Pandemic Production: Martin Jones, Austin Studios
"Everything keeps sliding. End of June, Fourth of July."
By Richard Whittaker,
12:01AM, Thu. Jul. 2, 2020
Martin Jones, Director, Austin Studios
There’s a bit of a sigh from Martin Jones when he says, "This is a good time to be in the studio and backlot business.”
It’s a statement loaded with a bit of pain and a lot of truth. The pain comes from the fact that, like everywhere in the film and production industry, Austin Studios is on lockdown. However, as facility director and an industry veteran, he knows this is not permanent. “When you’ve done this industry for a while,” he said, “you have the benefit of having been through a lot of cycles."
When the city issued the shelter-in-place order in March, Austin Film Society took the decision not to mothball the studio, but instead seized the opportunity – or, as Jones explained, "When you can't go out to fish, you stay home and fix your boats and mend your nets." First up: deferred maintenance ("things as mundane as doors and as big as drains”) that would otherwise be a disturbance for tenants. In a spark of coincidence, construction has continued next door in the Mueller development, and the last vacant houses along the adjoining wall are being framed out and should be completed by the time production starts up.
Well, a clarifier: Austin Studios is still in operation. The first few weeks, Jones said, were “a ghost town,” but it’s not like they just chained the gates. As the state has issued new guidelines, there’s been more activity. Studio staff have been working a skeleton crew. Tenants in the iconic Red Building have had access to their offices. Technicians for Rooster Teeth (the studio’s biggest long-term tenant) have been on-site to keep an eye on equipment while their creative team pump out a huge amount of streaming content daily from home. Then in June, following more changes from the governor’s office, small productions started calling. This created a new complication: The studio had some major productions who had to stop mid-shoot, and Jones had to work with them to create workable sound stage space for smaller projects until they spin back up again.
When will that happen? No one knows. However, when it does, Austin Studios expects to be busy. With health and safety a higher priority than ever before, studios are less interested in location shoots and crowd scenes, and more concerned about controllable environments. Sound stages will be at a premium, and Jones said his facility has five holds on their backlot and stages right now. (One additional selling point: One existing tenant, Code4, is a specialist decontamination firm that will be available to help sanitize sets). "Everything keeps sliding,” Jones said. “End of June, Fourth of July, maybe September, maybe Labor Day." It’s not something he has any control over, beyond just be ready for when shows come back. “It comes down to talent feeling safe, the insurance companies approving, or the companies who are big enough to insure themselves."