As filming is permitted to resume, the entertainment industry is starting to feel somewhat “normal” again. Production companies are wasting no time trying to get back on track. However, there are some undeniable differences between filming now versus how it looked in February. All media production was halted in mid-March due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (“COVID-19”). This has caused major delays on production and releases.
While some companies were able to resume filming in mid-July, some are still on hold and unsure of what the future holds. Due to the unexpected challenges the pandemic has presented, production companies are now faced with a magnitude of new issues. Furthermore, they have been forced to operate under strict guidelines.
In response to the pandemic, production companies now have to adhere to new safety protocols that have been specifically designed for COVID-19. The companies have to adhere to proposed guidelines from the state government, local government, entertainment industry, and the individual production companies themselves. Although it sounds like a lot to follow, most of the recommended guidelines that have been published are vague, ultimately leaving the decisions up to the individual production and studios.
In consultation with leading epidemiologists and experts, the Directors Guild of America (“DGA”), International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (“IATSE”), International Brotherhood of Teamsters (“IBT”), the Basic Crafts, Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (“SAG-AFTRA”), and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (“AMPTP”) all worked together to create safety protocols for the reopening of the industry. These protocols include strictly enforced testing regimens and safety protocols, a zone-based system, diligent use of personal protective equipment, COVID-19 sick leave, and quarantine pay.
As mentioned above, individual production companies have a lot of discretion on how they will face the pandemic and what extra safety precautions they will put in place. Since filming has resumed, there have been many different techniques used to ensure the safety of the cast and crew. These techniques range from creating a bubble to heightened safety protocols.
Many reality television shows, including Love Island USA (“Love Island”) and The Bachelorette, chose to create a bubble. By creating a bubble, they allowed the cast members to act normal while filming, without having to follow everyday COVID-19 protocols, such as social distancing. Instead of traveling to Fiji to film, the producers of Love Island decided to transform The Cromwell Hotel in Las Vegas into the “villa,” where the contestants live. Similarly, instead of traveling the world, the producers of The Bachelorette decided to film the entire season exclusively at the La Quinta Resort in Palm Springs, California. In both instances, all members of the cast and crew were required to quarantine for weeks and produce multiple negative COVID tests prior to filming. The bubble model was 100% successful for both shows. Chris Harrison, the host of The Bachelorette, stated that advantages to the bubble model included, “the intimacy and the pressure-cooker in that fishbowl environment” and “knock[ing] weeks off the production schedule.”
Other production companies chose to enforce heightened safety protocols. For example, Dancing With The Stars made many changes to the normal model of the show. To adhere to the guidelines, it requires the dancers to be tested for COVID-19 five times a week, the pros to quarantine individually, and for the entire cast to practice strict social distancing guidelines. Furthermore, the show installed remote-operated cameras and prohibits anyone but the essential cast from entering the ballroom. Rob Mills, ABC Entertainment’s SVP of alternative series, specials and late night programming, stated that, by putting these measurements in place, “if somebody does end up testing positive [ ] it’s not going to shut the entire thing down [and] once we get started, we’ll be able to go through to the end.”
On the movie side of the industry, while filming their indie film “The Knocking,” producers Maurice Fadida and Eric B. Fleischman tried to keep a highly tactile and collaborative environment while still abiding by COVID safety protocols. However, the many changes (i.e., isolation of the cast members, food served and eaten individually, and the supervision of a COVID Compliance Officer) made the filming process undeniably different. A COVID Compliance Officer is someone who oversees production and ensures that companies are complying with the necessary guidelines.
The pandemic has created new concerns for the entertainment industry, specifically for production companies. The predominant concerns include the cost of complying with safety protocols, what to do in the event of an outbreak, filming under the new conditions, and whether the pandemic should be included in storylines.
It is no secret that implementing and executing the new COVID-19 safety requirements comes with a price tag. Fadida and Fleicshman estimated that “safety measures cost as much as 10% of their production budget, and resulted in additional shooting days.” Moving forward, producers will have to allocate part of the overall budget to ensure they are able to comply with the regulations. While this will likely not be an issue for large production companies, it may be detrimental to the independent-film industry. To produce an independently financed film, loans and insurance policies are required. However, no insurance company will cover COVID-19, which prevents the production of independent films.
Although producers are trying their best to produce a show/film which portrays a storyline where the talent is unaffected by the pandemic, it still exists. It would be naive to think that no member of any cast or crew will become infected. Therefore, it is important for there to be a plan in place if someone does test positive. Some companies have already experienced this firsthand. Despite heightened safety protocols, the production of Jurassic World: Dominion and Batman were halted after members of the cast tested positive for COVID-19. Production will resume for these films in accordance with the safety protocols that are put in place, which includes the self-isolation of the cast members, as well as any person who came into contact with them.
It is obvious that these new filming guidelines will change the way certain scenes, specifically romantic scenes or scenes involving large crowds, can be filmed. Given the current state of the world, some actors do not feel comfortable participating in love scenes. Additionally, producer Lucas Foster discussed the difficulties of shooting during the pandemic and said, “I had to figure out how to do a crowd with no more than a few people at the same time. And with very specific camera angles. And by taking actors who would normally be close together and making them not close together . . . In the end, I’d get the scene I needed but it looked different than it would have before the pandemic.”
Another dilemma some writers are experiencing is “how much to incorporate the pandemic into their stories.” On one hand, it is important to incorporate what is going on in the real world into the story. On the other hand, as writer Mark Heyman stated, “Do you really want your stars wearing masks because that’s what characters would do? Do you want to have people engaging with each other in groups no larger than six? Do you want to write stories where everyone is at a safe distance? . . . Because a lot of those things won’t be very much fun to watch.” It will be interesting to see how and/or whether the pandemic will be portrayed by the entertainment industry in upcoming releases.
WHAT TO EXPECT
It is safe to say that, just like the world today, the entertainment industry is different than it was a year ago. As this becomes the new normal, hopefully the industry finds the most effective way to film while keeping the cast and crew safe and healthy. In the meantime, we will see the impact COVID-19 continues to have on production.