As film and TV production resumes after the novel coronavirus lockdown, uncertainty about industrywide safety protocols has led to chaos, but insiders say Hollywood is quickly adapting to the new normal: “Everyone’s trying to figure it out at the same time.”
Whispers of horror stories are beginning to make their way around town. There’s the film that told its cast and crew they couldn’t leave the Motel 6 where they were staying, only to realize there that there was no restaurant on the property — a logistical “nightmare,” according to one source. There’s the studio feature shooting in Atlanta that gathered its cast and crew, only to realize at the last minute that the studio and the production facility had gotten their wires crossed. Each thought the other was handling COVID-19 testing, and neither “had their act together,” says an insider. A desperate call to the head of a nearby production studio ensued, and that facility stepped in and processed hundreds of tests for a movie it had nothing to do with.
As Hollywood forges its way back into production in the midst of a pandemic, industry leaders say that embarrassing oversights like these are all but inevitable in a situation as complex and unprecedented as this — but that shouldn’t deter efforts to get cameras rolling again. “Logistics for production shoots are complicated to begin with. Add the extra layer of all the safety protocols and testing that has to be figured out and, yes, you’re going to have some of it fall through the cracks,” says California film commissioner Colleen Bell. “None of this is easy — but frankly, I give the industry a lot of credit for adapting so quickly.”
Indeed, after months of planning and schedule shifting, filming is starting to kick up in earnest. All the major studios are said to have projects in various stages of production, and it’s beginning to add up: Los Angeles has seen a 40 percent increase in film permit requests from July to August. While the situation remains fluid, resting on the latest local government order or CDC update, what’s become increasingly evident is that there’s remarkably little consistency across productions, according to actors, directors, crewmembers and executives who’ve been on set in recent weeks. With the unions and AMPTP, the trade association that represents the major studios, not finalizing their return-to-work agreement until earlier this week, most producers have been relying on the COVID-19-related guidelines released in a June 1 white paper and later in the “Safe Way Forward” report, both drafted by members of multiple industry guilds. But insiders say that which of those practices are implemented and the extent to which they’re enforced can differ significantly depending on the project. “It is, in that regard, the wild Wild West,” says Pinewood Atlanta president Frank Patterson.
Much of the decision-making power has rested with each individual production and studio, which have received guild approvals on a case-by-case basis. “Everyone’s trying to figure it out at the same time, which is both great and a little terrifying,” says John Skidmore, head of production at Jax Media, who has been leading the company’s efforts to get its wide-ranging TV projects — ABC’s The Conners, TV Land’s Younger and HBO Max’s Haute Dog — up and running safely. “The plans are constantly evolving and none of us are doctors, so we’re just using the best advice we all have.” Of course, some variation among projects is natural — few would expect the set of an independently financed docuseries to run like that of a big-budget movie — but many argue that the industry could benefit from a bit more consensus.