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How the pandemic could change film, TV production for good

Los Angeles is not quite what it used to be.

Beyond the traffic and smog, part of the city's appeal was the chance of seeing a famous actor at the bodega. A traffic jam was a detour around an elaborate production downtown, a shoot for the next Fast & Furious. At Canter's Deli, studio executives loudly discussed promotions for their next feature.

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This is Part 1 of a two-part series on how COVID-19 has impacted film and TV production. Part 2 can be found here:
Reality TV engagement becomes more real amid pandemic innovation

But with the waves of the pandemic continuing to crash down, LA is not quite the same. And neither is the film business.

Shutdowns

COVID-19 has cleared LA streets, and it has also cleared much of LA's production industry. The city suspended all shoots between March 20 and June 15 in response to state and county lockdowns. For the second quarter, industry advocacy group FilmLA reported a "near-total loss for on-location filming" compared to the prior-year quarter.

Since then, LA production workers have been designated "essential workers" and productions have resumed, even amid the most recent wave of November lockdowns related to a COVID-19 resurgence. On-location production has recovered by only about half what analysts consider "normal" industry activity, and with slow growth in new production activity, FilmLA considers that a plateau in business activity for now.

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"There are fewer people in the community," Colleen Bell, executive director of the California Film Commission, said in an interview. Productions are relying more on teleworking solutions and are only employing essential staff. "But at the same time, production is up and running, so there is production activity, and in order to have that, the protocols must be implemented."

Time is money

Protocols include health screenings, social distancing and a forest of personal protective equipment. As a result, productions are barely recognizable compared to the bustling, collaborative workplaces of last year, and to pay for all the new protocols, the margins on many films may be permanently tightened.

Scripted productions, particularly the feature film business, is perhaps one of the hardest-hit sectors. Feature films represented only about 4% of the permit applications in Los Angeles in the month of October, according to FilmLA. But even in that sprawling multibillion-dollar business, there are clear winners and losers, and that distinction tracks with scale.

"Independent filmmaking is more affected than studio [filmmaking]," Daria Jovicic, independent filmmaker and owner of production company Latitude Media, said in an interview. "For us, it's always a problem of getting money, to secure financing, and every time somebody gives you money as a producer, they expect you to repay at a certain time. Now that time is getting tricky."

While no two projects are the same, the time it takes to make a film was generally predictable before the pandemic. Bonding agents helped insure a timely production on behalf of investors. Now filmmakers are having to adjust to a range of new guidelines, with no centralized specifications. Each production has slightly different guidelines, on top of guidelines required by different industry groups, including unions representing cast, crew and management. Pandemic clauses for production insurance are also being hammered out, which include their own guidelines, and bonding agents are still trying to drive productions through as narrow a timeline as possible.

"We just have to find a system," Jovicic said. "Somewhere middle of next year, we'll have everything under control."

A new normal

That does not mean everything will go back to normal, however. Many industry standards for health and safety will likely remain permanent, and shoots will take more time and cost more money than they did a year ago.

For example, film investor and independent producer Justin Begnaud was getting ready to begin production on a $4 million film when the pandemic effectively ended productions globally.

As new guidelines came out, Begnaud was able to estimate the cost of producing his film. He even modified the script to increase social distancing and cut costs. In the end, the guidelines still added about $1 million to the production, or a 25% increase in cost. The studio underwriting his film had approved the $4 million, but he was having difficulty getting an increased budget.

"The movie is probably not going to get made, despite big cuts to production costs and a greenlight from studio," Begnaud said in an interview.

Those extra things include a full medical staff on set, temperature screenings for anyone entering the set, personal protective gear for everyone, biweekly coronavirus tests for cast and crew, quarantining cast and crew when travel is necessary and new logistics that make efficiencies like carpooling and collaboration impossible.

Many of the new guidelines are onerous for small productions, Jovicic said. Big studios not only have the efficiencies of scale but also the budgets to accommodate the evolving landscape. Further, they are often able to self-insure their productions.

From costs to casts

These changes not only drive up costs but also impact workplace culture, actress Lyndie Greenwood said in an interview. On the set of CBS (US) series "S.W.A.T.," now producing its fifth season, there is much less coworker interaction. Cast and crew are allowed on set in three groups. The group that interacts with actors is the most controlled since actors are often not wearing face masks or other safety gear. Everything down to hair and makeup is controlled, where makeup artists now wear masks, face shields and scrubs. Greenwood said her makeup artists more resemble medical professionals than cosmetologists.

"It's an entirely different world than it was a year ago," Greenwood said in an interview.

"S.W.A.T." was one of the first scripted productions to resume shooting in LA following the lockdown. Previously, Greenwood has performed in Amazon's "The Expanse" and Fox's "Sleepy Hollow."

Greenwood said she was impressed by the efficiency of the new protocols on set. While the new guidelines did compromise some camaraderie on set, they also created a more controlled, comfortable environment. For example, the amount of time the cast and crew are now required to be on set is far less than before the pandemic — about 10 hours instead of 15 — as long workdays tend to compromise immune systems and lead to less attention to detail.

And whatever the requirements, after months of suspension and an uncertain future for film professionals, just getting back to work is a relief.

"I felt safer on set than anywhere in my life," Greenwood said of the "S.W.A.T." set. "There are so many people to navigate and you can't do it without being extremely diligent. And everyone is just happy to be working, so they easily fall in line."