September 23, 2020

Showbiz Gets Back to Business With Caution and New Protocols

The world is still reeling from the coronavirus, but the resilient film and TV series production business has begun to move forward again in some locations.

There’s a lot at stake: a recent report endorsed by the Assn. of Film Commissioners Intl. shows that in 2019, global expenditure on production reached an estimated $177 billion. The report notes that high-water mark would have been exceeded in 2020 factoring in rising production volume had COVID-19 not slowed and in most cases stopped production around the world. The report shows a 70% average decline in production over the first six months of 2020.

TV drove the numbers in production, where the number of series available in the U.S. doubled between 2011 and 2019 from 266 titles to 532.37, according to the SPI Global report. The number of feature films produced worldwide increased by 10% between 2014 and 2018, with the biggest growth in that sector coming from China, India and South Korea.

But there’s hope as the virus is abating in some countries while the production business in all these nations has adopted shooting safety standards, and in some cases, those protocols have been in place long enough to study their success, and make adjustments.

“Since local film production has been permitted in South Africa since the beginning of May under strict protocol, this early film activity has given us a good opportunity to monitor the success of these protocols,” says Genevieve Hofmeyr, producer/managing director of Moonlighting Films. “We believe that the protocol structures are strong and being implemented with the assistance of strong health and safety teams and COVID compliance officers. We’ve seen it in the local industry here, but we haven’t yet embarked on a fully fledged international production. I think our first will be in October, crossed fingers. Moonlighting has developed a very robust set of protocols, which comply not only with the South African government requirements but also with [international guidelines].

“I’ve been amazed at how we’ve adapted our working style, the way we communicate. Someone would have had to fly out here for locations, or casting, but now we are able to do that remotely. There’s been a heightened consciousness that I’ve seen throughout the industry of being more socially aware and people looking out for one another. I think it will stick around and really help us going forward.”

In Spain, which upped its incentives to attract more production, it’s been a struggle. The virus hit the country hard earlier this year and while it came out of severe lockdown, Spain, similar to many other countries in Europe and Asia, has seen second-wave cases.

However, updated health and safety protocols in Spain were designed with input from industry professionals in an effort to strike a balance between the best practices regarding COVID-19 spread prevention, and what is practical on a film set. Once implemented, laws place the onus on individual producers to ensure that production is executed adhering to the established legal protocols.

“If the rules are followed correctly, there shouldn’t be any problems,” says José Luis Escolar, Madrid-based boss of Calle Cruzada. His recent producer credits include Netflix Original anthology series “Criminal,” Amazon Prime Video’s “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” and an upcoming role as line producer for Lana Wachowski on “The Matrix 4,” a role he previously filled on her 2012 feature “Cloud Atlas.”

“I just shot a series for HBO for six weeks, July 6 to Aug. 14, with no problems at all,” he says. “Industries must adapt to this new situation, from script to post-production. It is the only way. Protocols alone won’t cut it.”

According to Escolar, the COVID-19 shutdowns proved a valuable learning opportunity for those in the Spanish industry willing to look for a
silver lining. The key takeaway was realizing just how important flexibility is in the industry.

“As a producer you always have to be ready to change, adapt quickly and move on,” he says. “Scripts need to be written with a new mentality, projects need to be designed in a new way and sets need to be managed differently.”

In the U.S., the entertainment business must look at each state’s response to COVID — and even get as granular as the regulations from cities, counties and towns — and weigh the testing capabilities, the extent of quarantines and a patchwork of health and safety regulations because there has been no coordinated federal response.

The Georgia Film Office was early with its own guidelines, and issued a best practices guide to production on May 22, a set of regulations developed with studios and production companies that maintain a presence in the busy state.

Lee Thomas, director of the Georgia Film Office, says: “What we put out were best practices — those were kinda baseline guidelines to help people. A lot of that was for the municipalities that were looking to open up as well and try to figure out how to move forward. When we put out our best practices we knew that far more stringent guidelines would be coming from the unions which of course came a few weeks after that.

“In addition to those two sets of guidelines, we spent a lot of time trying to track testing sites and labs who had availability. Our stages here have been really proactive about trying to get ready for the return of productions. There’s a lot of new things in place.”

In June, several big companies announced their return to the state, with productions that are estimated to pump about $2 billion into the Georgia economy.

“There’s a lot of independent testing companies here and productions want to make sure that they can get tested quickly and the labs can work quickly to get results back. “We spend a lot of our time right now in that world,” Thomas says.

David Shepheard, director, Creative Economy and Vancouver Film Commissioner, Vancouver Economic Commission, noted in an email, “While we look forward to working alongside out-of-town talent and film workers, the entire industry takes public health seriously and ask that out-of-Province visitors respect and follow all the health and self-isolation orders necessary.”

As the U.K. restarts production, Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission, says the challenges facing production are the same as pre-COVID but “magnified,” with pre-planning and communications identified as key areas.

One major stumbling block was removed when the U.K. government set up a £500 million ($655 million) fund that would provide COVID insurance for productions.

This, added to the BFC’s COVID guidance, and qualified exemption for U.S. talent and crew from quarantine, has opened the gates for huge pent-up demand. As a result, he expects to see “90% of U.K. production restarting on different timescales.”

“I’m really delighted and proud of the contribution we’ve made because thousands of people have gone back to work,” he says.

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