Hollywood Charges Forward With Production Plans Despite Virus Surge

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Studios keep plotting a return to filming in states including California, New York, Georgia and Illinois as they hash out details of on-set COVID-19 protocols with the guilds.

The rising COVID-19 case count in the U.S. may have prompted the rolling back of business reopenings in select states, but it’s yet to significantly impact film and TV production plans.

Sources on the ground in states including California, Georgia and New York tell The Hollywood Reporter that film and TV series that’d been gearing up for production are still very much doing so, though principal photography on most domestic projects isn’t expected to begin for another couple months. Up until this point, the bulk of filming has been done in international territories as novel coronavirus numbers keep escalating in the U.S.

Naturally, though, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s sweeping statewide closures of various indoor businesses July 13 raised questions about another potential production halt. Multiple sources, however, say the governor’s guidance for the entertainment industry has not changed and there’s no indication that it will — at least not yet. According to an official state document, individuals "supporting the entertainment industries, studios, and other related establishments, provided they follow COVID-19 public health guidance around physical distancing" are considered "essential workers."

Insiders say the strict protocols in some ways offer a more controlled environment than, say, restaurants or other indoor businesses that were ordered to shut down again, as testing is required for the former and not the latter. Also key in keeping the industry in the clear is the fact that not many productions are up and running yet, and most of the ones that are have been rather small in size. Just a few weeks ago, FilmLA, which tracks permits, said it'd been receiving around 60 film applications a week. A spokesman for the nonprofit says that they haven’t seen more than a minor increase in new applicants since then and that most incoming applications are continuing to come from the advertising and commercial sector.

Over in Georgia, insiders say studios that are ramping up their production plans have yet to be deterred by the state’s record-high COVID-19 numbers and the heated political battle over government guidelines. (After Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered the city to roll back to Phase One and mandated face masks in public, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp sued her over the directives, calling them "void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public.")

Georgia's film office, which has stayed clear of the scuffle, maintains that the state has not been impacted by any rollbacks. “We are very grateful for the commitment recently made by industry leaders to get back to producing more films in Georgia, and it’s gratifying to see our productions begin to get safely off the ground,” said film office director Lee Thomas. “We will continue to work with the studios to answer their questions and help them make plans.”

One of the first major Hollywood productions, Tyler Perry’s BET dramedy Sistas, kicked off this week at his expansive studio lot in Atlanta. The show was scheduled to start shooting July 14 but was pushed back one day due to delays in getting COVID-19 results — something future productions may have to contend with as labs get hit with testing backlogs amid the outbreak.

In addition, Netflix’s Stranger Things is slated to return to the state in September, and a source says the streamer is accelerating plans to finish up action thriller Red Notice, starring Dwayne Johnson. The actor, who lives in Georgia, is said to be eager to get back to work in his home state, and the plan as of now is to wrap Red before he can get started on his next feature, superhero movie Black Adam for New Line. (Sources note that Adam isn't likely to get off the ground until 2021.)

Production plans are beginning to take shape in other states, too. New York City officially entered Phase Four of its COVID-19 recovery roadmap, which allows film and TV productions to shoot with fewer restrictions. Projects are able to film as long as they don't have more than 50 people, interfere with hospitals or testing centers, block streets or get too close to restaurants with outdoor seating without permission from the establishment.

“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, New York has followed a science-based and data-driven strategy for a phased reopening of the state's economy,” said a spokesperson for the New York film commission. “While we are excited that film and television productions are returning, we must remain vigilant, and ESD [Empire State Development] strongly urges everyone involved to follow the state's health and safety guidelines.”

Meanwhile in Chicago, sources say that the fourth installment of FX’s Emmy-winning limited series Fargo, which was forced to shut down production at the beginning of the pandemic, is readying to start filming again in mid-August. The plan is for cast and crew to be tested ahead of time and then again on set, followed by a seven-day quarantine. They’re also trying to reduce risk by having two crews, that way if one gets sick they’re still able to keep production moving — a precaution other productions are likely to start taking.

For studios plotting their return to production, government approval has somehow proved less of an issue than guild approval. Sources say the AMPTP, which represents the major studios, and guilds like IATSE, the labor union for crewmembers, are still in the midst of hashing out details of the on-set safety protocols. The main issues that continue to be debated center on the role of COVID-19 managers, the frequency and type of testing, 10-hour workday caps to allow for more time to clean and sick day compensation (the guild is said to want members who may fall ill to the virus to still be paid, while the studios want to avoid having to potentially pony up double the money).

For some major studios eyeing an early August return to production, the prolonged guild talks have pushed back those dates (ones that were, it’s worth noting, tentative to begin with). Warner Bros. informed key production partners last week that its TV projects wouldn’t be starting up at the beginning of the month, as initially hoped, but would rather aim for a late August start. Universal TV is also delaying projected shoot dates a month to mid-September. Most insiders say September is likely to mark the most significant return to production since COVID halted filming — that is, if the still raging virus or prolonged guild negotiations don't thwart those plans.