Since the U.K. government gave the production sector the greenlight to restart in the summer, shoots have continued uninterrupted — for the most part — despite the tightening of restrictions on other areas of the economy.
Some high-profile productions, such as “Jurassic World: Dominion,” “The Batman” and “The Witcher,” have been forced to take short breaks when cast or crew tested positive for COVID-19, but such cases have merely underscored how well the testing regimes have been working. The importance of the sector’s anti-COVID-19 measures was hammered home by Tom Cruise recently on the U.K. set of “Mission: Impossible 7.” Other Hollywood productions shooting in Britain in recent months have included “Fantastic Beasts 3.”
Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission, estimates that production activity is at around 85% of pre-pandemic levels, which has been facilitated in large part by a £500 million ($666 million) government-backed fund to provide COVID-19 insurance.
The government has given the sector invaluable support, reflecting its growing importance to the country. It contributes $10.5 billion a year to the British economy, employs 166,000 people and has been growing faster than other any other part of the economy, according to the British Film Institute.
Underpinning the continued production activity is the British Film Commission’s COVID-19 production guidance, which provides detailed advice on how to minimize the chances of infection on set. The document is continually updated as crews give feedback on the lessons they’ve learned, with mass training reinforcing the advice. The introduction of a COVID-19 supervisor as part of a crew has also been crucial to ensure the guidance is applied.
The sector is engaged in “an evolutionary process,” during which the importance of the COVID-19 supervisor, health and safety training, and the testing and tracing regime has been reinforced, Wootton says, but also the need to safeguard the mental health of the crews, and key to that is clear communication.
“Producers are having to be much more acutely sensitive to the transparency of communication about what’s going on, ensuring everyone’s mental health, and managing concerns about infection to make sure that people feel confident that the production is doing everything it can to protect them,” he says.
Among the changes that may become more of a fixture in the industry, he says, is a reduction in location shooting, the lessening of the number of people on set, and fewer crowd scenes, as well as an effort to reduce the precarious nature of freelance employment. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter movement has added momentum to the drive to increase diversity among crews.
Meanwhile, demand for studio space, underpinned by the country’s 25% tax credit, is such that a number of additional large studio facilities will be constructed close to London. These include one led by pay-TV company Sky and NBCUniversal, with 12 soundstages; a second driven by Blackhall Studios, with 20 soundstages; and a third, steered by Hackman Capital Partners, with up to 12 soundstages.
The developers of these and other smaller studios are looking to set up training programs, so that a large proportion of their studio personnel and crews will be drawn locally.
The only cloud on the horizon is Brexit, and the ongoing trade negotiation with the European Union, but Wootton is confident that it “really makes no material difference to people coming to make films and television [shows] in the U.K.”
The visa regime will be the same for U.S. and non-E.U. citizens, the U.K. tax credit remains accessible to foreign producers, the infrastructure remains unchanged, and British content — which incidentally includes U.S.-funded movies and series shot in the U.K. such as the James Bond and “Fantastic Beast” franchises — will still qualify as European when it comes to E.U. quotas. That designation is controlled by the Council of Europe, of which the U.K. remains a part. One of the few downsides of Brexit will be the need for British crews to use carnets — permission to export items without paying duty — when transporting equipment into the E.U.