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As Los Angeles’s public health officials are calling the city’s current COVID-19 surge — in which 10 people are testing positive for the virus every minute — the “worst disaster our county has experienced in decades,” Hollywood’s top studios have begun their return to production in L.A.
The industry had paused much of its Los Angeles-based filming around the holidays and into the early part of January when it became clear a surge was underway, following recommendations from the Los Angeles County Department of Health and multiple unions, including SAG-AFTRA and the Producers Guild. Disney, Warner Bros. Universal, CBS and Netflix all pushed their post-holiday filming schedules back, with the aim to start shooting again mid-January (some were targeting Jan. 11, while others were and still are eyeing Jan. 18 as a return.)
Now, a handful of those projects are said to be getting back up and running this week. Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that many of the titles that had planned a return to filming are doing so. Productions starting up include CBS’ All Rise and Bob Hearts Abishola, Showtime’s Shameless and Netflix’s You, which are all produced by Warner Bros. Also resuming is ABC’s The Goldbergs and Netflix’s Atypical, both produced by Sony, as well as five scripted series from CBS Studios: NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Why Women Kill, SEAL Team and Diary of a Future President.
Universal TV is getting three of its projects up and running, including two NBC series, Mr. Mayor and Kenan, and an untitled Jean Smart comedy for HBO Max. Meanwhile, at least three of the studio’s other productions — Netflix’s Never Have I Ever and NBC shows Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Good Girls — aren’t slated to start shooting again until Jan. 18. Disney and Netflix are said to also be waiting until next week to restart principal photography on their Los Angeles-based projects (at least the ones they run point on). According to FilmLA, Amazon’s Goliath is also in the queue to film this week, along with a handful of reality series.
Not everyone in the industry is in support of the decision to move forward at this time. Just yesterday, the county reported nearly 12,000 new cases, close to 300 deaths and nearly 8,000 hospitalizations, and even recommended that essential workers don their masks at home to further reduce the spread of the virus. “We continue to monitor the data and the continued strain on hospital capacity throughout the region,” says a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson. “In light of this, it is hard to understand how an increase in production in this environment makes a lot of sense.” The guild, which has called the industry’s return-to-work protocols a “remarkable success,” was one of the groups that called for a production pause earlier in the month, with its president Gabrielle Carteris calling attention to the grim reality in the city. “Patients are dying in ambulances waiting for treatment because hospital emergency rooms are overwhelmed,” she said at the time. “This is not a safe environment for in-person production right now.”
The studios’ decision to move forward with filming is sure to be controversial, but does it represent a blatant disregard for county health department directives? “The county’s recommendation to pause does not take the form of an instruction,” says FilmLA spokesperson Philip Sokoloski. “They have been given guidance that it would be an advantage to Los Angeles to pause for as long as possible, but I think that the county health department also understands that there are business imperatives and other logistics that come into play with a decision like this.” The production pause, he explains, “has been a recommendation and request, if at all possible. They understood that there would be exceptions to that and that the industry, where it needs those exceptions, will exercise them.” The Department of Public Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Industry insiders and government officials who feel strongly that productions should maintain their green light contend that the film community’s strict on-set COVID-19 safety protocols — which involve frequent testing, ample PPE and enhanced sanitation practices — are effective. Several point to data from the AMPTP that suggests that on-set transmission rates have been considerably lower than the spread of COVID-19 in the surrounding community. The report looked at positivity rates in three key filming locales — New York City, Atlanta and Los Angeles — between September and November and found that while the national community spread rate exceeded 13 percent by late November, the industry spread rate was about 0.3 percent. In Los Angeles, when the community spread rate was more than 14 percent in late November, the industry spread rate was around 0.2 percent, according to the data collected.
But that’s not to say there haven’t been positive tests logged on productions. According to publicly available county data, there were a total of 28 positives across two Warner Bros. productions — Lucifer and Young Sheldon — in December, as well as 12 on NBC’s Mr. Mayor. Some, however, caution that those numbers represent positive results over a span of time, not necessarily ones identified all at once — and that the majority of cast and crew who are contracting the virus are doing so in the community and not on set. Lucifer, for instance, never shut down production in the wake of the positive results because they were said to be isolated and not part of a larger on-set outbreak.
The commercial industry, meanwhile, has taken its own seemingly delayed approach to the county and guild recommendations. According to FilmLA’s database, dozens of commercials went through with their plans to film in early January, something Sokoloski says was expected due to the timing of the announcement and how the advertising industry operates. He says he’s been told they should expect to see a dialing back as early as this week. On at least one commercial shot last week in Los Angeles — a FritoLays Super Bowl spot directed by Hollywood director Peter Berg — two crewmembers tested positive on set. Film 47, Berg’s commercial production company responsible for the shoot, confirms the cases and notes that production, which they say used stringent COVID-19 protocols and contact tracing, resumed after the individuals were removed from set. They declined to comment further.
As for traditional film and TV production, Sokoloski says that, overall, county health authorities have been “impressed to see that the industry is being so conscientious in the way it approaches the threat of COVID-19,” pointing to the studios’ willingness to pause production in recent weeks. “I believe that is part of the reason they have the confidence that they do to allow the industry to operate at this time,” he says. But now that productions are filming again, some wonder whether public officials might not ask nicely next time and instead mandate an industrywide halt. “They have declined to do so up until this point, preferring to use requests for voluntary shutdowns,” says Sokoloski adding: “But they do have the option to change the recommendations for how filming may be conducted at any time, as fits the efforts to control COVID’s surge.”
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