carolina’s so-called Bathroom Bill and changes to its film incentive program had sent many of those industry veterans to seek work in places like Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta, high coronavirus numbers in those areas have almost shut down filming there.
“I do feel that we have more available crew currently since there is not as much work in surrounding states,” Griffin said. “Hopefully that will work to our benefit.”
There were signs in early 2020 that film activity in Wilmington could be on the rebound, he said, adding that he still sees potential for the future.
“As we were heading into March, things were looking positive for a strong year. As production is resuming it still looks good for Wilmington because of the incentive, crew, stages [at EUE Screen Gems] and the momentum that has been built," Griffin said. "The discussions have been strong, numerous, and frequent with clients, even during this COVID pandemic.”