After the coronavirus, the race to resume film production goes global

Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne co-star in Amazon's Victorian fantasy "Carnival Row," which was filming its second season when the coronavirus shut down production. (Jan Thijs/Handout/Tribune News Service)

Ever since the coronavirus crisis put entertainment production in a deep freeze, Hollywood has been eager to get the cameras rolling again.

After all, box office revenue has sunk to virtually zero, and more than 100,000 entertainment industry workers have lost their jobs.

With stay-at-home advisories in place and domestic production at a standstill, filmmakers are starting to see a thaw abroad.

In recent weeks, several countries have raised their flags, vying for production. They tout their incentives, facilities and locations but also their low COVID-19 numbers, testing capabilities, and measures to keep productions safe and minimize outbreaks.

“It’s about options,” said Joseph Chianese, executive vice president at Entertainment Partners, an industry consultancy based in Burbank, California. “Before, it was who had the higher incentives, infrastructure and crew to support my production.”

Now, the formula has shifted, with people also asking: Is it safe and is it close?

The globe began spinning last month when Netflix’s content chief, Ted Sarandos, mentioned during an earnings call that the streaming giant was shooting in Iceland and South Korea.

With its vigilant COVID-19 testing, a Netflix endorsement, and a plan for safe and secure production on the table, Iceland received an upsurge in interest from filmmakers.

Last week, Iceland announced that it would open the country to foreign film crews beginning May 15 under strict testing and tracking measures. Those entering the country will be offered a variety of quarantine and testing options and will be asked to comply with stringent safety requirements on set. Further easing of restrictions is expected on June 15.

In recent weeks, as governments review border policies and airlines have limited travel, film commissions and producers have been establishing guidelines and protocols to get a jump on filming.

“We want to get that production out of suspended animation,” said Adrian Wootton, chief executive at the British Film Commission, noting that film was one of the country’s fastest growing sectors.

Major players including Walt Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros. have made substantial investments in the United Kingdom. Last year, Disney signed a long-term lease at Pinewood Studios outside London, while Netflix locked up 14 soundstages at Shepperton Studios. Warner Bros. has its own studios at Leavesden, near the capital.

Major U.S. studios “have got production that is suspended here that they want to start up again,” Wootton said.

BFI, which hopes to reopen this summer, has compiled a 26-page set of proposals to restart high-end TV and film production with feedback from unions and other industry groups.

The recommendations include requirements for coronavirus health and safety training for all crew members; the use of masks, gloves, hand-washing, cleaning and twice-daily temperature checks; a dedicated COVID-19 health and safety supervisor; and quarantining of foreign crews.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Czech Republic was among the first countries to resume production. The country’s film commissioner has said international filming halted by the pandemic would begin this month. Before the shutdown, Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom were filming Amazon Studios’ second season of “Carnival Row,” and Disney’s Marvel Studios was filming “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”

The country has exempted actors and performers from wearing masks while working but requires testing proof every 14 days. Foreign actors and crew members must test negative for the virus before boarding a flight to the country and, within 72 hours of arrival, undergo a second test and remain quarantined until they receive a negative result.

Neighboring Slovakia, meanwhile, touts the fact that it never closed for filming.

“Unlike in other countries, filming was not banned, as it is considered manufacturing and not a cultural event,” said Zuzana Bielikova, head of the Slovak Film Commission.

However, she noted that most production outside of small-scale projects was halted until the country got the virus under control. Local films and TV shows are expected to begin again in June.

“We do have quite a few requests from international (mostly U.K., German, U.S.) film crews that would like to film in Slovakia in the summer and autumn,” she said.

Bielikova said the commission offers online location scouting so international crews don’t have travel in person while searching for locations. Among the new protocols, anyone entering the country must first undergo a 14-day quarantine (except for those with proof they are COVID-19 negative).

In New Zealand, where Disney’s “Avatar” sequels were being filmed before the virus halted production, and where early and strict restrictions resulted in low infection rates and containment, the government has approved protocols for domestic filming, some of which are already underway.

“We also look forward to welcoming back international productions that were shooting here and those that had planned to shoot here and want to create a safe environment for that,” said Annabelle Sheehan, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission. “I think every country will create effective (health and safety plans) that account for COVID issues as they move toward resuming production in their countries.”

While Australia’s borders remain closed to international filming, the country has been opening up its domestic production. In March, Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, announced they’d both tested positive for the coronavirus while Hanks was in Australia filming the untitled Baz Luhrmann Elvis Presley biopic.

The long-standing Australian soap opera “Neighbors” resumed production this month under strict health and sanitation protocols, including no kissing or hand holding. Cast and crew isolated into three groups and deployed camera tricks to make actors appear more intimate on screen then they are on set.

Back in the U.S., some enterprising film executives are urging producers to look closer to home.

Lynn-Wood Fields, the marketing producer at Montana Studios in Hamilton, suggests Montana.

“It is in the U.S., there are direct fights, we have unbelievable resources, including testing, and we’re open,” she said. “We have a joke here: ‘Six feet, that seems a little close.’”

Fields said that the 12,000 square feet of operational soundstage space in Hamilton and its post-production space in Butte can compete with any country. As well, she said it has partnered with a primary care doctor to test crews weekly and cast daily and a manufacturing partnership producing antiviral masks.

Last year, the state passed a competitive production rebate of up to 35%.

“We have progressive COVID-19 testing,” Fields said, also noting: “Our numbers are so much lower than New Zealand.” 

In part, the appeal of filming abroad is because the U.S. has yet to contain the virus or provide adequate testing, and safety and health measures on set have yet to be established, let alone implemented.

Another hurdle: Insurance companies that have long protected studios from a multitude of circumstances that could hamper or delay filming are reluctant to underwrite productions, regardless of geography.

Locally, film officials are working with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to establish criteria for filming on set and on location. Despite progress, no date has been set for the start of filming, said Paul Audley, president of FilmLA.

Attorney Dan Stone, a partner in the litigation and entertainment and media groups of Greenberg Glusker, said that the lack of a unified approach could further delay the return of domestic production.

“Ultimately, the industry will need some form of uniform guidelines,” he said.

Hollywood unions, including SAG-AFTRA and the Directors Guild of America, are playing a key role.

“Companies and studios are putting out their thoughts and recommendations on how production will work,” Chianese said. “But if you look at the U.S., it’s the unions and guilds that will dictate what they need to make sure their members are safe.”

IATSE International President Matthew Loeb has said the union and its locals, whose 150,000 members work behind the scenes of productions in the U.S. and Canada, will negotiate with studios to establish a “uniform set of terms and conditions so that there’s no differences based on where a given production may take place.”

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