“For a big-budget studio film, COVID testing and safety could increase a budget by 15-20%,” producer Shaun MacGillivray says
Just as Hollywood was making moves to resume film and television production, the explosion of COVID-19 infections in large regions of the United States has forced studios and networks to react quickly to rapidly worsening news in the hopes of salvaging plans.
Multiple insiders with knowledge of plans to resume filming tell TheWrap that preproduction work that began a few weeks ago on many projects is still moving forward. But those plans now have to take into account the rising infection rates in major production hubs like California and Georgia that could very soon render it impossible to shoot safely. For now, studios in Georgia have yet to close and applications are still being accepted for on-location filming in Los Angeles County.
“It’s this weird suspended animation. Everyone is having conference calls but nothing is happening,” one studio insider told TheWrap. “There is going to be value to someone just starting. The plans now are much better than the plans from May. It’s just the question of who is going to go first.”
The stop-and-start nature of the current situation was reflected in the case of “Songbird,” director Adam Mason’s pandemic-themed thriller starring Craig Robinson and Demi Moore. SAG-AFTRA slapped the film, produced by Michael Bay and Adam Goodman, with a do-not-work order on Friday before lifting that restriction one day later.
In terms of safety on set, studios and guilds are mostly on the same page after months of devising safety guidelines. Talks are still ongoing between the two sides about taking the general safety rules outlined in the Industry-Wide Safety Committee’s white paper and the guilds’ “Safe Way Forward” report and turning them into a legally-binding safety code. Meanwhile, IATSE locals are still working on finer details of craft-specific safety rules, such as hair and makeup. And even when a safety contract is signed by the studios, it’s still expected that the rules will have to be modified over time.
“There’s going to be things that we learn about the virus and best safety practices that won’t come until productions actually start,” one guild insider said. “It’s never going to be completely finished, which is good for safety but will be something that productions will have to make sure they are constantly up to date on.”
Two other important matters productions need to keep aware of: local safety requirements and testing availability. Each city and state has its own guidelines on COVID safety during filming, and some major hubs like Canada and New York are currently not allowing out-of-state crews to enter without a mandatory two-week quarantine. That can complicate the logistics and expenses of flying a crew out to another location, especially if cast and crew are traveling from various parts of the world.
A documentary project that’s in production is looking to shoot around September’s U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York but is struggling with how to get the California-based film crew in since the state currently requires out-of-state visitors to quarantine for 14 days, an individual with knowledge of the project told TheWrap.
Studios and producers have also found that rapid-response COVID tests can sometimes prove unreliable. Such was the case with CBS’ daytime soap “The Bold and the Beautiful,” which made headlines in Hollywood as the first major TV production to resume filming only to stop again a day later to accommodate a greater level of testing than producers had anticipated. A spokesperson for the show’s production company, Bell-Phillip Television, said that several false positive tests were also found, forcing the company to find a new lab to provide tests.
One production executive for a major studio who asked to remain anonymous told TheWrap that tests that provide results within an hour are being strictly reserved for hospitals and first responders. Most of the ones available to film crews provide results in around 24 hours.
“We aren’t having trouble gaining access to those kinds of tests,” the production head said. “The big problem is the time waiting for those test results to come back. Depending on where the testing lab is, the amount of time we have to wait for results to come back could be longer if the lab is handling a surge of infections. But there are still a lot of labs offering tests to studios, and they have enough tests to handle the frequency that the experts have recommended for essential cast and crew.”
The first productions to move forward have tended to be those that can self-isolate and create quarantine “bubbles” for the duration of a shoot. The 16th season of ABC’s “The Bachelorette,” for example, called off plans to start shooting in March and pivoted to a format that would allow filming at a closed-off resort in the U.S. in which the cast and crew will stay for the entirety of the shoot (making it the first season of the long-running reality show to skip an overseas trip). Shooting is set to begin this month, with the next season of “The Bachelor” aiming for a September start with the same quarantined format.
A similar plan is being considered for Paramount’s upcoming film revival of the MTV series “Jackass,” with the cast and crew isolating in large mansion compound to film a series of home-size pranks and stunts, according to an individual familiar with the project. No start date has been announced.
For major studios, the new COVID safety requirements could add a substantial amount to a film’s production budget — particularly the need to pay cast and crew while they quarantine for two weeks just before and after filming. And the new safety requirements could prove prohibitively expensive for independent productions that already have to scrap for financing.
“If a director is waiting hours or even a day for critical cast members or crew to have their tests clear, that can seriously extend how long a shoot takes,” said Shaun MacGillivray, independent producer and president of MacGillivray Freeman Films. “For a big-budget studio film, COVID testing and safety could increase a budget by 15-20%. For a lot of indie projects, I expect it’s going to be 30% or more, and with the resource and funding those projects have, it’s going to be a bigger challenge for a lot of them to get the extra money and testing access.”
Some tech companies are trying to make the testing process more accessible for indie producers. HollPass offers a suite of safety tools that includes access to COVID-19 tests and a QR code and text message system in which cast, crew and outside suppliers use their phones to scan in and out of different areas of a film or TV set without an app or any identifying data aside from a phone number. Producers can then use the data from those scans to trace who may have interacted with any crew member who tests positive for the virus. Founder Linc Gasking said the process was created after discussions with guilds during the safety guideline development process.
“Many of the smallest independent productions don’t even have a physician to provide tests to them. It’s up to the producers to find some way to get access to tests,” he said. “Our goal is to provide an affordable yet accurate method to get the industry back to work and to help producers with testing and tracing. Just as important, producers can use the data to determine which crew members spend the most time on set and on the move so they can prioritize who they need to test first and frequently.”
For productions with deeper pockets, there’s another option: Go film in Europe, which is farther along than the U.S. in containing the pandemic and reopening its economy.
While the European Union has banned U.S. residents from traveling across the Atlantic, member countries are able to make their own exceptions for business purposes. Several film commissions for countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary have told TheWrap that American productions are welcome to film there provided that they adhere to testing, safety and possible quarantine procedures. The Marvel Studios/Disney+ series “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is set to finish filming in the Czech Republic this fall while Warner Bros. is set to resume filming Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” in Budapest in August.
In addition, the United Kingdom and New Zealand announced this past weekend that they are granting travel ban exemptions to film crews for multiple productions that will bring hundreds of film crews to their sets. New Zealand, which has eradicated the virus but has kept its borders closed, will allow crews and family members to travel pending testing and a quarantine period. James Cameron has already resumed production on “Avatar 2,” and other projects set to start filming again include Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” and Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop.”
The U.K. is allowing foreign film crews to skip a quarantine period entirely, but outside crews will have to stay in a bubble environment similar to what is being planned for “The Bachelorette,” living in close proximity to shooting areas and undergoing regular testing. Several large Hollywood tentpole films are set to shoot in England, including Paramount’s seventh “Mission: Impossible” film, Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” and Universal’s “Jurassic World: Dominion.”
While most of these overseas productions were already planning to film in their respective countries or had already started prior to the pandemic, the allure of international availability may tempt some studios to pull up stakes on films set to shoot in the U.S. and move them elsewhere if the script and the budget allows for it.
“I expect that Europe may become a more popular option if the situation doesn’t improve in the U.S.,” one studio insider told TheWrap. “I’m sure there’s going to be some actors and crew that will be uncomfortable with getting on a long flight to another country, but on the other hand, why stay here where the situation is getting worse when you can work for a couple of months in a country that actually has this pandemic under control?”
For now, the plan for productions in the U.S. is that efforts to get filming going again won’t fully stop unless public officials order them to halt, and guilds will continue to oversee safety measures for those productions. In a statement last month, a spokesperson for the Directors Guild of America told TheWrap that its contracts and enforcement team is “working through a detailed process to ensure employers are following the necessary protocols to provide safe workplaces for our members, including a close review of employers’ safety plans, discussions with our members, and close coordination with our sister guilds and unions.” Representatives for the major Hollywood guilds declined to comment in detail for this story about current plans to fine-tune their safety oversight processes, citing confidential safety agreement negotiations with studios.
The studios, meanwhile, feel confident that the safety plans they have spent the past three months devising will be enough to protect their employees. But with daily new cases in Los Angeles crossing 3,000 for the first time this week and health officials nationwide warning that hospitals may soon be overwhelmed, any bubble that producers tries to build around their sets is going to face a difficult test.
“We feel assured that if our members get COVID, it’s not going to come from working on our sets,” one studio production head said. “The big challenge is going to be making sure crew members stay safe when they aren’t on our sets. Testing is going to be critical and the hard part is that since crews can range in size, it’s going to take some time to figure out the best way to responsibly test everyone and make sure that no one brings the virus to work.”
Thom Geier contributed to this report.