Hollywood is slowly getting back to work as feature films, Netflix shows and network programs resume production. The industry has introduced enhanced safety protocols and drastic new measures designed by guilds and unions, along with epidemiologists, to keep incidences of Covid-19 down on sets.
It remains to be seen how sustainable and realistic the steps are over the long term. During the first wave of the pandemic, the industry was caught off guard — and got pummeled. The hope is that with stricter measures, Hollywood will be able to weather future waves.
However, actors are still testing positive, some workers are still unable to return to work because of safety concerns, studios are still having to push movie releases or debut feature films on streaming platforms, and movie theaters are struggling to survive.
HBO announced Wednesday that its tentpole feature “Wonder Woman 1984” will be released simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters on Dec. 25. With half of theaters out of operation and many people still hesitant to go to the movies, the studio said it couldn’t risk a large-scale release for a $200 million film — even though that means the movie won’t return big box office numbers.
That change is the latest attempt to regain some sense of normalcy in an industry that finds itself once more in a vulnerable position. The threat of further halts looms large, jeopardizing both the financial success of content scheduled to launch in 2021 and the future of popular content that has already been greenlighted but isn’t yet shot, let alone wrapped.
“The production shutdown that happened as a result of people not understanding how to keep people safe during production has had a tremendous negative impact on businesses and the livelihoods of our members and workers all over the industry,” said David White, national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA.
“The pandemic has led to a great deal of collaboration,” White said. “All of us on all sides of the fence needed to figure out how to work together in order to recover and figure out how to get people back to work.”
White said figures outside Hollywood also provided key insights. For example, producer Tyler Perry created an isolated bubble at his studios in Atlanta and was able to resume production with a set of very strict quarantine and testing protocols.
The guidelines SAG-AFTRA established are centered on repetitive testing, which is covered by employers. That’s especially important because a single test captures only a brief moment of a person’s Covid-19 status. The plan also uses zones to limit how many people enter certain areas and come into contact with one another.
“If you’re in Zone A, the zone with our performers, you’re being tested a minimum of three times a week.”
“If you’re in Zone A, the zone with our performers, you’re being tested a minimum of three times a week,” White said, citing one example. “The only people able to enter that zone are people being tested at this level.”
Other unions, like the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, have come up with similar protocols to protect their members. A member of that union, who works in the costume department on big-budget films and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, outlined some of the safety measures and said there was a lot of back and forth about who would foot the bill for tests.
“The union was really strict about the fact that we wouldn’t go back to work without testing,” the union member said. “There’s a ‘Covid safety officer’ at every site where we’re working, and all they do is handle Covid-19 questions and concerns. There’s regular testing. You have to take a safety course, and you can’t take off your mask inside the building for any reason whatsoever, not even to drink water or coffee.”
The member said the protocols have created what feels like a safe environment but questioned their long-term applicability.
Already, unique challenges have arisen, especially when Los Angeles experienced extreme heat or poor air quality from fires. Staying hydrated has also become an issue, because a water break requires a trip outside, which is time-consuming. In addition, because people have to eat outside and away from others, workers have to camp out in their cars and run their air conditioners to eat lunch when the air quality is bad or it’s very hot, which is expensive.
The protocols have also meant production has slowed, which is counter to much of how the industry operates, the union member said.
“You can’t take off your mask inside the building for any reason whatsoever, not even to drink water or coffee.”
“So much of film is rushed and short-notice, where you’re calling someone in for last-minute day work,” the member said. “The process has been slowed down by necessity. You can’t call someone and be like ‘we need you to come in tomorrow and get this done,’ because they need to be tested and take a safety course, which has impacted our workflow and pace greatly.”
The union member also said women and older workers are being adversely affected, because the protocols don’t really account for child care needs or the increased vulnerabilities and concerns of older people, who are at greater risk for adverse effects from the virus.
Small businesses are also taking a harder hit from Covid-19, even as Hollywood resumes production, White said. He pointed to catering companies, which traditionally are structured around providing huge spreads of meals at communal stations where food is shared. With the coronavirus, there has been a shift toward separate meals.
“That may be a permanent shift in the way we think about feeding individuals in close quarters, because the pandemic has gone on for so long that there’s been a mindset shift,” White said. “Once companies make the investment to provide food like that and once people become accustomed to that, companies that aren’t equipped to manage that may not come back.”
Ultimately, however, White is hopeful that Hollywood and its various components will prove resilient and innovative. He is particularly optimistic given that the Covid-19 recommendations put out by the different guilds and unions are designed to be scaled and adjusted to accommodate different sizes of productions.
Still, some are erring on the side of caution and opting to pursue smaller projects that are set on somewhat isolated locations and have fewer cast and crew members.
That’s what Will Packer Productions, which produced “Straight Outta Compton,” “Ride Along” and “Girls Trip,” is doing. It has identified a few projects, including a small horror film set in New Orleans and an Idris Elba survival thriller, “Beast,” that fit the bill.
Only seven people are in the horror film, 90 percent of the movie takes place in one home, and only three locations are used. The shoot should last only about 25 days, and while there are some stunts, there isn’t a lot of close in-person contact.
“There are films on our slate that we have examined and taken a hard look at and decided we just can’t film it in this climate right now,” said James Lopez, president of Will Packer Productions. “We had a musical with a large cast, a lot of singing and dancing, a lot of close contact. When the pandemic hit, that was the very first one we looked at and came to the realization that it’s going to be difficult to film until there’s a vaccine.”
Much still relies on the spread and containment of the virus. As winter approaches, forcing people indoors, and infection rates increase, even careful restarts could be in jeopardy, which could have ripple effects from workers and production companies to studios — and moviegoers.