AFM: How Indie Film Productions Have Kept Going Despite Pandemic

Director S.K. Dale on set of 'Till Death'
Millennium Films

Director S.K. Dale (middle) on the set of 'Till Death,' one of the first projects to shoot under COVID-19.

Even with an effective vaccine against coronavirus in the works, the lessons learned during the pandemic could impact how movies get made in the future.

It was a producer's worst nightmare.

Brian Pitt was finalizing details for the shoot of After We Fell and After Ever Happy, the last two features in the hit young-adult romance franchise. He'd already decided to cross-shoot the two movies simultaneously. Castille Landon was on board to direct. Pitt was set to bring cast and crew, including stars Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Arielle Kebbel, back to Atlanta, where he'd made the first two films, the locations doubling for Seattle, where the story, based on the Anna Todd book series, is set.

"My sets were in Atlanta. Everything was there, locations, wardrobe," Pitt recalls. "My sets were ready to go, my crew was ready to go. And then COVID hit."

Everything — on sets across the U.S. and across the world — shut down as the film industry struggled to figure out if, and how, to make movies safely during a global pandemic. For Pitt, the solution was to ship his sets — piece by piece — to Nu Boyana Studios in Bulgaria.

"The fact that Bulgaria had so few [COVID-19] cases compared to the U.S., and that the studio had set things up in such a way that we could be sure everyone was safe was what swung it," says Pitt. "I don't think it would have been possible to shoot in the States right now, with our budget, and with the way we shoot. We have a funeral, we have parties, we have two weddings. All of the things that no one can shoot in the States right now."

Countries with relatively low levels of infections, and with strict COVID-19 protocols, have been able to restart production faster. Lionsgate's Samuel Bodin-directed horror title Cobweb, starring Antony Starr and Lizzy Caplan, is also shooting in Bulgaria at Nu Boyana. Thomas M. Wright has begun filming in Australia on the Joel Edgerton crime thriller The Unknown Man, for Anonymous Content and See-Saw Films. Retribution, a Liam Neeson actioner that StudioCanal is shopping to buyers at AFM, recently began filming in Berlin.

When a lack of COVID-19 tests and unsafe conditions made shooting in U.S. unsafe, Solstice Studios looked at Australia and the U.K. as possible alternative locations for its Robert Rodriguez/Ben Affleck action thriller Hypnotic — one of the big sellers at last year's AFM — before moving the shoot up north to Vancouver.

Production in the U.S. is slowly restarting. Reagan, the political biopic starring Dennis Quaid as the 40th POTUS, resumed production in Oklahoma on Nov. 5, following two weeks of enforced shutdown after several members of the production tested positive for COVID-19. FilmLA chief Paul Audley estimates shoots in the Greater L.A. area are back up to around 47 percent of what they would normally be at this time of year.

But worries remain about rising COVID-19 rates in the U.S. Multiple states have reported record numbers of new cases. Until an effective vaccine is widely available — which could be soon, if results from Pfizer's new jab, said to be 90 percent effective in early tests, prove accurate — many producers will prefer to head abroad to shoot their films.

Another advantage of production outside America: COVID-19 insurance coverage. It's currently impossible for independent films, which insure picture by picture, to get insurance against losses caused by the novel coronavirus, such as a lead actor getting sick or being forced to close up set because of a nationwide lockdown. Only the big studios, who have grandfathered policies that do not include COVID exemptions, are still covered.

The producers of Hypnotic actually filed suit against their insurance company — Chubb National — for refusing to extend their cast insurance policy to account for the pandemic. The original policy was signed before the pandemic but Chubb refused to extend the coverage without a COVID-19 exemption.

The issue of COVID insurance, or lack of it, hits indie productions hard.

"Without insurance, you don't get a bond, without a bond you don't get a bank loan, and so forth. It's a problem," says Robert Van Norden, a producer on Millennium Films' Megan Fox horror-thriller Till Death, one of the first productions to shoot during the pandemic. "Fewer movies are going to get made because if you don't have the insurance, you won't be able to get the financing."

"We're really talking about the future of independent film," adds Simon Gillis, COO of film at See-Saw. "The indie model of financing very much depends on having that insurance in place."

See-Saw was able to shoot The Unknown Man in Australia by taking advantage of the country's government-backed Temporary Interruption Fund, a $50 million backstop set up together with Screen Australia to cover the gap in the insurance market that has arisen as a result of COVID-19. Governments in the U.K., Germany, Austria and Canada have launched similar state-backed funds.

"These are really a bridge until the time when the commercial insurers come back and start to provide coverage again," says Gillis.

For indie companies with access to equity financing — and backers willing to take the risk — films can get bankrolled and start production even without insurance.

"If a company, like ours, is in a position to cash-flow a movie, there's no issue [with insurance]," says Voltage Pictures president Jonathan Decker. "But it means the barrier to entry is higher."

With enough money, anything's possible. Even in a pandemic. Which is why major studio productions are underway again in Germany (Warner Bros.' Matrix 4 at Studio Babelsberg), the U.K. (WB's The Batman, Universal's Jurassic World: Dominion) and New Zealand (James Cameron's Avatar sequels).

For those without unlimited means, however, producing amid the novel coronavirus has meant finding smarter ways to shoot. To create the illusion of crowded rooms for the parties and weddings in After We Fell and After Ever Happy, the crew used clever camera tricks and specially designed sets.

"We use a lot of forced perspective," says producer Pitt. "We've designed sets where we put windows up where you can see the extras behind them but keep our cast behind the windows to film."

For sex scenes — and there are plenty in the After franchise — social distancing wasn't an option.

"There is no real way around the intimate scenes," Pitt admits. "But what you can do is you can control your environment outside of work. So my cast members all stay in the same hotel, on private floors, locked down. Nobody goes anywhere alone."

Technology has also helped, particularly in postproduction. Sound mixing can be done remotely, with a director sitting in Los Angeles and a technician in a studio anywhere in the world. Filmmakers are even experimenting with remote directing via live feed.

Yariv Lerner, CEO of Nu Boyana Studios, believes the experimentation required during COVID-19 could become standard practice post-pandemic. Such as shooting with Epic Games' Unreal Engine, a virtual reality tech, originally designed for computer games, that allows filmmakers to create and shoot in virtual sets.

"We finished shooting The Asset, the Martin Campbell film, in London just before lockdown there, with a scene we shot on an Unreal stage we built there," Lerner notes. "We had 400 extras in the scene but only two real people. That made it possible to do under COVID but it was also easier and more efficient."

Nu Boyana is building an Unreal stage on its backlot outside Sofia and hopes to use the tech on Millennium Films' upcoming Red Sonja reboot.

Currently, the indie film world is adjusting to COVID by trying to keep things simple. "All the projects I'm seeing coming through now are stories that lend themselves to more COVID-19-friendly shooting," says Pitt. "So fewer extras, smaller scenes, more contained sets. People are just picking out those scripts now because that's what you know you can make right now."

But as more indie shoots wrap, and more features deliver under COVID, producers are getting more ambitious.

"I think the more we do this, the more it opens up what we can do, because we learn how to do it better and better," says Jonathan McCoy, a producer on Lionsgate's Cobweb. "This first set of films that are getting made right now are definitely a certain kind of movie, but as we prove that we can pull this off, and learn from our mistakes, we learn how to do the next one. Independent producers are a creative bunch. We're not going to let coronavirus stop us."