"This Is How We’re Going to Be Making Movies at Least For Another Year or Two": Netflix Execs Talk Filming Amid the Pandemic

Netflix Uses In-House Data Tool to Predict COVID-19 Set Safety Risks
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The streamer's production heads open up about how they're keeping cameras rolling and unveil their own in-house risk assessment model that helps them determine whether or not to create a "bubble" on set.

Despite the surge of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., Netflix has no plans to slow production down. The streamer, one of the first companies to get cameras rolling again amid the pandemic, is currently shooting dozens of film and TV projects in more than 10 countries. In recent weeks, the platform has successfully completed a handful of productions — including the Dwayne Johnson-Gal Gadot feature Red Notice in Atlanta and Mike Flanagan's horror series Midnight Mass in Vancouver — with even more projects wrapping ahead of the holidays. The streamer's physical production executives have managed to keep productions up and running despite the rise in COVID cases across the U.S. thanks to a set of meticulously crafted safety protocols that involve frequent testing, ample PPE and carefully monitored sets. But Netflix wouldn't be Netflix if it didn't bring data and models into the equation somehow.

The company has been using an in-house risk assessment tool called the Barnes Scale, developed by Netflix data scientist Sean Barnes, that weighs factors like community prevalence of the virus and social behavior in the filming area to help its execs determine what safety strategies to employ on set. “You run that model, and it spits out all the things that can happen in terms of infection transmission,” says Momita Sengupta, the company’s vp production management for original series. It’s what led to a full NBA-style "bubble" with no access in or out on Red Notice in Atlanta. Meanwhile, two of Netflix’s other movies, the Adam Sandler-LeBron James flick Hustle and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, have been using a smaller bubble that extends only to cast and key crewmembers — mainly because actors are higher risk since they often can't wear masks while filming.

To safeguard its sets as much as possible, the streamer is putting into motion a “Let’s Keep Rolling” promotional campaign encouraging cast and crew to be mindful of the choices they make when they’re not at work, a substantial source of positive test results on set. After all, Sengupta estimates that making content is anywhere from 5 to 20 percent more expensive that it was pre-COVID, and pausing production can be costly. Still, even with vaccines beginning to roll out, Netflix isn't planning to abandon its protocols anytime soon. “Everything that we are doing now with testing and PPE is probably going to remain through all of next year — not probably, it is going to remain through all of next year,” says Netflix's director of production management for original studio film, Kwame Parker, noting that not everyone on set is likely to be vaccinated unless it becomes mandated. “We’re all preparing that this is how we’re going to be making movies for at least another year or two.”

Netflix was one of the first companies to get back into production. How did you map out that return safely?

MOMITA SENGUPTA On March 13, when we shut down, all of us collectively felt like, "OK, so we’re shut down for three weeks and then we’ll figure this puppy out and be back up and running." So once we acknowledged COVID is here to stay and we saw that we must, must return to work, we essentially locked arms with the unions and our producers to come up with a plan. We shared every single detail with them of, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this. This is how we’re separating our zones. What do you think?”

KWAME PARKER I think at points we were inundating them with so much paperwork they were annoyed by us. (Laughs.)

You’ve been at this for nine months now. What have you learned?

SENGUPTA What we have learned is that it’s really, really hard. It’s been a challenge from day one. There is nothing about our industry and making shows that is about being six feet apart. We are a touchy-feely, close-contact industry. We have fantastic protocols but for an industry that is so used to coming close to each other and working out an issue — a director talking to an actor about what she or he needs from that scene — to have to do that with your mask, to be six feet apart, to have all these monitors saying, "Hey, watch your distance," it’s really, really hard.

PARKER It has changed how we make movies. On our first day back on Hubie Halloween, the first thing people did when they saw each other was they went to hug each other. And you had someone going, "Nooooo! Stop! Separate, separate!" It is one of those things where the crew gets it, they understand why we’re doing this, and then they get frustrated by it because the more you start working together, the more you fall into your habits. So to constantly have a new workforce on the floor constantly nagging you because literally that’s what they were hired for: just to nag people to remember to wear their PPE correctly, to remember to social distance. And directors and filmmakers don’t necessarily want to hear someone who has no film experience saying, “Hey, can we talk through this next shot because we want to know what the spacing is going to be like in this scene and what the potential hazards are.”

I would imagine not. What other new jobs have popped up on sets?

PARKER We had an infectious disease preventionist because what we did, which is unique, is we took a film community and a clinical environment and we said, "Meet." And those two don’t mesh. So we would bring some of these doctors onto our floor just for them to see and understand what it is we’re doing — especially intimacy scenes, close contact scenes, high-risk situations. And we got their feedback on how we could shoot it correctly and safely.

I’ve heard one of the most challenging parts of this all is what cast and crew do when they’re not on set, which is something you only have so much control over. Was that the impetus for your "Let’s Keep Rolling" campaign?

SENGUPTA That campaign was born out of seeing that despite all of our protocols, people would still go out to dinner with each other. It’s who we are. We’re really social creatures in this industry. And everyone we realized had different tolerances. If you’re 20-something or 30-something, COVID might not be the biggest fear in your life. If you get it, you will probably be asymptomatic or it will be a short flu or cold. But for others, it’s a major deal. So it was: how do we get those who are risk tolerant to realize, "Hey, So-and-so’s grandma is living with him" or "So-and-so just had a baby" or "Someone’s wife is going through chemotherapy and they need to work but they are so fearful of bringing COVID into that situation"? "Let’s Keep Rolling" was about, whatever your motivation, how do we keep working? And the way we keep working is by following these protocols and bringing them into our real life as well as using them on set.

How do you guys make the call to shut down a particular show or film? And have you encountered an outbreak on set?

SENGUPTA We have been lucky enough that that has not happened on our shows. And I don’t necessarily think the industry has had what we call "set transmission." What has happened though is as community prevalence increases, you do have people bringing it onto set so you can  have what a health department might deem a "breakout" because there will be five, ten people on a show who will be positive but they are from different departments. It’s not as if they gave it to each other. Once you are on a set — and I can say this about our industry as a whole, not just Netflix — it is a very safe place. It is very structured, you have probably the best PPE that you can get other than being in a hospital with N95s and face shields, you have monitors distancing you, you are being tested. But there’s definitely a complete relationship between what’s happening in the community and what happens on set, so across the board we are seeing an increase right now that’s totally expected — but it’s people bringing it in. It’s not their fault, it’s just family, if your kid went to school, you happened to touch your mask at the wrong time, wrong place. It’s an insidious virus and it’s really, really easy to catch.

PARKER And we are not using the same level of PPE the community is, right? No one is wearing that one little bandana they do when they’re going to the grocery store. Depending on what zone you’re in, you’re in multiple layers of PPE, and that is a barrier: the masks, the face shields, the goggles, the gowns, the gloves. We are not treating this thing lightly. We are not scared, we’re not running from it — but we are respecting it. And that’s the way we’re combating it.

But what about on a show like Dear White People, which had 16 positive tests and shut down. Is that not an on-set outbreak?

SENGUPTA Lionsgate did shut down Dear White People briefly, and it was to review their protocols. The Health Department visited and said you’re doing a terrific job and that it wasn’t set transmission — it was just a whole bunch of people getting positive. And they did a deep dive, from what I understand, with the company that they hired to review and shore up their protocols. So there are shows that are looking at that. It’s not because it’s an outbreak but it’s like, do we need to audit our protocols — that’s why we call it a protocol audit — and see if we’re doing everything we can based on what is currently happening in the community? When I talk to my colleagues, it’s always — and it’s not spin — it’s always about, "We just got to take a break here because people’s lives are at stake, and their health, and just audit what we’re doing."

PARKER Yeah, it’s usually like pencils down, step away, let’s see what’s going on. And that’s what we’re helping to prevent. I hope, touch wood, we don’t have any spreads on set, what we’re calling “clusters.” You are often able to catch them before they get to the floor or if they get on the floor, things that we’ve seen shows do is out of an abundance of caution.

I understand that to access risk on sets you use a tool called the Barnes Scale, which was developed at Netflix by in-house data scientist Sean Barnes. How does it work exactly?

SENGUPTA It is essentially modeling. Certainly I’m not a scientist but it’s saying, "OK you’re in Atlanta, here’s the community prevalence, here is what social behavior looks like outside, and here is what it looks like on your set." You run that model and it spits out all the things that can happen in terms of infection transmission. It spits out all the probabilities. And how we are using that is not to say, "Oh, shut down that show because the modeling shows that it’s going to be very difficult to shoot in Atlanta right now," but we are using it to up our mitigation strategies. I know, I sound so Netflix, right? Data and modeling? (Laughs.)

You haven’t said "algorithm" yet.

SENGUPTA But if the modeling is predicting, "Hey, you are going to get a lot of people bringing the virus on to set, and that’s going to cause transmission at some point," what should we do? One of the strategies —  and film has used this very successfully — is we go, "OK, looking at this model, I think we should bubble the cast and crew." And that’s what led to a full bubble on Red Notice in Atlanta, which has its challenges. And then on two other movies, Hustle and Don’t Look Up, there is more of a hybrid bubble, which is just the cast and some key crewmembers. We’re focusing on the cast because they are the ones that don’t wear the masks and are the most vulnerable. But I know film had a raucous moment when Red Notice wrapped because that was a giant undertaking.

PARKER Yeah, when you complete something like that, it’s a celebration that’s almost more than like the usual wrap we’re used to. It’s special.

Have you had any discussions about shutting down productions across the board? What would need to happen for you to feel like you need to do that?

SENGUPTA In all honesty, that would be like a mutated virus. Because there has been a paradigm shift between March and now. In March, one positive case meant evacuate the building. Everybody shut down. Now a positive case for us means, "All right, this person leaves for 10 days and hopefully never gets sick." It’s interesting, a lot of our positives have remained asymptomatic. We’re not scientists but we are trying to gather that information.

PARKER Look, it was the kiss of death in the beginning. "Oh my God, I’m positive, I’m going to die." Now there is still anxiety over it, but we’ve learned, "OK, these are the precautions we’re going to take." I keep saying one of our goals is to fight this virus with a virus. And that basically means that we are going to educate all of our cast and crew as much as possible while we’re making that film or that show, knowing that once they’re finished with it they’re going to go on to another project — it doesn’t matter if it’s Netflix or not — and they are going to take the learnings and the positives from our sets and bounce that forward.

Film and TV production is considered essential work in California. Why do you think the industry is allowed to keep working when so many other businesses have been forced to shut down?

PARKER I think a lot has to do with our protocols. A, we are pulling from the community, whether it be construction or transpo [drivers], we are pulling a lot of individuals from the community and we are introducing them to a higher testing cadence, definitely higher than what the community is doing, and we are putting them in multilayered PPE. So we are now basically creating a safe zone slowly again for a community. It’s PPE first, testing second because that’s what’s really preventing the spread. In the community people are being tested once, that’s it. On our shows, you have individuals being tested weekly and some three times a week, some even more depending on what’s going on. So I think a lot of that plays into it because, again, it’s a risk assessment.

SENGUPTA I will also add the role of the infection preventionist and this entire health and safety team. It’s like a new part of the crew and small businesses don’t have that. They don’t have 15 to 20 people who are just dedicated to health and safety monitors and medical professionals as well as, for Netflix, an infection preventionist who comes on and says, "OK, makeup and hair, I think if you use this kind of makeup versus this brush you’re less likely to spread something." We are getting really granular in terms of how we’re preventing infection. So I feel like the standards are really, really high.

Is there any push to wrap up production ahead of the holidays, particularly in areas like L.A. where we’re seeing increased cases and new stay-at-home orders?

PARKER You don’t want to rush safety. One of the things that we keep priding ourselves on is we’re trying to make a safe environment for our cast and crew, so the instant you start putting that kind of pressure, it puts us in a really bad position where we’re pretty much being hypocrites.

SENGUPTA Yeah, most of our shows in Canada are either taking that natural holiday hiatus or they started in August, which is really when, for series, we started, and they’re pretty much ending now. The one strategy I have heard of is to continue to shoot through the holidays so that people actually don’t travel and leave and then bring back the virus when you’re shooting in January. So it’s sort of like, "Sorry, I don’t get to go home for Christmas because I’m gonna have to continue to work." I have heard of that strategy, but we haven’t used it, at least on series.

PARKER We’re kind of using it on one of our films. It was discussed with the cast and crew prior to shooting. We said we understood that the potential for exposure rises when people go home, people get comfortable, they’re around family and friends. So they’re basically shooting up until the holidays. They’ll take Christmas off, they’ll come back after. They’ll take New Year’s off, they’ll come back after. But we’re not taking that long span because everyone acknowledges that that long span is what jeopardizes the remaining shooting period. But each show is approaching it differently.

As a company that’s had access to top-level testing throughout the pandemic, how are you approaching the vaccine?

SENGUPTA It’s so, so early. The one thing I can say is having spoken to our doctors and our medical board is that it’s not going be like, boom, and everyone is vaccinated, we are back to normal. What you’re going to see is the crossfade: Vaccine comes in, our protocols hopefully get deconstructed. But that said, I think some protocols may last for a really long time. And with flu season, wearing a mask is not such a bad idea, right? Maybe that is something that we institute. But we haven’t gotten any news about like, suddenly as an industry we’ll have access to vaccines that others won’t. And I don’t think that’s something that we would buy into.

PARKER No, the conversations we’re having now are basically, "What do we know at this moment?" And what we know right now is that this virus is going to be around. Even if there is a vaccine the crew will not be fully vaccinated, so everything that we are learning and doing now with testing and PPE is probably going to remain through all of next year. Not probably, it is going to remain through all of next year. There is no scenario where it just stops. So that crossfade is definitely going to happen on the backend of next year, but as it stands right now, this is our new reality, so we are all digging in. We are all learning from it and we’re all preparing that this is how we’re going to be making movies for at least another year or two.

Really, that long?

SENGUPTA Let’s just say for the U.S. because other countries may mandate the vaccine. I don’t know what will happen in the U.S. and I don’t know if laws would allow us to mandate a vaccine as an employer. So for shows that have to, say, travel to Canada or actors who have to travel to the U.K., my guess is that they will have to get vaccinated just for their work visas. So I think other countries could possibly move a little faster when it comes to requiring everyone to vaccinate. But this is all speculative. I don’t have inside info. But other countries might be able to mandate things that we don’t.

You’re currently in production in over a dozen countries. Where has it been easy and where has it been hard?

PARKER I feel like it’s a little harder here. The virus is a political issue here, whereas some of the other countries that we’re working in, it’s just, "This is the mandate." And that’s pretty much it. There’s no conversation, there’s no question, it’s just, "This is the mandate, this is what we’re doing here." And the country, the community, they do it. Everything here is challenged. You have to wear a mask. "Why do I have to wear a mask?" You don’t run into that elsewhere.

SENGUPTA Even where it’s easy, there are other challenges. So, New Zealand is quite COVID free, so we thought, "Oh, what a breeze it’s going to be to shoot there." But there we have lots of visa challenges and a really, really strict quarantine where it’s a government-issued hotel where people have to stay for 14 days. They are truly locked down. And New Zealand has a really difficult time with crew. A lot of the crew, for many reasons, are working on Lord of the Rings. And we need crew. So can we get them from Australia, can we get them from London? Not so easy. So we found ourselves really challenged even in what I felt was this COVID-free Nirvana.

At this point, what are the scenes that you see in scripts that make you sweat?

PARKER Intimacy.

SENGUPTA Contact sports.

PARKER Yeah, close-contact fight scenes, intimacy, contact sports, anything where people are — I know this sounds bad but I’m going to say it — huffing. People huffing and puffing, when they’re fighting, singing, those are the things that make you go, "OK, hold on one second. How many people are singing? How many people are fighting? How many people are in that space?" And you’ll have filmmakers saying, "Oh we’re just going to shoot it like this and we’ll knock it out in a day or two."

SENGUPTA I’ll give you a funny story of where you get nervous. Our medical advisors, who are brilliant, will meet with shows to talk out various scenes. One of the most challenging questions that they ever got asked was about an orgy scene. And this very prim and proper doctor was just like, "Never did I think I was going to describe how to do an orgy scene safely." He had to tell them that bodies touching is not transmitting COVID but that people breathing on each other and passing bodily fluids is. He was like, "So if you can show a lot of skin it’s going to be all good, but the minute you’re kissing and breathing, et cetera, it’s not. So if you can have an orgy with masks on, that would be terrific!" (Laughs.)

That’s got to be a first for him.

SENGUPTA Yeah, so we have had lots of challenges. I know there is a musical that we are planning to do in the U.K. and it’s a bunch of kids singing and that’s a challenge. Anything that involves a lot of breathing is difficult.

How did you manage to film a show as intimate as Sex Education?

SENGUPTA Well, we called it a bit of a mini-bubble. So that shoots up in Wales, and essentially before those intimacy scenes they isolate. And in the U.K., because of the low prevalence, they isolate for 72 hours. So they test pre-72 hours and after the 72 hours, and then they do the scene. They are also from the very beginning told, "You need to be safe because you need to keep each other safe." So I think everyone involved in those scenes are very, very cautious from the very beginning. And when it came to extras they had a pretty brilliant plan. They hired a group of actors to be extras cause it’s a high school — so there’s hallways and locker room scenes — but they used the same set of extras repurposed across all of those scenes. So you’ve almost got a little theater troupe that you’re keeping safe and sound that comes in and out. So lots of cool strategies to get it done.

Every studio seems to be dealing with massive budget increases as a result of the new COVID protocols on set. How much more is production costing for Netflix right now?

SENGUPTA It’s anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. And I know that sounds crazy because you’d think, shouldn’t it be a set number? But it’s because of the complexity of the show, the size of the crew, where you’re shooting it, the amount of PPE and the amount of testing that you need to do. Some of our shows have chosen to do daily testing, and some shows are doing three times a week. So the price fluctuates on our shows.

PARKER It’s very case by case.

SENGUPTA And it’s not a place where we can look for savings. We’re investing in safety, period. That’s not where we go, "Hmm, could we skimp on this or is there a cheaper testing company?" We’re ever so grateful for Ted [Sarandos] and Reed [Hastings] because they have said, "Go full speed ahead and invest in safety." So we are really lucky that as production that’s not a cost I’m thinking about. We’re certainly tracking it, but it is what it is, and I think we’re living with it though 2021, certainly.

You mentioned possibly having folks continue to wear masks on set during cold and flu season. Is there anything else from the COVID protocols that you think will continue on once this virus is behind us?

SENGUPTA I don’t know if the Health and Safety Department will continue on through 2022, but my sense is maybe we will keep probably a health and safety supervisor on the show from now on because that role is becoming [useful]. Usually you only have a set medic, but having that supervisor might be an interesting person to continue on.

PARKER Yeah, and that’s a department. I think that’s part of the cost increase is that HSC, Heath Safety and Cleaning, is now a department. We have never had that before. We have an HSS, a Health and Safety Supervisor — but that’s an individual. So I think that’s something that’s going to carry through until the virus is eradicated, for us at least. Again, even if you have 50 percent of your crew vaccinated next year, you still have 50 percent that is not, and you still have to protect everybody with the same protocols that are in place.

Lastly, when is a time in the last nine months that you were genuinely panicked?

PARKER There was a moment where a bunch of us executives, we were all going to a location and as the plane was taking off, our phones literally just went bling, bling, just started lighting up. And it was: Tom Hanks tested positive. NBA canceled its season. The border closed in Europe. All in one hour. And then it just got to where when you have no signal and we’re all just staring at each other going, "What just happened?" Then as we got to cruising altitude and we started reading all the feeds, we just realized, "Uh …" We were about to go to a location to go through a cast read-through, all the pleasantries, take the cast and filmmakers out to dinner. We landed and I think we were in the hotel room from 12:30 till 2:00 just going, "All right, so our agenda just changed, what are we doing?" And no one had a real answer cause we didn’t know what was going to happen.

SENGUPTA I was genuinely panicked during our first pioneer shows. So our first pioneers were in Vancouver and New York: Midnight Mass, The Crew and Virgin River. We had a whole bunch of shows going at once. Hubie Halloween and The Prom happened, and then we were supposed to do this gradual, one by one — but nope. So that was a panic. It’s like, "Get seven of them going simultaneously." And we did. Right now, I am just joyous that Virgin River wrapped. We have a whole slew of shows wrapping: Dad, Stop Embarrassing Me, which was our Jamie Foxx sitcom, that wrapped. We have four or five sitcoms that wrapped. We’ve got some shows in New York that will be wrapping. So there is a joy in actually going, "We did it. Everyone was safe and sound. It was really, really hard — but wow."

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.