Hollywood Insiders Defend "Essential" Worker Status Amid Growing Criticism

Testing Center Union Station in Los Angeles, California
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

A Union Station COVID-19 test site became a flashpoint after Miramax’s 'He’s All That,' with Addison Rae, was set to shoot there.

Outrage that film and TV shoots can continue while other businesses must close down amid the latest COVID-19 surge has the industry on the defensive: "We are not a bar where everybody sits around with their masks off."

On Dec. 5, a Los Angeles County-based restaurant owner went viral after posting a video of herself showing off her outdoor dining area, which she was forced to shut down after November orders from California Gov. Gavin Newsom. In the clip, the woman, Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill owner Angela Marsden, pans away from her patio, its picnic-style table and chairs situated 7 feet apart to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, to reveal a series of large white tents with similarly distanced seating a mere 50 feet away.

The second outdoor dining area wasn’t for another restaurant, though. It was the catering setup for the NBC series Good Girls, which was shooting near her Sherman Oaks eatery. “Tell me that this is dangerous but right next to me, as a slap in my face … this is safe?” asks Marsden, her voice breaking behind her mask. “Everything I own is being taken away from me, and they set up a movie company right next to my outdoor patio.”

The restaurant owner’s frustration highlights what many feel is a double standard in the state of California: Why is the film industry allowed to keep working when so many other businesses have been forced to shut down? Growing tension over this very question has created friction between the film industry and the local community in Los Angeles, where much production takes place. Even some within the entertainment industry say they don’t think filming should be up and running right now: “The human inclination to move forward is overriding common sense,” says one talent attorney with several clients on set.

The discussion about why the film industry gets what some decry as “special treatment” has been heating up in recent weeks amid the new surge of COVID-19 cases in the city. It reached a boiling point when Newsom unveiled his latest stay-at-home order, the state’s most stringent restrictions since the initial March lockdown. The missive shuttered salons, cordoned off playgrounds and banned outdoor dining at restaurants like Marsden’s in areas where ICU capacity at local hospitals falls below 15 percent. But conspicuously missing from the list: film and television production.

That's because ever since April, film and TV production has been considered “essential” work in California. According to a 23-page Newsom-approved document that lays out the state’s critical infrastructure, essential workers include those “supporting the entertainment industries,” as long as they follow public health protocols. And though some studio bystanders had been concerned that the industry might be removed from the exempt list with latest December orders, they were pleased to find that wasn’t the case. Says one top state official, “It bodes well for the industry that it made it through this round.”

Most production insiders and government officials maintain that comparing film production to other industries, like the restaurant business, is apples and oranges. “We are not a bar where everybody sits around with their masks off,” says Momita Sengupta, Netflix’s vp physical production. She and others contend that film and TV sets are highly controlled, closed-off environments thanks to the strict protocols created by studios, guilds and top epidemiologists. Sets require frequent testing, ample personal protective equipment and contact tracing when positive tests inevitably arise. “It’s not a public-facing industry, and there are low transmission rates on set,” says a California government source of the film business’ ability to stay up and running.

Still, even FilmLA spokesman Philip Sokoloski acknowledges the delineation is “not entirely intuitive,” particularly to those who aren’t familiar with the entertainment industry’s stringent protocols. It’s an issue that’s come up when production companies or their representatives go door-to-door to conduct a filming community survey — a prerequisite to being able to shoot outside standard hours. If someone isn’t already perplexed as to why there’s a stranger physically knocking on their door during the height of a pandemic, they’re increasingly confused, perhaps even angry, when they find out a couple hundred people are going to be gathered down their street for a film shoot at a time when they’ve been barred from having people over to their home. “I think it’s a reasonable question to ask if one is unfamiliar with the rules that go into making a film set safe,” adds Sokoloski, who notes that FilmLA has recently discouraged productions from shooting outside standard hours.

It was this dynamic that gave rise to Los Angeles’ temporary overnight filming ban ahead of Thanksgiving. Sokoloski suggests that the county and city’s short-lived decision to prohibit production between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. — in line with the curfew that’d just been laid out in the state’s earlier, more limited stay-at-home order — was less about making sets safer and more about restoring the community’s trust in the industry. “It had to do with maintaining public support for filming happening during a time when others are being asked to stay home,” he says of the order that came down from L.A. County's film and digital media liaison, Gary Smith, and L.A.'s Board of Public Works president, Greg Good.

But the restrictions made more sense in theory than they did in practice. Sources say top studios and producers wasted no time lodging their complaints. “Folks were not hesitant or shy to reach out with input on the decision,” acknowledges Sokoloski. The questions were valid enough that county and city officials rescinded the order within hours of issuing it. (One of the questions they received: If the restrictions were truly about maintaining community support, then what if you're filming in the middle of nowhere and the community wouldn’t be impacted — would the rules still apply?) Instead, filmmakers were encouraged to “be mindful of community impact” if they shoot while the stay-at-home order is in effect.

The industry found itself bumping up against criticism again in late November when a COVID-19 testing site at Los Angeles’ Union Station abruptly said it would be rescheduling more than 500 tests the next day as the result of “an event being held” at the location. When it was revealed that the “event” was the filming of Miramax’s She’s All That remake, He’s All That, starring TikTok star Addison Rae, outrage ensued. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti got involved and quickly worked to ensure that the testing site could reopen — but the PR damage was already done. Those involved with the mishap, however, say it was less nefarious than it seemed and chalk it up to an unfortunate miscommunication.

The testing site, run by Curative, made the decision to cancel appointments without consulting with the film's producers or local officials. FilmLA, which wasn’t aware there was a testing site on the property, maintains that it wouldn’t ever have been impacted by the production, and the fact that the filming and the testing were ultimately able to continue simultaneously proves that. “Had it been brought to our attention as an either-or question, we would have said that the testing has to take priority and the filming may not proceed,” says Sokoloski. “It’s a very unfortunate situation that has been positioned as making the film industry a priority over the needs of Angelenos who sought testing — and that was never really the case.”

In the wake of disruptions like these, the industry hopes to lay as low as possible while it continues to bank projects. Some productions plan to shoot through the holidays to make up for time they lost to shutdowns. Others intend to take a standard break around Christmas and pick up in early January. What few seem to be preparing for is another widespread shutdown like the one at the beginning of the pandemic. “We know we’re not immune from further regulation,” says Sokoloski. “[But there’s] a willingness to allow the industry to continue to operate under the present conditions.”

Several well-placed sources are even more bullish that cameras will keep rolling, with some pointing out that halting production across the state, or even just Los Angeles, could put California at risk of losing major shows and movies to other competitive states like Georgia that have laxer standards. “The industry is a crucial economic engine that is very well-served by the fact that over the course of several months they have been exemplary,” says one knowledgeable official. “The real hope and anticipation is that this can be maintained.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.