Europe's U.S. Travel Ban Won't Stop International Production (But It Won't Help)

@Kata Veremes
On the set of 'The Alienist' in Budapest last year

With COVID-19 cases continuing to spike stateside, the European Union has extended its travel ban for U.S. residents — but exceptions will be made for filmmakers.

From Wednesday, the European Union is re-opening its borders, which had been shut amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, to residents from several countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. Even visitors from China will be among those permitted entry if Beijing reciprocates, despite concerns that official infection counts in the country may not be accurate.

But with new COVID-19 cases continuing to spike stateside, U.S. residents will be kept out. For now. The EU drew up its list of approved countries based on infection rates. The average infection rate within the EU is around 16 per 100,000 inhabitants. Only countries with comparable or better rates will be considered. The EU also assesses the reliability of official data on COVID-19 and requires reciprocity for its citizens before including a country on the travel list.

The extension of the U.S. ban is bad news for those in the international TV and film production business who had hoped for a slow return to business as usual. New features, many of which pre-sold at last week's Virtual Cannes Market, are itching to start shooting, and Europe, with its high-end production facilities and generous tax incentives, is a favorite backlot.

"It's a genuine concern, especially for an international facing company like ours," says Stuart Ford, CEO of indie production and sales group AGC Studios. "A lot of our material is ideally suited for shooting in Europe."

Instead, AGC will be heading to Canada. Its latest feature, the Nick Jonas/Lawrence Fishburne actioner The Blacksmith, which nearly sold out worldwide at the Virtual Cannes Market, is set to begin shooting in Toronto in September. Taken helmer Pierre Morel will direct.

The travel restrictions are only the latest obstacle facing the international production industry, which is already struggling with new health and safety protocols, insurance issues and risk-adverse financial investors.

"At the moment, for any major production to get up and running it must have the guarantee of insurance, investment and the ability of producing within the COVID-19 protocols set up in respective territories, without a loss of quality," says Tom Harrington, an industry analyst with Enders Analysis in London. "If one of these pillars falls the others are impossible and the production is untenable. The lack of access to U.S. talent — whether in front of or behind the camera, who wouldn't appear to be essential travelers — would have implications for productions where they are key personnel and on which investment is contingent."

The travel ban, however, does not mean fortress Europe has entirely sealed itself off. Stalled productions, some of which have had their U.S. stars stay in country, should have less of a problem getting going again. Matt Damon remained in Ireland after production shut down on the Ridley Scott-directed 20th Century Studios period epic The Last Duel. Simon Pegg, one of the European-based stars of Mission: Impossible 7, has said the Paramount Pictures production will soon resume shooting outdoor scenes in Europe with proper coronavirus precautions in place. The latest installment in the action franchise was in the midst of production in Venice, Italy when it shut down.

The EU's ruling is not legally binding, and individual countries can still make exceptions, particularly for business travel. Many already have. Hungary, Europe’s second most popular destination for Hollywood shoots behind the U.K., has made it clear it is open for business. Denis Villeneuve's Dune reboot from Legendary and Sony's The Nightingale, starring Elle and Dakota Fanning, are set to re-start shooting later this year at Origo Film Studio outside Budapest. Also ready to get going again are Amazon's mystery series The Banker’s Wife and Showtime’s video adaptation Halo, the later set up at Korda Studio. Netflix is planning a mid-July shoot for its new series Terra Vison at the NFI Mafilm studio complex.

Hungary offers a 30 percent tax rebate on local spend for film and TV productions, which can climb to 37.5 percent through the addition of qualifying non-Hungarian costs. Last year, some 319 films shot in the country, including 83 international productions and eight co-productions.

Pavlina Zipkova, head of the Czech Film Commission, told The Hollywood Reporter that the country has approved travel for U.S. and international filmmakers. "Filmmakers of all nations are welcome in the Czech Republic,” she said.

Season 2 of the Amazon/Legendary TV series Carnival Row, starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, is set to re-start next month. And the Disney+ Marvel series The Falcon & Winter Soldier is currently prepping and is planning a nine-day Czech shoot this fall.

Millennium Films, which is prepping upcoming productions including the Kate Beckinsale action comedy Jolt and future entries in its Has Fallen franchise, hopes to soon resume shoots at its facilities in Sofia, Bulgaria.

"We are working closely with the Bulgarian authorities to put together a rigorous set of protocols that will allow us to bring in U.S. talent and work in a safe way, including doing COVID testing three days prior to arrival and three days after arrival, as well as appropriate safety measures on set," Millennium Films president Jeffrey Greenstein told The Hollywood Reporter.

Europe's biggest backlot, the U.K., is also, tentatively, open for business.

Among a number of major film and TV projects that saw their shoots put on hold due to the pandemic in March, Jurassic World: Dominium looks set to be the first to roar back into life. Universal said the Colin Trevorrow-directed sequel would start shooting again on Monday, July 6 in Pinewood, with the studio  implementing its own "vigorous" health and safety rules alongside the extensive set of safety standards already approved by authorities. Netflix has since revealed that its fantasy series The Witcher will start up again in the U.K. on Aug. 17.

However, with the U.K. having formally left the EU at the end of January and with a deeply Brexit-backing government in power, it's highly unlikely to follow any EU-led directive. Industry people THR has spoken with don't believe there's anything to worry about regarding a ban.

Instead, productions will have to contend with a two-week hurdle ahead of any shoot, with the country last month putting in place a 14-day quarantine rule for arrivals from the U.S. The embassy has advised that individuals must "self-isolate for 14 days and may be contacted to verify compliance." A fine — of just £1,000 ($1,240) — is in place for those that refuse to comply. 

That said, the U.K. has been known to flip-flop on such decisions and has already removed similar quarantine restrictions for arrivals from much of Europe. With the government keen to get business moving again and film and high-end TV production of growing importance to the British economy — hitting $4.7 billion in 2019, up 16 percent from 2018 — few will be shocked if it does the same for the U.S.

Alex Ritman and Georg Szalai in London contributed to this report.