Tyler Perry works his creativity and financial might to revive the cameras

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But that feeling of being frozen in time has dissipated in a small corner of Atlanta. Tyler Perry Studios recently wrapped up his successful first session of what Perry calls “Camp Quarantine” to film Season 2 of “Sistas,” the comedy-drama series on BET.

It is one of the first fully produced television series during the pandemic. Eleven days of filming, more than 300 people on site and no one fell ill there. According to the studio, everyone was tested and sequestered from the moment they arrived until their results came back. Four people tested positive at that time, but none have tested positive since.

And Tyler Perry Studios turns around and starts over to film the second season of the prime-time soap, “The Oval.” Less than two weeks ago, 377 people were tested upon arrival. Since then, they say two more rounds of tests have been carried out – all negative. Filming for “The Oval” began Thursday.

Perry was preparing to go into production for the new fall season on “Sistas” when the global pandemic reached its peak.“What I usually do at the top of the year is write all of my scripts and go into production around March,” Perry told me. “So I was all set to go. It was March 16. I watch, I read, I pay attention to everything that is going on with the numbers, and I say, ‘Okay, we have to close’. So before the city, before the state, I closed because I didn’t know how to protect 500 people during the shoot. ”

Perry said he hoped there would be a federal response, a federal plan. “But a few weeks later I realized… you have to figure out if you’re going to do this.”

Perry consulted with medical experts, including me, and came up with a 30 page plan that basically created a quarantine bubble big enough for the cast and crew for the duration of the shoot. He called it Camp Quarantine.

This involved testing and quarantine before arrival; flights on Perry’s private jet for outbound travelers; more testing and quarantine on arrival; lots of personal protective equipment; no hug; lots of mask wearing – except for the casting during filming – and good hand hygiene; then tests every four days. The cast and crew were isolated on the grounds of the 330-acre studio in a housing combination that included army barracks and historic homes. There were food and liquor trucks, movie nights, church services – pretty much everything.

“Once I started to get the information and understand this virus better, I thought maybe it was possible, to bring everyone together, to reduce the size of the crew, the social distance – respect all the rules that the unions demand, that the state demands, what the city demands. But also, get us all to the studio – let’s all live here during production, ”Perry said.

” We have [cast and crew] up to 360 people, and we all moved in and just finished our first successful TV show with no positive results throughout the quarantine bubble, ”he said.

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The cost: $ 18 million. Access to rapid tests: invaluable. I asked Perry about the thousands of tests that have been done at Camp Quarantine, at a time when testing is woefully inadequate for much of the country. He said he knew he was paying a high price for the privilege of rapid testing when others in need couldn’t afford to pay to get tested easily let alone quickly, but he said that he would stop production if he felt his tests were interfering with it. their tests.

“When I see these lines in Arizona and other parts of the country where they wait 10, 12 hours to be tested, it tears my heart, because I know that this test – this antigen test – only costs $ 23 a day. kit. “Although I pay several hundred dollars, the average person can’t afford it,” Perry said. “So let’s be clear: if that happens, we would step back and close, because the important thing is that people can get the tests they need. “

A trusted leader with a plan

The cast and crew were delighted to be back at work. “I think we can all agree that entertainment has helped us get over this. Books [are] entertainment. Television is entertainment. Movies are entertainment, ”KJ Smith, one of the stars of“ Sistas ”, told CNN.

“I’m so glad we’re coming back and I know the world is too. I know we need us. I know this industry is needed. And especially in a time like this we want to get out of it… we don’t want to think about these things, ”she said, referring to the coronavirus.

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Smith said she and others had trusted Perry from the start. Shortly after the coronavirus forced the cancellation of the production schedule and press tours, she said she had a call with Perry who assured everyone, “We’re going to figure this out. ”

And then, she said, the cast and crew were given a 30-page document. “We have received a whole quarantine package of what’s going to happen. He called us again, made sure we were perfectly comfortable, which we were. I tell people all the time: I trust Tyler Perry 100%. He treats us like we are his parents. So I knew we would be fully protected and we were – we were safe, ”Smith said.

“Throughout the process, we had this big package of protective materials: hand sanitizers, surface cleaners, mask, coveralls, goggles, gloves – everything we needed. So we were really, really protected, ”Smith said, adding,“ There was no escape. There was no way around it. Everyone held each other responsible. And it worked. ”

Perry took his responsibility very seriously, especially after someone he worked with often – hairstylist Charles Gregory Ross – contracted Covid-19 and died in April.

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“It was sobering for me,” Perry said. “And then when I started [seeing] the numbers on African Americans and Latin Americans, I was like, “Whoa, whoa! This thing affects us in many greater numbers. So I thought, I have all these people who work for me… the majority of the people who work with me are blacks and maroons. So I knew I couldn’t put them in danger. So I had to find something, but it was very disappointing. Charles’ unfortunate death from this virus gave food for thought. ”

Perry was also concerned about those with pre-existing conditions and other health issues. “The biggest challenge for me was actually ensuring the absolute safety of everyone. … I have several people who are older and have pre-existing conditions ranging from heart disease to… cancer. Three others are cancer survivors. So I was very worried. about them, ”he says.

Perry made sure everyone knew they had to play it safe. Smith says, “I consider myself to be a healthy person with a healthy immune system. But I was aware – and he made us aware – of the people who needed work, who needed to be there, who wanted to be a part of this, who had [pre-existing] conditions that could affect them. And so it had to stay in the forefront of my mind, so that we could all protect these people. ”

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At first Smith said it was a little difficult, remembering to work this new way. “It was like, okay, put on your mask. Alright, let’s move on to the next thing. And then? Okay, take off the mask and now we do the scene. Okay, put on the mask and what’s next? So that was the biggest change and it was really weird. It was really uncomfortable the first few times, but after the first two days we were all able to get into the rhythm, ”she says. Also difficult: Not to greet the other cast members with a hug after being apart for a year, and not being able to sit casually and catch up.

But overall, Smith said the whole experience was fun. “I had the best time of my life and I sincerely hope we will keep this business model for the rest of our shoots,” she said.

Lessons learned

Perry said the success of the quarantine bubble he created for “Sistas” shows the show can go on after all. “The masks work,” he says. “Testing and contact tracing work. We have [hundreds of] people here and we were able to manage it by doing that: testing, isolation and contact tracing, ”he added.

“All of these guidelines are working. They work for ‘Sistas’, they will work for ‘The Oval’. And as long as we stick to the letter, which we do, I think we’ll be fine, ”he said.

“I think anyone who was here during the filming of ‘Sistas’ would say it was a very, very good experience. And you know what they used to tell me that I found really amazing? … They say to me that they feel so safe. ” I feel safe. “And that’s what the country has been missing for a long time,” Perry said.

CNN’s Andrea Kane and Amanda Sealy contributed to this report.

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