British Film Commission CEO on "Coming Out of the Tunnel" With COVID-19 Production Guidelines

Owen Hoffmann/Getty Images for British Film Commission
Adrian Wootton

With U.K. government support and studio and streamer involvement, the film and high-end TV production safety guidelines are "probably the largest consultation on production guidance that anybody's ever done."

Having come to a screeching halt in mid-March as the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold, U.K. film and high-end TV production — an industry of huge importance both to the local economy and Hollywood, with 2019 reaching a record spend of $4.7 million — has been given a major greenlight to start moving again.

Monday saw the British Film Commission (BCF), working with the British Film Institute, unveil its finalized government-backed post-lockdown guidance — titled The Working Safely During COVID-19 in Film and High-End TV Drama Production — providing producers with a highly detailed framework for workplace practices on and off set.

Coronavirus symptom tests, social distancing, catering, costume and hygiene are just a number of the areas covered, with the BFC having spent several weeks consulting with every corner of the industry, including production companies, studios, streamers and unions, and incorporating advice from thousands of people.

BFC CEO Adrian Wootton describes it as "probably the largest consultation on production guidance that anybody's ever done in the world before," adding that "no stone was left unturned."

The guidance paves the way for big-budget productions — such as The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion, The Witcher and Sex Education, which were all postponed mid-shoot — to start up again in Britain. And while major issues, such as insurance, could still hamper the restart of independent production, the health and safety aspect is an important milestone for the industry as a whole.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Wootton discusses what the guidelines mean in terms of getting people and productions back to work and whether this is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. 

What were the origins of getting this guidance developed?

We had been working very closely with the BFI and the BFI's overall COVID Task Force, representing back to government the issues about who was or wasn't applicable for the furlough scheme, or who could apply for the business interruption loans and how freelancers were or weren't being looked after, etc. And then it became quite clear that moving on from that, we were going to have had to start thinking about recovery, and the BFI said, "Let's have an overall Task Force where the BFC can deal with recovery for inward investment and particularly focus on production and the return to work of production, and we'll do exhibition and distribution of independent film and also work with television." So there were four different groups set up, which all sort of interrelate and talk to each other.

So then, in the BFC recovery group, we broke into further subgroups, and we had a production subgroup, which is still there and is chaired by Kevin Trehy, a senior executive from Warner Bros. We put two health and safety specialists on it and took every protocol — draft ones, ones that have been devised for other countries — and pulled it all together into one huge digital pool and then started sifting it and kicking the tires and road testing it with the industry. We reached out to every area. In my nearly 30 years in film, I've never known a consultation exercise as large or as detailed and extensive as this to get the industry input, which is what we needed.

How much has the final guidance changed from the 27-page draft that first went out for consultation?

I think it's changed quite a bit in so far as the fact that a lot of stuff has been added to it, because I think maybe when you first saw it, there was there wasn't very much on cast. We hadn't had all the feedback from the talent unions like Equity. And also it has had added to it the most up-to-date government guidance.

With this guidance in place, are you expecting production to kick off again in earnest, or do you think it'll be more of a soft relaunch?

I think it'll be a staged approach. What we're anticipating people doing is looking at this and saying, OK, this is the guidance that's endorsed by government and the different government agencies and departments. Right now, we can take this and use it as a template to start running our risk assessments.

It really depends on what stage your production is around you. There's an awful lot of stuff postponed, but also a lot of stuff sitting on stages. For us, certainly as the BFC, the trigger is to help those productions start getting the mothballs out and resuming their risk assessment, their planning, so that over the course of the next month, six weeks, eight weeks, they can start to prepare to resume that production, within the government guidelines and safely for them as employers, safely for the workforce and safely for the general public.

So the timings will vary. The guidance suggests things about cleansing and distancing and talks about thinking about crew sizes … all of those things that people are going have to take into account. We envisage that will mean people elongate their preproduction and their planning schedules, it's just inevitable.

Is there anything actually stopping productions from starting again? Is there anything legally in place at the moment that would stop productions if they managed to adhere to all the current government rules from picking up again immediately?

They're not a prescribed industry, they weren't told to shut down. But I think it's an absolute fact that the industry at large, whether it's the high-end film and television that the BFC primarily deals with, through to independent film, doesn’t feel comfortable in just saying, "Right, let's go ahead" — not without a roadmap. Otherwise people would have tried to start again.

What I can say is that we got massive amounts of people desperate to be involved in consultation, and then what I had was a tsunami wave of people asking me on a daily basis when it was going to get published, and from pretty much everywhere in the world. That indicates the appetite for it and indicates why people are being responsible. Nobody's being cowboy-ish about it.

There are a lot of people in the industry desperate to get back to work for financial reasons. But given that this guidance isn't legally enforceable, what power do they have should they turn up to a production and find that it's not being adhered to?

Well, [creative industries union] BECTU has been working very closely with us. We're not an enforcement body, but the [government's] Health and Safety Executive will use this guidance as their benchmark. So whilst we can't tell anybody what to do, I think if employees have concerns, then they’ll raise them with the employer and with the union and take it from there. There is a framework — it's not enforceable, but it does provide a model of good practice that people can refer back to.

In working on this guidance, has there been any consideration about the financial elements of putting these practices into place? For some lower-budget productions, perhaps the cost of doing all this would simply be too prohibitive.

The thing is that we're not out of the woods. But this is one really important area of work. And certainly it's a fact that bigger-budgeted film and television productions will be able to bear cost of extending their schedule and putting the procedures and the guidance in place, easier than low-budgeted independent films. And the BFI has been working on looking at costs and what the implications of costs might be, and how they can ameliorate that. And, of course, there is the other part of the equation, which doesn't really affect the big film and television productions, but certainly will be a bigger obstacle for independent film, which is insurance. There's a process going on now, liaising with the government and proposals talking about that and enlisting government support. So they are another piece of this.

Another thing I should say is that, in terms of how these proposals come out, we know that it's not going to be one size fits all. There are recommendations. They're not, "Thou shalt absolutely have to do everything on this." It's like, "Consider this and scale it to the size of your production." One of the things we're going to be doing with ScreenSkills is rolling out a series of education and information workshops to show producers how they can apply them, how they can understand them and how they can scale them.

Is this guidance specifically aimed at the U.K. or is it something that could be used internationally?

It's specifically U.K. in terms of when it references government, because we have to chime with what the government's saying, whether it be around social distancing or PPE or any of those particular things. In terms of actually the guidance as a whole, we would envisage, subject to any differences in government guidance from other territories, that it would have an applicability, a usability and a read-across to other territories. I think that's why, the U.S. companies that are obviously spending so much time and energy and making so much stuff here, are interested in it both for the U.K., but also to the other places that they're working in, including the U.S.

It seems like the publishing and government endorsement of this guidance provides some light at the end of what has been a very dark and miserable tunnel. Is that how you're seeing it?

This, for me, represents the beginning of coming out of that tunnel. It's a big step in the right direction. With regard to the independent film sector, the insurance and the cost questions still are ones that have to be further resolved and tackled, but for a very big important economic section of our industry, this is potentially a massive step forward. Because if it does what we hope it will do and provides that roadmap to restarting production, we could see, over the next few months, thousands of people going back to work in studios and seeing literally millions, if not billions of pounds worth of production starting again. And that's a big signal for film and television in the U.K., for film and television internationally and for the U.K., because all of a sudden we can start bringing millions and millions of pounds back into the economy.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.