As Hollywood Maps Out Its Return, New On-Set Protocols Take Center Stage

Warner Bros Lot Burbank April 8 2020
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Studios and guilds are debating a phased approach that includes pretesting for antibodies, quarantining sets and airline-style packaged meals: "The days of doing an eight-episode show and traveling to five countries are done."

Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, when predicting the future may seem futile, there's at least one thing Hollywood is in agreement on: When the industry is eventually able to start up production again, film and TV sets are going to look very different. Gone are the days of grazing on the communal snacks at the craft services table, inviting friends and family to pop over to the set and maybe even kissing scenes between actors — at least until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available.

In an effort to keep cast and crew safe on set — which are notably high-risk for their propensity to cram a lot of people into compact spaces — sources say that leading Hollywood content producers and unions are working to develop new industry standards to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the forefront of those conversations are major studios including Disney and Warner Bros., unions like IATSE and the Directors Guild of America, top production facilities like Pinewood Studios and associations such as AMPTP and various film commissions. (The MPA is also said to be involved, though sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that some studios aren't thrilled about it as they would prefer to develop protocols on their own. A spokesperson for the MPA, however, says the association is not involved in coming up with production protocols for legal and antitrust reasons.)

"There are a lot of discussions surrounding what reentry should look like," says California film commissioner Colleen Bell, who has been actively involved in the conversations — which have picked up pace in recent weeks. She adds that the specifics will depend heavily on the type of production, and that there's not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach. "There will be new production procedures and protocols that are rooted in safeguarding health, but what exactly they'll end up being will look different for, say, a small production company compared to a large studio."

In fact, it's likely those more modest productions will be the first to get the green light. "What we're hearing is that when production begins to reopen, it'll be done in phases," confirms FilmLA president Paul Audley. "And the first phase most likely will include a numbers restriction and social distancing measures, so that would mean that any film permits will only be issued for very small productions." As for when larger productions will get to rev back up again, multiple studio and production sources say there's hope for July-August start dates but that fall may be more realistic.

Los Angeles County health officials are said to be working on scheduling a meeting with representatives from the guilds, studios, economic development office and other Hollywood entities to hammer out the new on-set directives and ask questions like, "Is filming on a soundstage safer than on-location work?" (For what it's worth, sources predict there will be a decline in on-location filming for a bit since it's harder to control for variables and maintain new safety measures without being on a soundstage.) In addition, all eyes are on certain foreign territories that have already eased pandemic-related restrictions like Iceland and South Korea, where Netflix is currently in production and watching closely to see what works and what doesn't.

Though no official guidelines have been released by any major parties, there's still plenty of chatter about the procedures being considered. To start, there's the expected: Gloves and masks may need to be worn on set, with the exception of actors who obviously can't wear them on camera. In order to protect performers, there's been talk of two actors in close proximity, especially intimate scenes, being shot separately and then bringing the shots together in postproduction. "We've done split screens before, but for the next 18 months we need to figure out how to allow actors to get up close and personal," says Neishaw Ali, president and executive producer of Toronto-based SpinVFX.

SAG-AFTRA is leading the charge on ensuring performers are protected. "We're working with industry safety experts and coordinating with other guilds and unions on this issue now," said the organization's national executive director David P. White in a statement. "No one yet knows when the industry will be able to return to work but we intend to be ready at the earliest possible time to ensure the safety of our members."

Naturally, sanitation will take priority. Everything on set will need to be cleaned and disinfected. Cameras and other high-touch equipment like props, construction materials and wardrobe are likely to have to pass through disinfecting checkpoints leading on to set. Personal cleanliness will also be paramount. State-of-the-art hand-washing stations are already being installed at Atlanta's Pinewood Studios, a leading production facility that's home to several big-budget features and TV shows. "I'm usually excited about a great script, but right now I'm finding that I'm excited to be coming up with hand-washing solutions," jokes Pinewood president Frank Patterson, who is also putting together mobile sanitation stations that can be used on-location.

Of course, there will also be plenty of hand sanitizer around, which actually won't be that new for at least one popular TV genre: hospital-set dramas. "We've had real and full hand sanitizer containers built into our sets for a few years because we're a medical show and our medical advisers call for it as a precaution each flu season," says The Good Doctor producer Shawn Williamson, who likens COVID-19's predicted impact on production to 9/11's overhaul of travel and airport security. "There will be similar restrictions and safety measures that come into play because of this pandemic that will impact how we work and travel going forward."

There's also talk of tightening up on who is allowed on set at any given time. That could mean fewer visitors getting cleared but also a moratorium on large numbers of extras. "We think it's critically important to reduce access to only those necessary to be on the lot," says Patterson. One source says there's even been discussions about minimizing the free-flowing nature of sets by mandating badges for separate departments (e.g., set design, hair and makeup) so that crewmembers are allowed access only to the specific areas they actually need to be in.

Other measures under active consideration include no longer letting crewmembers share tools (everyone would have their own set) and staggering call times and lunch breaks to avoid crowds. Craft services will have to be entirely reimagined. "You just can't go pile the food in the corner and have everyone go eat it anymore," says Patterson. Instead, meals are likely to be served individually. The possibility has even been raised of striking up a deal with Gate Gourmet, the food service company that provides airline meals, particularly since they've been underutilized with the lack of flying lately.

And then there's testing. It's likely everyone who comes to set will need to either have their temperature taken or, better, be given a rapid antigen test — depending on availability. The idea has also been floated of carrying out pretesting for antibodies so that those who've already beat the virus can get what one source calls an "immunity passport." However, recent studies suggesting that it's possible to be reinfected with the virus have poured a bit of cold water on the idea.

One of the more complex solutions being bounced around is quarantined film sets, where cast and crew undergo regular testing, stay in designated hotels close to set and don't return home until filming is complete. Film commissioner Bell acknowledges she's heard the idea come up a few times. "This is a creative community, so there are a lot of creative ideas about how to try and manage this new set of circumstances," she says.

There won't only be changes to how production takes place but also where, largely determined by the comfort level of high-powered actors. Frank Sicoli, the Los Angeles-based CEO of studio operator First City Studio, says he's heard from talent reps that some actors won't be willing to return to work at all this year. "You can't get the industry back on track if the actors are worried about their safety," he explains. And even for those who are ready to get back to work, some might not feel comfortable taking a plane to get there. "The days of doing an eight-episode show and traveling to five countries are done," says Paul Bronfman, CEO of William F. White International, a Canadian film and TV production equipment rental giant, who adds that he's hearing that Los Angeles-based producers are wanting to stay close to home.

Indeed, Bell admits she's been fielding calls from producers on behalf of talent who are looking to relocate projects that'd been set to film elsewhere in an effort to stay closer to their family during this time. And FilmLA's Audley has been having some of the same conversations, too. "We've had inquiries from larger productions about space because some of their cast and crew and others are concerned about even trying to travel immediately after restrictions are lifted," he says. "So there's definitely a desire, at least in the beginning, to stay close to home because California has been so cautious about how they're dealing with this illness."

An onslaught of productions with hopes of filming in California in the coming months will likely mean a shortage of soundstages, an issue with which the state had already been struggling. Audley notes that they're keenly aware of the situation and are working with building owners to determine what's immediately available in the short term. "Whether it be a big box store that is in limbo right now or whether it be a warehouse that's been used occasionally but right now there's nothing in it and they don't expect it to be for three or four months, we're trying to create an inventory of potential spaces where if someone needs to do indoor filming they could do it," he explains. "Whatever the situation, we're going to find a way to make it work."

For productions that are willing to work in other territories, there are other hurdles standing in the way, like the fact that it's unclear when certain closed borders will open up again for noncitizens. In Canada, for instance, Toronto Mayor John Tory and his city's public health officials say they are actively working with other levels of government nationwide on plans to reopen the U.S.-Canadian border, followed by a lifting of 14-day quarantine orders, to help get the film sector back up and running. "If you continue this indefinitely," he says of the quarantine period, "it will impair the number of people who can come here to readily pick up production of a TV show or film because they'd have to count themselves out of action for two weeks." Williamson says series leads have already begun to return to Vancouver to sit out their quarantines so that they can be ready to jump into production on day one, whenever that might be.

To be sure, the host of challenges the industry will have to overcome in order to start making shows and movies again isn't limited to new sanitation practices and enhanced safety measures, either. There's also the added financial burden that those protocols will undoubtedly bring, not to mention the complex web of insurance issues producers will have to navigate. Still, some industry leaders like Patterson are trying to see the good that might very well come out of this new normal. "When I think about it, several of these solutions are ones we could have maybe adopted before all this. Some of it would have been good to have, just for people's safety," he adds. "It's ironic that it took such a tragedy to get us to look at this."