Manitoba Restarts Film Production With Safety Guidelines Amid Pandemic

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Manitoba Legislative Building, Winnipeg

Social distancing and deep cleaning are the watchwords as the Canadian industry considers measures to make local film and TV sets safe for returning Hollywood studios and streamers.

Manitoba has become the first Canadian province to allow its film production sector to reopen amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The move to reopen local soundstages beginning June 1 comes as rival jurisdictions in Canada roll out new technologies and social distancing guidelines to make soundstages safe for returning Hollywood studios and streamers. "Film productions may resume operations. Wherever possible, productions should take all reasonable steps to ensure the cast, employees and members of the public are reasonably able to maintain a separation of at least two meters from others, except for brief exchanges," the government of Manitoba said in a statement.

The first projects to shoot in and around Winnipeg — and elsewhere in Canada as production restarts this summer — are expected to be local Canadian film and TV series as American cast, creatives and crew remain subject to ongoing quarantine orders, which requires anyone entering the province to first self-isolate for 14 days before stepping onto a set.

"We're going to get a really good bump from Canadian production," Paul Bronfman, co-chairman of William F. White International, the production rental giant, and chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios told THR. He added that, despite industry lobbyists so far failing to exempt American cast and crews from the 14-day self-isolating orders, he sees Hollywood studios and streamers eventually returning in force to shoot in Canada post-pandemic.

"I'm hearing from the Americans that, because Canada has such a good built-in infrastructure and depth in crews, they won't have to bring up nearly as many people as they once did. They can hire more Canadians," Bronfman reported. Dave Forget, national executive director of the Directors Guild of Canada, said how production restarts in Manitoba will impact film and TV sets nationwide and beyond as they reopen.

“All eyes across the country, and even internationally, are going to be watching how production reopens in Manitoba. The first productions to start back up in Winnipeg will have a tremendous responsibility to uphold the highest standards of health and safety and not jeopardize the return to work for the entire industry," Forget said in a statement.

Besides widespread plans for hand-washing stations and managing flows of people and materials entering and leaving soundstages, the roadmaps for restarting production in Canada detail new technologies and innovations to protect cast and crew that in the past operated like big families on local film sets.

William F. White International is offering Los Angeles producers as they return to Canada the use of disaster recovery equipment offered by parent Sunbelt Rentals like air scrubbers and negative air machines used to improve air quality during the 2018 California fires, for example. "They're sharing with us their experience for disaster recovery. If this isn't a disaster recovery situation, I don't know what it is," Bronfman said of a North American industry that had to screech to a halt in March amid the COVID-19 spread.

Social distancing measures already in place north of the border have writer rooms for new and returning TV series working remotely. Christina Jennings, CEO of indie producer Shaftesbury, which has eight writer rooms currently working on virtual platforms, including for the series Mary and Flo: On the Go!, Miikshi and Stinky Science, said a pandemic-era TV set may have a showrunner or a key designated screenwriter around, but the fewer bodies around cast and crew, the better.

"As much as there's a value to having certainly the showrunner close by. and there's value to some of the other writers on set, it's not essential. For the next couple years, those writers will be working remotely. You just don't need more bodies on set. You don't need it, you don't want it," Jennings told THR.

One of the Shaftesbury remote writer rooms is for Life With Luca, a live-action spinoff series that picks up on the Disney TV series Life With Derek 15 years later. "There isn't time in traffic, there's just the work," Jeff Biederman, a Life With Luca writer along with Life With Derek creator Daphne Ballon, said of their virtual writers room being able to break stories and work remotely amid the pandemic with minimal disruption. 

Jim Kiriakakis, the creator and executive producer of the ReelzChannel docuseries Cashed Out, about late Hollywood celebrities and the people who cash in on the fortunes they leave behind, said the production had already remotely recorded long interviews with talking-head contributors, which will allow them to get a jump on physical production when government safety regulators give the OK for it to resume.

"We have a bed of audio from the contributors to lay under archival materials, and we'll pop in the video down the line for a much more surgical process," he explained. Kiriakakis adds that doing long interviews and audio at the front end, and dropping in video later on could become a regular feature of post-pandemic production: "It's going to make the story process better. It will help us build better scripts up front and streamline shooting at the back end."