As Film and TV Crews Plan Return, On-Set Work May Be "Difficult Situation to Navigate"

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On-set guidelines include banning “buffet-style” food, requiring face coverings when possible and increasing disinfection of equipment.

Production time could increase as safety recommendations, which include frequent testing for performers, staggered meal times and paid sick leave, are implemented.

With California and Los Angeles County declaring that production can restart as early as June 12, it’s becoming more apparent what film and television production in a COVID-19 world may look like.

white paper published June 1 by the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force presented new safety protocols agreed upon by unions, guilds and employers to all 50 state governors including Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo. Employer-provided personal protective equipment like masks; a COVID-19 "compliance officer" who reviews safety conditions on set; regular testing as a condition of employment; staggered meal times and paid sick leave have been recommended, all of which multiple union sources say they pushed for.

Entertainment company members of the task force "didn't necessarily feel" mandatory testing and paid sick leave should be included in the white paper, one labor source says and others confirmed, but unions felt strongly about those two points given their discussions with medical experts and pushed them through. 

Said one cinematographer of paid sick leave, “If a worker feels like them might be sick, they can’t be tempted to go to work because they need money. We can’t put financial need into the equation.”

Even as Hollywood waits for state feedback on the white paper to determine how sets will proceed, its internal negotiations process is far from over. As the paper notes, "several elements of the protocols, including testing and PPE, are subject to further discussion and agreement" among employers, unions and guilds. "In our view, the white paper is a very solid platform from which to continue working out the detailed protocols that will allow work to resume," SAG-AFTRA COO and general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland says.

As the week began, IATSE Locals including the International Cinematographer Guild (Local 600), Motion Picture Editors Guild (Local 700) and Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild (Local 706) each submitted their recommendations for craft-specific protocols to the IA for review.

Some labor sources remain mum regarding what they will be asking for in craft-specific talks — many of those details will be subject to collective bargaining. But the Directors Guild of America signaled its priorities in a message sent to members June 1. Higher testing frequency for performers than for other members of the production and the implementation of a "zone" system to encourage cast and crew to interact only with necessary personnel are among the recommendations that the guild's safety committee is formulating. 

Production time may increase as well in order to meet safety specifications, based on some unions' recommendations. The Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild guidelines, which have not yet been published, are expected to recommend 12 minutes between sittings, for the cleaning and disinfecting of products and workspace, THR has learned. To maintain a healthy immune system, the Cinematographers Guild urges productions to limit the duration of workdays and the scheduling of extensive consecutive workdays, and to increase rest periods, a general safety recommendation that has been a production issue for decades.

For its part, SAG-AFTRA will be releasing protocols — potentially within the week — that will scrutinize hair and makeup, wardrobe and props, intimate scene and stunt conditions for performers, as well as offer thoughts on safety for the casting process, recording studios, voiceover studios and sound houses. The cinematographers’ guidelines call for only necessary crew members to be on set during blocking and full rehearsal, while private rehearsals would be limited to the actors, director and cinematographer.

The Animation Guild is expected to follow the same guidelines as the rest of IATSE and, like the other Guilds, include craft-specific protocols that, due to the nature of animation production, would be more in line with State office workspace practices.

But the task force's recommendations do not eradicate "the potential for many, many sorts of claims" from an employment law standpoint when films and shows return to production, says Leslie José Zigel, chair of Greenspoon Marder's Entertainment, Media & Technology Industry group. With personnel decisions being made quickly on set in the midst of production, cast and crew being asked to self-report symptoms, and some employees working together in close quarters, claims of discrimination and endangerment may ensue. Zigel adds, "It's a very, very difficult situation that we're going to have to navigate through."

As workplace recommendations are being worked out, so, too, is the unprecedented effect restrictions could have on the industry's creativity. The American Society of Cinematographers — an honorary society that is not involved in negotiations — recently created a Future Practices Committee that is providing an additional voice in areas outside of the task force and ICG protocols, such as how to maintain the artistry of filmmaking. Co-chair Amy Vincent admits there might be some compromise as the first productions navigate the new guidelines. “We can’t risk safety, at the same time we don’t want to lose the craft of creative storytelling.”

Co-chair Erik Messerschmidt adds, “The nature of drama is to show humans in real-life situations. We can’t forget that as storytellers. It’s essential that we are able to photograph life.”

A version of this story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.