Editor’s Note: As Deadline continues its Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series on the struggles of people in the entertainment industry impacted by the coronavirus-related shutdowns and layoffs, today we launch a new series, Reopening Hollywood, focused on the incredibly complicated effort to get the industry back on its feet while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. We intend to examine numerous sides of the business; if you have suggestions about things to consider, please leave a comment.
On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a six-point guide to how California will reopen its economy as officials weigh lifting restrictive orders designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
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Entertainment is a major portion of the California economy and, with the production shutdown just crossing the one-month mark and layoffs, furloughs and paycuts implemented by reeling studios, there has been a growing discussion among executives and producers about how to ease back into production, along with the big challenges a return poses — from keeping everyone safe to securing an insurance policy, filming crowds and exteriors, and determining what content is appropriate to show in a society changed by the coronavirus.
We are still months away from cameras rolling — studios’ most optimistic projections are for July-August production restarts, and the more realistic ones are aiming to be up and running by September. California is still under a stay-at-home order, which currently expires on May 15.
There are many different issues we will cover, starting today with the resumption of location and soundstage shoots.
Getting up and running again in this brave new world is going to be very difficult to navigate. For one thing, insurers are unlikely to cover productions for COVID-19 cases when business resumes, according to multiple sources in the know. Producers all over filed multimillion-dollar claims triggered when civil authorities — governments — prevented filming from continuing and forcing production shutdowns. When the business starts up, that will now be considered an identified risk, and insurers will not cover it, sources said, just as CDC is warning of a second coronavirus wave.
What does that mean? Most likely, everyone on a film or TV production will be required to sign a rider, similar to ones they sign covering behavior codes in areas like sexual harassment, to indemnify the productions. “You acknowledge you are going into a high-density area, and while we will do our best effort to protect you, nothing is failsafe and if you contract COVID-19, we are not liable,” said a source involved drawing up these guidelines. “There is no other way we can think of to address this. If you don’t want to sign, don’t take the job.”
Conversations about how to return to production began ramping up late last week amid stabilizing levels of new COVID-19 cases and deaths in Los Angeles County, boosted by an encouraging drop in new infections over the weekend. Unfortunately, the optimism was short lived — Tuesday and Wednesday brought record spikes in deaths– but discussions continue because the business cannot begin to recover until an industry goes back to work.
So far, there are no protocols on which studios have settled, but active discussions continue, including with the film commissions in New York and Los Angeles, we hear. AMPTP and IATSE are leaning in hardest here to map lists of safety concerns and solutions, and every major studio in Hollywood has top people trying to figure out every scenario that needs to be addressed before shows can get up and running. The same conversations are taking place in other areas that touch the business, from the offices where people work and congregate, to hotspot eateries and movie theaters.
Nothing will happen until jurisdictions relax regulations that currently don’t allow gatherings of 20 or more people. Anticipating that will happen in a month or two, here are some of the key issues that are being figured out right now in film and TV production:
There will be no ideal way to ensure a completely safe set, but this is what might happen right away. Everyone will be tested before they are allowed onto a set. While not as accurate as traditional swab tests that take days to process, rapid antigen tests are the best possible option as they provide results within 15-20 minutes. Their daily use on sets is predicated on the availability of testing kits without taking them away from first responders and hospitals. Additionally, productions are expected to employ, when possible, antibody tests that detect immunity if a person had already had the virus.
There will be a health questionnaire, a temperature check and hygiene training (sneeze into the crook of your elbow), and health professionals will be hovering to check for fever or symptoms, with those who exhibit them subject to quarantine. This process is expected to add up to an hour and a half to each person’s arrival time, though those whose antibody tests show they have some immunity, it is possible they won’t have to be tested every day.
Now, there are legal hurdles and privacy issues that come into play in all of this, but it’s envisioned that whether you are above or below the line, you are going to have to submit to this scrutiny before you are handed masks and gloves to put on while you are on the set.
“No one will want to, or should, report back to any environment they don’t feel safe in,” a top TV producer said.
The set you enter will be different from the pre-pandemic sets. You will not be allowed to share hand tools of any kind, so if you are building a set, there won’t be communal saws, screwdrivers or hammers. You’ll need your own.
Craft services used to consist of a cafeteria-style meal, and snacks like communal bowls of peanuts and M&Ms. That will be history. Meals will only be doled out in single-serving pre-wrapped fashion, and there will be no shared utensils. Lunch breaks will have to be staggered, to cut down on density.
There will be an extra level of protection built around actors whose health is crucial to keeping a production going and a crew employed. They are irreplaceable and, because of the nature of their work, actors cannot be in front of the camera wearing protective equipment. To keep them safe, below the line personnel coming into contact with actors or directors will have to wear masks and gloves at all times.
Offices and bathrooms will no longer have doorknobs or handles that need to be touched to open them; it will be swinging doors, from now on. The sparkling water cooler? It requires the push of a button so that won’t work. And since no one wants to be responsible for an accumulation of plastic bottles, boxed water is the most likely option.
You will not be allowed to share cell phones, and a crew will be hired to disinfect the set each day.
There is talk of productions commandeering entire hotels to create safe zones where those working on a movie or TV production can stay and congregate. Even then, the rigorous testing process will have to be done at the start of every week, since those working on series and films will go home to families, and maybe to bars and restaurants.
The hope is that the testing will allow actors to engage in intimate scenes, but crowd scenes that call for a multitude of extras to be sandwiched into a frame — around the movie or TV show’s star — will be a major issue. One possibility is the more liberal use of LiDAR for visual effects. A city can be digitally re-created, down to the last cobblestone, and actors can be green-screened into a frame, into that crowd of extras. The priority will always be to keep the stars of TV shows and movies from getting sick.
While the expectation would be that production in far-flung locations would dissipate once the production business reopens, sources said that’s likely not going to be the case.
“The economics right now are worse than they have ever been, and the box office muted, so it is a double whammy and without the incentives and rebates that come with shooting outside the U.S., you could not absorb the extra costs,” said a source. “The hard part is, you go around the world looking for the best tax incentives and put movies in Budapest, Serbia and Australia, and now you have to tell an A-list actor they have to get on a plane for eight hours to spend 16 weeks away. What if they get sick there? How do you get them to feel safe?”
For TV shows, we hear there is talk to potentially limit shoots to studio lots, including the CBS Radford Studios, which offer some exteriors in addition to sound stages. They don’t have the same level of authenticity as filming on actual streets, but compromises will have to be made to increase safety if productions are to get back up before a coronavirus vaccine is widely available.
Even filming on lots won’t be as straightforward as flipping a switch once the stay-at-home orders are lifted. We hear some studio facilities are considering not allowing filming for two months after the state quarantine is over because of insurance concerns.
Studios also are examining the role of each crew member to limit the number of people on set to only essential personnel and to also separate them into smaller clusters in different parts of the set when possible to avoid large gatherings.
Everything in producing a TV series will need to be rethought because of COVID-19, from actual shooting, makeup/wardrobe and craft services to creative changes in the content. In addition to adjusting scripts to avoid location shoots, large crowds and action scenes, there are questions whether it will be appropriate for shows to reflect the life we had before the pandemic hit. With social distancing expected to be a part of our lives for months and even years, studio executives and creators are wondering whether it would it be jarring to depict characters having a family dinner, for example, which is a staple in each Blue Bloods episode, or go to a crowded restaurant.
After a similar production shutdown during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, Hollywood reopened and, eventually, it got back to normal a year or so later. At the time, there was only a film industry, which was still in its early days.
The coronavirus pandemic struck amid a TV boom that yielded more than 500 original scripted series in 2019. The sheer magnitude of production and the high stakes for studios and platforms in the era of streaming will likely be an impetus for the companies to join forces and hammer out strict guidelines how to make content as safely as possible during the months between the time quarantines are lifted and life truly goes back to normal.
“Getting the industry back on its feet is the most important thing we have do for all of us,” a prominent Hollywood insider said.
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