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Maui draws 8 film and TV productions worth $40M amid COVID-19 pandemic

‘White Lotus’ set for HBO; Travolta, Willis in ‘Paradise City’

Bruce Willis (right) and Blake Jenner in “Paradise City” during filming at the Kihei Boat Ramp in May. — Photo courtesy of Maui Film Office

Maui County during the pandemic was the stage for eight film and TV productions, which brought millions in revenue and created hundreds of jobs, and the local industry is showing no sign of slowing any time soon, officials said this week.

The latest productions on Maui include “The White Lotus,” an HBO social satire miniseries, and “Paradise City,” an action film that stars Bruce Willis and John Travolta, according to Maui County Film Commissioner Tracy Bennett. Another eight productions are in the pipeline for the next year or so.

“The industry … getting to prove itself during a pandemic is unheard of,” Bennett said Friday. “We’ve had eight productions since last August and had over $40 million in fees to our economy and put hundreds of people back to work. And it just keeps building.”

State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson said that preliminary numbers show 2021 will be a record year for film and TV production in Hawaii.

“Our last record was set in 2018 with approximately $417 million in direct dollars spent in the state and approximately 4,200 jobs created,” she said via email Friday. “I think 2021 will greatly exceed those numbers.”

Murray Bartlett (from left), Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, Christie Volkmer and Lukas Gage star in HBO’s “The White Lotus,” which was filmed entirely on Maui. Set to debut July 11 on HBO and HBO Max, the six-part series — a social satire — follows the seemingly sunny vacations of hotel guests at an exclusive Hawaiian resort. As the days progress, a darker side to the picture-perfect visitors, staff and their surroundings begins to emerge. — MARIO PEREZ / HBO photo

When filming shut down worldwide at the onset of the pandemic last March, it was up to the nation’s film industry labor unions to find a way forward.

Dawson said medical experts and labor unions collaborated to create rigorous COVID-19 safety protocols that would provide a framework for people to return to work safely. The conditions for employment at any given project meet, and in many cases exceed, state and county COVID-19 requirements.

Now, projects must provide the state with a detailed COVID safety plan before applying for film permits. Also, they must sign off on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Department of Health guidelines.

“All of this has led to a much more efficient, regulated and safe environment in which our productions can take place,” Dawson said. “That’s comforting to the communities that are hosting these productions in a pandemic.”

She added that Hawaii’s low COVID-19 case counts made it a safe destination in which productions could invest.

The third season of USA Network’s reality series “Temptation Island,” which filmed at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort last year and conducted 90,000 COVID-19 tests on cast and crew with no positive results, set a high standard for productions both near and far, Bennett and Dawson said.

Their rigorous safety protocol of creating groups and subgroups at specific locations showed that filming could be done safely for cast, crew and community amid a global pandemic.

“It was our first bubble production, in fact, it was one of the first bubble productions in the entire world,” Bennett said.

Filming for “The White Lotus” at Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea came on its heels.

The six-episode limited series from Mike White (HBO’s “Enlightened”) began shooting on Maui last October, according to Warner Media. Cast and crew returned in February to finish up, Bennett said.

Set to debut July 11 on HBO and HBO Max, the series — a social satire — follows the seemingly sunny vacations of hotel guests at an exclusive Hawaiian resort. As the days progress, a darker side to the picture-perfect visitors, staff and their surroundings begins to emerge.

“Mike White, the director, writer, producer, really went out of his way to make this more real,” said Bennett, adding that White lives on Kauai and understands various perspectives on tourism and transplants. “And I think people are going to enjoy it, considering the temperature gauge right now in Hawaii as masses of tourists are coming back . . . and the lack of rental cars and hotel rooms and all those things.”

“This show, the timing of it, couldn’t be better,” he added.

Bennett said “The White Lotus” helped get hundreds of people to work, including hotel employees, caterers, vehicle companies, about 100 local crew members and others. He said the production spent almost $22 million, which was infused into the local economy.

Other Maui productions include “Paradise City,” which brings together Willis and Travolta for the Chuck Russell-directed action flick, slated to finish filming in August, according to reports; “Aloha with Love,” a Hallmark movie with Maui actor Branscombe Richmond; “Man-eater,” a Hallmark movie starring Trace Adkins; “Temptation Island Season 4”; and a spinoff of “Temptation Island” by USA Network.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Bennett said. “I would have never predicted that we’d be this busy.”

“But we’ve proven ourselves — that we’re a location with great weather,” he added. “We have a wonderful community here that supports the industry and the mayor’s office and council and state legislators that support the industry.”

As the state crawls out of some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, officials are hopeful that TV, film and digital production jobs can help diversify the economy. Maui and Kauai counties, because of their heavy reliance on visitors, suffered a 35 percent unemployment rate — the highest in the state — during the trough of the pandemic.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism said that film/TV production spending generates substantial additional output, earnings and jobs for Hawaii residents. Also, additional production spending generates more direct and indirect spending in the state, according to the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

“Because it is a clean ‘green’ industry that is kind to our environment and strives to leave places better than they find them, combined with the well-paying jobs supporting the creative sector, the film industry is the perfect way to diversify our economy and help with our overdependence on tourism,” Dawson said.

Maui County won’t see a shortage of production work any time soon, both officials said. Dawson touted Maui’s diversity and the fact that Neighbor Island productions qualify for a higher level of tax credit than Oahu — 25 percent back on all qualified production expenditures.

Now, Bennett said one of his immediate goals is to recruit more local residents into the growing industry.

The film commissioner said that he and other officials are looking toward July and August to launch a program to train residents in the field. Whether it’s for a production assistant, wardrobe, camera, sound, electrician, writer, content creator, director or other roles, more jobs will be cropping up as a result of the industry’s growth, he said.

“At the end of the day, my job here is to keep the industry thriving, to grow the industry and diversify our economy outside of tourism,” Bennett said.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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