Film Industry in Canada Keeps Up Production Amid COVID-19 Rise: "Everyone Is on High Alert"

Toronto April 1 2020
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Ontario called a month-long lockdown for Toronto to start on Dec. 26 and set a new limit of no more than 10 performers on a film set as production continues.

Major Hollywood studios and streamers are weathering the latest COVID-19 storm on Toronto and Vancouver soundstages.

As Canada faces record COVID-19 infection rates and stay-at-home orders, major Hollywood studios and streamers have kept shooting movies and TV series on bubble-wrapped film and TV sets in Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere countrywide.

"Everyone is on high alert right now," Johonniuss Chemweno, CEO of New Mexico-based VIP Star Network, which conducts diagnostic testing for Hollywood film cast and crews, including on Canadian soundstages, tells The Hollywood Reporter. 

Months-long efforts by Canadian studio operators, producers, unions and guilds to work with top studios to bolster on-set coronavirus safety measures for actors and crews, including testing, have so far paid off. "Ultimately, we don't want any exposure on set. Everybody has to ensure the safety of the crew, to ensure production keeps going," Chemweno added.

A lack of COVID-19 insurance has kept many local Canadian film and TV projects from starting production until 2021. But maintaining COVID-secure film sets and locations for Hollywood film and TV projects has kept public health officials and politicians satisfied and allowing leeway to keep cameras rolling during the pandemic even as Canadians brace for more unsettling infection numbers in early 2021.

"Testing is a big part of it. We're testing much more than we were in the past. We don't want to bring COVID into our productions," Chris Bazant, a health and safety advisor at Calgary, Alberta-based PMO Global Services, adds after his western Canadian province posted the most active COVID cases per capita in fall 2020 before being overtaken by Ontario and Quebec.

Hollywood still faces significant hurdles getting into Canada before being allowed to work on local soundstages and locations. The federal government on Dec. 30 said airline passengers will soon have to offer proof via a lab-processed PCR test that they are negative for COVID-19 infection three days before their arrival in Canada.

That new measure comes on top of an existing mandatory requirement for anyone entering Canada to quarantine for 14 days. But stricter requirements imposed by Canada has done little to dent Canada's reputation as a safe haven for Hollywood film shoots as ample testing material and quick lab results has been assured for American film shoots after a COVID-19 testing bottleneck forced a brief pause in production in Vancouver in late September 2020.

Michael Drabot, vp and general manager of production equipment supply giant William F. White International, argues coronavirus safety rules and protocols on film sets are roughly the same across North America, and include crew and cast testing, mask-wearing, social distancing and working from home where possible.

Drabot adds that Canadians have been following rules and playing their part to contain the virus. "We're just better at it. I look at our company and we put masks on at the end of March and we've worn them since," he tells THR.

To be sure, the rate of coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths across Canada have surged as 2020 ends, just as south of the border, leading to local clampdowns. But only the province of Manitoba paused film production with a brief lockdown order that lifted on Dec. 11 ahead of the holiday break.

That's left streamers and studios still rolling their cameras for Netflix’s Locke & Key and Slumberland, Apple TV's See and DC Universe's Titans in Toronto, along with TV series produced by CBS, Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros. in Vancouver, like A Million Little Things, Batwoman, Charmed and DC Legends of Tomorrow.

Industry insiders remain wary that the latest lockdown measures as Canada breaks records for new coronavirus cases could yet shut down local film production sectors. But so far there's been no repeat of Hollywood production north of the border being forced to stop in mid-March 2020, leaving dark soundstages and idle Canadian cast and crew during the earliest stages of the pandemic.

Ontario called a month-long lockdown for Toronto and southern Ontario to start on Dec. 26, but set a new limit of no more than 10 performers on a film set as production is allowed to continue. British Columbia has declared its own "state of emergency," to run to Jan. 9, but film production in that province also continues.

The immediate and longer-term implications of the COVID-19 crisis across North America — where the Canadian industry has avoided a flurry of film set closures and reopenings as the pandemic once again kicks into high gear — could bode well for Americans continuing to come north to shoot originals for expanding streaming platforms in 2021 and beyond.

With film and TV production having returned in summer 2020 and now exceeded pre-pandemic levels, the Canadian industry so far come through the existential threat posed by the COVID-19 crisis, says Paul Bronfman, chairman and CEO of studio operator Comweb Corp. and chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, as Los Angeles producers fill his soundstages.

"There's huge demand for studio space and the number one reason is trust. The Americans are really looking at Canada, more than they ever have. I've never seen such a frenzy. We got lineups, seven or eight deep, for two new studios in Toronto," he says. Also feeding the demand for COVID-secure soundstages in Canada is the presence of fast-growing Hollywood players with bigger budgets for original content to feed expanding streaming platforms.

And they come north with deeper pockets than their Canadian peers to invest in preventive measures to avoid COVID-19 infections on set, which halts production and drives up costs. Jeremy Torrie, a producer on The First Encounter, a horror pic that completed principal production in 2019 in Alberta, recalled the extra costs and 14 day self-quarantine requirements for U.S.-based actors to complete additional pick-up shots amid the pandemic.

"It became quite a challenge for us, one pick up day for each actor and they required us to pay for all quarantine days and what was a much affordable shoot ended up skyrocketing costs well beyond our means. You got to pay all these days, regardless of verbal agreements," Torrie recounts.

Sarain Fox says sticking to safety protocols was key to completing work on her directorial movie debut, Inendi, where she travelled to an Indigenous community in northern Ontario to capture on film her elderly aunt Mary, a residential school survivor and her family matriarch, to preserve her stories as the Coronavirus spread rips through Indigenous communities and threatens their cultural legacy.

"This is an incredible risk, no matter whichever way you look at it," Fox says of pandemic-era production. "But it was a risk I was willing to take very seriously For me, as an indigenous people, this isn't our first pandemic. We know the harm that outsiders bring into our communities," she adds.

Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, Canadian players see the pandemic, including a virus variant on the loose as the year ends, driving even more resiliency and innovation for Hollywood North in the face of ever-present public health threats. That possibly heralds Canadian film sets retaining on-set "bubbles" or "pods" for scaled-down casts and crews, and studios themselves becoming more environmentally safe.

"Film sets used to be pretty. Some of the studios and their air quality was pretty bad. That's why we have this new technology like air scrubbers for which there's real demand," Pinewood Toronto Studios' Bronfman insists.