Coronavirus: Film, TV Industry Navigates U.S.-Canada Border Shutdown

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"This is a work in progress," former U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman tells The Hollywood Reporter.

After Canada and the U.S. chose to close their common border to non-essential travel amid the coronavirus pandemic, film and TV crews and creatives are scrambling for answers on whether they are considered "essential" workers exempted from new travel bans.

"This is a work in progress," former U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman told The Hollywood Reporter, as he expected film and TV workers on both sides of the border to live with uncertainty and mixed messaging from politicians and border agents until new rules and regulations are agreed upon and rolled out.

"There's going to be a lot of stories about defining what this means. And there's going to be people told 'fine, come up and do your thing,' and others told, 'sorry, that's non-essential, you can't come in,'" he added. Hollywood film and TV location shooting in Canada has come to a virtual standstill as the industry responds to the global pandemic.

Physical production has shut down. Film studios have emptied. Cast and crews are no longer working. And some small pockets of visual effects and postproduction artists are working in small clusters for social distancing as long as production allows.

"Since nobody is traveling right now, the impact is minimal. It depends on how long the travel bans last. All of our shows are virtually shut down for at least two weeks. And this thing is going to go on longer," Paul Bronfman, CEO of William F. White International, the Canadian film and TV production equipment rental giant, predicted.

White has closed its doors and put its workforce on paid leave, in part after a crewmember on a film set who tested positive for COVID-19 handled equipment subsequently returned to the rental facility. "We're being very careful in how we get the equipment back and are handling it," Bronfman added.

Rival equipment rental supplier Sim has closed its Canadian lighting, grip and camera facilities, "and will re-open as soon as it's safe for all of us," the company said. Sim Post Production operations in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto continue doing picture finishing and post sound services, as Sim limits staff in its postproduction offices for social distancing and allows employees to work remotely from home.

John Lee, founder and general manager of Eaglecreek Studios in Kelowna, British Columbia, which has ABC's The Mighty Ducks on hiatus under its roof amid the virus risk, adds: "A majority of the productions are currently shut down due to the risk of the virus, and I think there will be a few more halting production as the virus progresses."

The first signs of a bailout for the struggling Canadian film and TV industry have appeared. Mayor John Tory in Toronto held meetings with the city's entertainment sector after local and American film and TV shooting ground to a halt. "The focus of the task force will be on quickly determining what current supports and stimulus work needs to be done," Tory said in a statement.

And a consortium of Canadian film producer associations, funding agencies, as well as provincial and municipal agencies have struck a COVID-19 taskforce to detail the impact on the industry. "This will inform governments at the federal, provincial and municipal levels on the need for critical support," the Canada Media Fund, the biggest investor in Canadian TV, said in a statement on Friday.

And Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries, responsible for promoting Hollywood location shooting in Canada's largest media market, has launched advisory teams in response to COVID-19 "to address issues on an ongoing basis."

But as the film and TV industry on both sides of the border put themselves on hold as a safety precaution, there's debate on how soon Americans will be able to resume location shooting north of the border when health conditions and restrictions allow.

"Essential travel will continue unimpeded. It is critical for us to preserve supply chains," deputy prime minister of Canada Chrystia Freeland told a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday. But Heyman added that, from his experience as the U.S. ambassador under the former Obama administration, much depends on which border agents industry workers engage with at airports.

"It's up to their individual interpretation, almost like a police officer, one of whom may keep to the letter of the law and another one who doesn't see that as the role they want to play. People will have different experiences, depending on what border crossing they go to, especially when you're dealing with something that's so ill-defined — people who are essential versus non-essential," he added.