Tyler Perry was one of the first Hollywood producers to come up with a comprehensive plan to safely restart TV production back in April. Now he is the first to have completed a full season of a primetime scripted series filmed during the pandemic using COVID-19 safety protocols. It is Season 2 of his BET show Sistas, which recently wrapped production at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta and will be ready for a fall debut.
In the break between finishing Sistas on July 25 and starting Season 2 of BET’s The Oval, whose cast members will begin arriving at the studio Thursday, Perry discussed with Deadline how filming and testing went; addressed challenges they faced; and what advice he has for producers who are apprehensive about heading back into production before a coronavirus vaccine is widely available, outlining daily testing or quarantine bubbles as crucial to a successful restart.
As we have reported, Perry employs a quarantine bubble model, sequestering cast and crew on the lot for the duration of a shoot. In May, he sent out a 30-page document to his casts outlining the plan in great detail.
Perry said he and his team followed that document “to the letter,” and it worked. (You can watch a behind-the-scenes video of the process and the accommodations on Sistas below.) He will use the exact same protocols for The Oval and two other shows he has lined up at the studio one after the other through September: Bruh and Ruthless, both for BET+.
“All of the hard work and months of planning paid off. Production went extremely well on the second season of Sistas, and now we’re preparing for The Oval,” said Michelle Sneed, president of production and development at Tyler Perry Studios. “Of course, there is always a learning curve when embarking on a new project and even more so when filming it in the middle of a pandemic. However, one of the most valuable lessons I learned is to trust the process and the people you have in place to do their job.”
There were 360 people — cast, crew and 10 extras — inside the bubble who worked on Season 2 of Sistas for the duration of the shoot. That was down 80-100 people from the regular production team that worked on Season 1 as Perry had to scale back because of the amount of housing available on the premises.
However, “my crew stepped up and they were amazing,” Perry said.
Still, production was intense. “We were shooting an enormous amount of pages a day,” he said. “Moves that would’ve taken 10-15 minutes took 45, but it was fine. It flowed, it completely flowed.”
Actors were flown in from New York and Los Angeles on Perry’s private plane.
“We checked in 160 on Thursday [July 9] with the actors, four days before they started working. They were tested before they got on the plane,” Perry said.
Everybody — cast and crew — was tested on that Monday [July 13]. The crew check-in was Tuesday, July 14, with everyone staying in their rooms until test results came back.
“We had four positives in our initial check-in before anyone was allowed to leave their room,” Perry said. “We had those people leave and got them the help they needed.” The positive tests did not involve cast; two of them were extras, two were crew.
Everyone then was tested every four days for the duration of the shoot with no positive results as the quarantine bubble held up. The production used PCR tests, which are the most accurate available so far. All through pre-production, test results were coming the next day. But then came the nationwide spike in cases, and test results began to take longer, 36-48 hours, which led to a delay in the start of production — pushed from July 14 to July 15. That issue since has been resolved. “The labs that we are using now give the results back within 24 hours,” Perry said.
Perry admits that he was worried heading into the endeavor.
“My biggest concern was, I have several crew members who have preexisting conditions that I asked personally to sit this one out but they said no, they wanted to work, they needed to work,” Perry said. “I couldn’t legally stop them from working, so my biggest concern was making sure that they were safe and that the actors who did not wear masks were safe. Because masks one hundred percent help cut down on the spread. Every time an actor had a mask off, and every time I looked at the people with preexisting conditions, they were my biggest concern.”
Everyone on the set of Perry’s shows is required to wear a mask except for actors when they are filming scenes.
In April, Emmy-nominated hairstylist Charles Gregory Ross, who had worked with Perry in the past, died of COVID-19. His passing had a profound impact of Perry and his approach to resuming production. It also helps him understand other producers who are apprehensive about getting their shows up and running amid the pandemic.
“After losing a crew member to COVID that was on another production at the very beginning of this thing, clearly I understand the nervousness, I understand the trepidation, and they should enter with extreme caution,” Perry said. “But I tell you, if you can’t test everyone every day, I don’t know how you do this unless it’s a quarantine bubble. I don’t know another way, because COVID could be among you and spreading and you not know it.”
As of now, only Perry’s shows are filming at his studio — one at a time. But with his “Camp Quarantine” model showing results, he is ready to open the lot to outside productions.
“There is still another 200 acres of open land, several other camps can be set up here just like the one we set up; camps can be set up in no time — we set up ours in a month, month and a half,” Perry said. “There are many, many more housing opportunities for other camps for sure.”
Already, there is interest. “I have had several phone calls when it will be available and what we could do; there are some conversations that are happening,” Perry said.
He admits that he did not have to jump in, develop the safety guidelines and start production amid the pandemic, but he felt an obligation to do it.
“I could just go and sit somewhere and wait for a vaccine but what would’ve happen with all of those people and their lives and their livelihoods if I didn’t do this?” he said. “The level of thank yous that I got from the crew privately as I was passing through — because I’m there with them the entire time, I’m going to the food truck or going to grab a drink at the truck bar — they tell me just how much they appreciate having the opportunity to work and work safely.”
Perry is prepared to use the current production setup for months or even years.
“We are set up for the long haul, we could be here for a year and a half, two years, five years if we needed to,” he said. “But my hope is that there is a vaccine by this time next year. I know the hope is it will be by the end of the year, but even if it’s by the end of the year, by the time they ramped up production and by the time it got to the masses, to say another year is safe.”
Along with his work on restarting production at his studio, over the last few months Perry has been active in his community and a leading voice of the Black Lives Matter movement. In April, he donated $21,000 to 42 out-of-work servers — $500 each — at Houston’s on Northside Parkway, a favorite restaurant of his. A few weeks later, Perry anonymously picked up the tabs at 44 Atlanta-area Krogers during the store’s designated shopping hour for seniors and at-risk patrons. He did the same for 29 Winn-Dixies in his hometown of New Orleans.
Following the death of George Floyd, which triggered nationwide protests, Perry wrote a essay on racial injustice, featured on the cover of People. He provided travel for Rev. Al Sharpton, Eric Garner’s mother Gwen Carr and members of Floyd’s family to Floyd’s funeral. He also paid all funeral expenses for Rayshard Brooks, who was fatally shot by an Atlanta police officer, and for Secoriea Turner, an 8-year-old girl who was fatally struck by gunfire.
Last week, Perry, donated 1,000 Kroger gift cards to Southeast Atlanta residents, teaming with the Atlanta Police Department to distribute the $50 cards.
“What is happening in the country right now with all the protests, and with even Secoriea, the 8-year-old killed in Atlanta. All of that has been on my mind,” Perry said. “So when I gave those gift cards to the neighborhood around the studio and asked the police to pass them out, my hope was to bring some unity in the community, to bring understanding that all cops are not bad cops and we need them, as well as all Black people are not bad people, and that kind of mentality and that kind of thinking that is blanketed is wrong. My hope is that everybody would come from their corners and just have some conversations. That’s my hope for the country; let’s have some conversations that we could at least hear each other.”
As for the industry, “my hope is that the industry could get back to work,” Perry said. “There are so many people who need to work. It’s my hope that everybody could go back to work. I don’t know how that happens without daily testing or quarantine bubbles.”