After abruptly shutting down production about four months ago, Hollywood finally has a plan to get back up and running. The unions and guilds that represent film industry workers, in collaboration with the major studios, have released extensive guidelines on how to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 while filming. Production hubs like California and Georgia have given them a legal green-light to get back to work, and New York is expected to follow suit, But aside from a few productions—a CBS show in Los Angeles, Jurassic World: Dominion in the U.K., and a Tyler Perry series in Atlanta—virtually no one is actually shooting yet.
The question isn't whether Hollywood is going to resume production while we're still in the middle of a pandemic, one that's getting worse by the day; it's only a matter of time. Instead, on-the-ground workers in the industry are wrestling with another question: Should it?
"We have had our own members who have become sick, have become hospitalized, and have passed from the virus. People do not want to put themselves in harm's way."
According to union representatives and crew members who spoke to VICE, there are three major problems standing in the way of a return to production—problems that won't disappear until there's a vaccine for COVID-19. Problem number one: Even the safest way to make a film or TV show during the pandemic might not be safe enough.
So far, the industry's most stringent reopening plan is outlined in "The Safe Way Forward," a report from the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and the Teamsters, who collectively represent almost every employee in the business, from makeup artists to actors. Under their guidelines, workers would be classified into different "zones," corresponding to varying degrees of risk: A, B, and C. Here's how that works:
Zone A is where actors, who can't wear masks and largely can't adhere to social distancing, perform and are filmed. To work there, you have to get tested for COVID-19 at least three times a week.
Zone B is everywhere else on set. To work there, you're required to wear a mask at all times, adhere to social distancing, and get tested at least once a week.
Zone C is "the outside world"—anywhere people in production go when they're not working, like their homes or hotel rooms.
Before you enter Zones A or B for the first time, you're required to have tested negative for COVID-19 within the last 24 hours. The same goes for anyone in Zone B whose work requires that they enter Zone A. Every production will have a dedicated health safety supervisor, who leads a team that ensures the zone system is strictly enforced, and has the authority to "hit pause" on production at any time.
In a nutshell, everyone who can wear a mask and adhere to social distancing while working will do so. Anyone who can't must have recently tested negative for COVID-19, and can only interact with people who have done the same.
The zone system provides for what the unions call a "safer" way to work in film—but it's not infallible. One glaring issue is the likelihood of false negatives. Research shows that if you're tested within four days of contracting COVID-19, there's a 67 percent chance you receive a false negative. That means that if an actor or makeup artist in Zone A gets COVID-19 on Sunday, tests negative on Monday, and then tests positive on Wednesday, he or she could have been spreading the virus without knowing it. It's a frightening risk to take—and with COVID-19 cases soaring in popular shooting locations like California and Georgia, the prospect of taking it becomes even more daunting.
Randy Sayer, a business representative for IATSE's makeup and hairstylist's guild, feels confident in the zone system. But he's heard from several members who say that, even with those safeguards in place, they're not willing to get back on set.
"We have had our own members who have become sick, have become hospitalized, and have passed from the virus," Sayer told VICE. "People do not want to put themselves in harm's way."
Mike Fantasia, a location manager who's worked on films like A River Runs Through It and Ant-Man and the Wasp over his 30-year career, told VICE he would only work in a city where new cases of COVID-19 were declining and local ICUs have more than enough beds to house patients. He's slated to work on Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese's upcoming film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro—but he won't if the conditions are too risky.
"I'm 64-and-a-half years old. I am in the demographic, you know?" he said. "I'm trying to be really frickin' safe here, and I'm going to continue to be really safe. I don't want this to be not just my last movie, but my last breath."
After safety comes problem number two: money. Shooting during this pandemic will be astronomically expensive. Producers will have to hire health safety supervisors and their teams. They'll have to pay to disinfect their sets each day after filming, and cover costs associated with masks, gloves, face shields, and tests for every employee. They'll have to shell out for insurance, if they can even get it. Michaela Fereday, a producer helming the upcoming BBC series Ridley Road, told Variety that COVID-19-related expenses for the show's 12-week shoot could end up being as high as $1 million.
"When you've got enough money, it's difficult. When you don't have enough money, or time, it's even more difficult."
There's another reason why costs are going up. When you're shooting in the middle of a pandemic, every step of the process simply takes longer, from sanitizing hair and makeup stations between sittings, to disinfecting props, to giving crew members breaks so they can take a breather from wearing masks. And while production schedules typically see workers pulling a 12-to-14-hour workday, the "Safe Way Forward" report recommends shortening it to ten. A shorter workday means a longer shoot, which means more money.
"These are going to be the costs of doing business," Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA's COO and general counsel, told VICE. "The reality is that if you didn't do that, you would have crew and performers getting sick, you would have productions being shut down. And that is going to be more costly for the industry, in my view."
Some major studios might be able to shoulder the added expense that comes with working during the pandemic. But for small to mid-range projects, it could be insurmountable.
"When you've got enough money, it's difficult. When you don't have enough money, or time, it's even more difficult," Fantasia said. "I can see the shit hitting the fan when productions find themselves strapped for money, they haven't finished their shooting, and they're spending more money on COVID compliance than they ever anticipated."
Producers can't cut corners on safety regulations; those who try will have their productions shut down by the unions, which is something we've already seen happen. At the same time, there's only so much money a company can spend on a single film or TV show. That brings us to problem number three: If COVID-19 compliance isn't negotiable, and budgets aren't negotiable, something has to give. That something, according to Erik Messerschmidt—a cinematographer who filmed Mindhunter, Legion, and David Fincher's forthcoming movie Mank—is quality.
"What is negotiable, unfortunately, in the movie business is creative integrity," Messerschmidt told VICE. "The resources are finite. We're really intimately familiar with the challenges of squeezing as much juice out of the lemon as we can, and a lot of those resources will inevitably go towards protocols. There's no doubt there are compromises in our future. And that's unfortunate."
Instead of lengthening shooting schedules, Messerschmidt worries that producers will save money by forcing films and TV shows to shoot in shorter time frames. As a cinematographer, that could mean having to forgo creative choices that, in an ordinary world, you wouldn't think twice about making. Imagine you're shooting a Wes Anderson movie, and to make a shot perfectly symmetrical, you have to move a piece of set dressing six feet to the left at the last minute. Getting the actors out of the shot, moving the object, re-setting the scene, and getting back behind the camera could take half an hour. You've only got an hour left to finish shooting for the day. Even if you want to do it, can a production company justify the cost?
"I don't personally, at the moment, feel like I'm in a position to do my best work," Messerschmidt said.
According to Amy Vincent, Vice President of the American Society of Cinematographers, quality isn't the only thing that might suffer. The film industry has a longstanding issue with diversity and inclusion, especially behind the camera. In 2019, just 15 percent of America's top-grossing films were directed by women, and 14.4 percent were directed by people of color, according to UCLA's most recent Hollywood Diversity Report. Vincent worries that—as concerns about COVID-19 take center stage—Hollywood might let its diversity efforts slip.
"When you're talking about reducing the number of people on set for social distancing concerns, I worry that our entry-level positions and our training positions are going to disappear," Vincent said. "That is a real shame, and it has repercussions going forward. If we're not able to train more women, more people of color in the camera department, then we're not able to see those numbers go up."
Amid anxieties about on-set diversity, skyrocketing production expenses, cut-corners, and safety risks, the mere fact of production resuming is little consolation to some workers. Many of them are eager for cameras to start rolling again, and the film industry has found a way to make that happen—but at what cost?
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