Georgia’s Governor Wants Movie Theaters to Reopen, but Cinema Operators, Film Productions Say ‘Not So Fast’

The Springs Cinema and Taphouse Georgia
Courtesy of The Springs Cinema and Taphouse

The state of Georgia is aiming to be among the first to restart its economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But in the state’s sizable entertainment sector, nobody is raring to get back to work just yet.

It’s not even clear that Georgia is over the worst of COVID-19, and several insiders say that studios are unlikely to risk the health of their casts and crews by going back into production prematurely. As of April 20, there were 19,399 confirmed cases of the virus in the state, and the death toll stood at 775.

Marvel movies and “The Walking Dead” are among the hundreds of projects that shoot in the state every year, taking advantage of a generous 30% tax credit.

Film and TV production in Georgia has been shut down since March 13. Even as Republican Gov. Brian Kemp announced plans on April 20 to begin reopening businesses this week, production isn’t expected to restart anytime soon.

“Production in Georgia is still going to be, I would suspect, way out in the future before it gets back,” says Mike Akins, business agent of IATSE Local 479, which represents below-the-line workers in the state.

However, some experts believe that the reopening will be on a regional basis, and will extend to when cameras can start rolling.

In a statement provided to Variety, the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office said the state was “cautiously working on plans” for a return to normal operations, which could include a testing system. “We will continue to work with studios to make decisions based on what is best for public health and the safety of our terrific crews here, not what is happening in other states,” Lee Thomas, the director of the state film office, said.

The state could have looser restrictions on what can be filmed within its borders. “For a while, it may be harder to shoot certain films with, say, an intimate scene in New York or California,” says Elsa Ramo, managing partner of Ramo Law. “You might have to do that in a state that hasn’t had a major outbreak.”

Akins, however, downplayed the notion that Georgia crews would return to work first. “The industry is going to come back as a whole,” he says. “It’s not going to open up in one or two places and not somewhere else.” 

Guidelines from the CDC say that states can begin reopening their economies if they see 14 days of declining cases, a benchmark Georgia has not achieved. Despite falling short of those numbers, Kemp announced that theaters would be allowed to reopen on April 27. But so far, it doesn’t appear that any theaters are eager to unlock their doors.

“We are not going to open on Monday, and we don’t have any plans as to when we would,” says Brandt Gully, owner of The Springs Cinema & Taphouse, near Atlanta. “Even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t be ready. It just doesn’t feel socially responsible to me to go out there to try to grab a few bucks.”

Ciné, an art-house theater in Athens, Ga., also has no plans to immediately recommence business. “We’re basing our opening on the data and science,” says Pamela Kohn, the executive director. “Georgia hasn’t seen a downward trend of cases for 14 days.”

At the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, owner Chris Escobar says the governor’s order didn’t make much sense to him. “You have to have movies to show,” Escobar says. “Second, you have to have people willing to come in.” He says there was no reassurance from public health authorities that it is safe to reopen. And he worries that the state order will just make it harder for him to qualify for certain kinds of assistance. 

“I don’t want to be that movie theater, where the outbreak in Atlanta is all related to the f–king Plaza Theatre,” he says. “I don’t think anybody does.”

Even if the Plaza Theatre were to relight its marquee, it might have trouble finding films to show. No major studio movies are scheduled to be released until late June, and some indie studios say they won’t allow their films to be exhibited in Georgia theaters that open next week.

“We will not be participating in that,” says Tom Quinn, CEO of Neon, the distributor of Oscar winner “Parasite” and “I, Tonya.” “I hope people do the sensible thing and self-isolate.”

In a statement, the National Association of Theatre Owners, the exhibition industry’s lobbying arm, noted that even if theaters open in Georgia or other states, the movie business is a national one.

“Until the majority of markets in the U.S. are open, and major markets in particular, new wide release movies are unlikely to be available,” the group said. “As a result, some theaters in some areas that are authorized to open may be able economically to reopen with repertory product;  however, many theaters will not be able to feasibly open.”

The major chains — AMC, Regal and Cinemark — have not yet commented publicly on their plans in Georgia. But insiders say they aren’t eager to reopen either.

“No one is demanding this,” Escobar says. “Even the people saying, ‘I need a haircut,’ they’re not saying, ‘I need to go see a movie.’”