Post-Pandemic Hollywood: Inside Plans to Make Movie and TV Sets Safe Again

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Jeff Hinchee for Variety

Tom Cruise expected to spend his summer in Italy, hanging onto the sides of planes, dodging bullets and engaging in elaborate car chases. The arrival of COVID-19 spoiled those plans, indefinitely postponing the shooting of “Mission: Impossible 7,” the latest installment of the globe-trotting espionage franchise.

With signs that the virus is starting to plateau, Cruise is hoping the big-budget action film, delayed since early March, will see cameras roll this June, insiders say. However, a tangle of legal issues and a lack of clarity on when sufficient medical testing will be made available has left the movie business in a sort of purgatory. Studio executives are desperate to get films back into production, but they’re also keenly aware that remains a pipe dream until a set of industry standards can be instituted to make sure that sets are free of the coronavirus. The issue that Hollywood is grappling with — a struggle between a desire to reopen for business and a need to protect the health and safety of its workforce — mirrors the tensions that are playing out in boardrooms, restaurants and factories across the country.

“It’s a massive problem,” says Matt Baer, the producer of 2014 film “Unbroken.” “There’s plenty of precedent in movie history for what you do if a hurricane hits your set or an actor dies in production, but there’s no rule book for what you do in a pandemic.”

Right now, studios, producers and union members are trying to come up with a new, social-distanced way of doing business. On April 13, the Directors Guild of America tapped “Contagion” director Steven Soderbergh to lead a task force to determine when work can resume. He will speak with epidemiologists and guilds to help plan the path forward. But industry discussions aren’t limited to a possible start date. They’re trying to establish new standards. Among the ideas being considered are a push to take crew members’ temperatures before they enter a studio lot. There’s also a move to test employees to see if they have antibodies that would indicate they have some immunity to the virus. They’re also looking into the possibility of instituting waves of testing for cast and crew to see if anyone has been infected.

“There’s a recognition that the economy has to get restarted and that too long a period of sequestration could be really damaging,” says Doug Steiner, owner of Steiner Studios, a Brooklyn-based production facility. “But I’m not sure people can go back to work until we know for sure who is sick and who is immune.”

Other precautions are being considered, such as mandating that all employees stay in hotels or assigned housing and isolate themselves from friends and family for the duration of a shoot.

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Director Christopher McQuarrie lines up a shot of Henry Cavill and Tom Cruise on the set of 2018’s “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” as DP Rob Hardy looks on. Shooting on “M:I7” was postponed in March. Chiabella James/Paramount

“You may have to create a tightly controlled production environment,” says Elsa Ramo, managing partner at Ramo Law and an attorney who has represented Imagine Entertainment and Skydance. “Think of it as a summer camp for movies.”

Further measures will have to be put in place, such as providing crew members with masks and gloves, instituting extra cleaning shifts and ensuring that makeup artists and hairdressers dispose of brushes and other tools once they use them on an actor. It will also require productions to ask probing medical questions of their employees so they can assess their exposure to the coronavirus. In turn, these productions have an obligation to keep their staff informed about any outbreaks, something experts say doesn’t violate privacy laws.

“If people in the industry are going to feel safe, they have to be kept in the loop,” says Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of Workplace Fairness, an employee advocacy group. “You can’t reveal the name of someone who has it, but it’s one of those cases where employees have the right to know they may have been exposed.”

The major issue that’s still being debated is one of liability. If an actor or crew member gets the coronavirus, are the producers, the soundstages and the studios legally exposed?

“If I’m overseeing a production and I listen to all of the health guidelines and institute social distancing, I’m reducing my risk, but I’m not guaranteeing there’s zero risk,” says Scott Zolke, a partner at Loeb & Loeb, who advises media and entertainment companies. “As long as there’s some risk, you’ve got potential liability.”

That kind of uncertainty may make it harder for productions to get bonded and for entertainment companies to get insured. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake caused $42 billion in damages, insurance companies were inundated with claims. The financial fallout led some companies to stop offering homeowners insurance. State leaders intervened and extended coverage for residents that private companies refused to provide. Something similar could happen in the film business, Zolke suggests.

“The impact of this is going to overwhelm the carriers,” he says. “At the very least you’re looking at much higher premiums and much higher deductibles.”

Those aren’t the only bills that are likely to rise when production resumes. The need to have no more than a skeleton crew of workers and the desire to space out the number of people on set at any given time will likely mean that it will take longer to get movies made. Already, studio executives are talking about limiting directors to a certain number of takes as a way of speeding up shooting, and staggering lunch breaks in an effort to reduce the number of crew members left standing around. Currently, studios are reaching out to unions about having them relax rules that mandate that a certain number of production positions be filled on major film sets, citing public health concerns. Unions, however, are eager to ensure that any accommodations are temporary, and that former levels of staffing return when a vaccine for the coronavirus is developed.

“There’s plenty of precedent for what you do if a hurricane hits your set, but there’s no rule book for what you do in a pandemic.”
Matt Baer, producer

“Obviously my members would be chomping at the bit to get back to work,” says Thomas O’Donnell, president of Local 817 and director of the Teamsters Motion Picture and Theatrical Trades Division. “But we have to keep them safe.”

Whatever steps the industry takes, the reality is that budgets are likely to balloon, and that, in turn, will cut into profits, or potentially result in greater losses. Add to that the cost of providing testing and protective gear, and movies may find it nearly impossible to make any money.

In the short run, actors like Cruise may not be taking those trips to Italy. Insiders suspect that many productions that once eyed foreign locales will be reconfigured to film in the U.S. while travel restrictions remain in place. In the case of “Mission: Impossible 7,” the filmmakers are trying to decide whether or not to scrap the Italian leg of production or push that part of shooting back until fall when the virus may have subsided. Of course, there’s no guarantee that will happen, with some public health experts warning that COVID-19 could die down at the end of summer only to come roaring back in the fall and winter. The 1918 flu pandemic, which resulted in 50 million deaths worldwide, followed a similar trajectory.

Other projects are weighing whether to shoot entirely on soundstages and backlots. They recognize that cast and crew risk getting exposed if they film on city streets and other locations. To that end, Steiner says he’s working hard to build out his backlot, understanding that there will be a greater demand than ever for productions to be able to rigidly control who enters and leaves a set.

Initially, many producers and studio leaders hoped that the production shutdown would lift in May or early summer. Now, they’re slowly beginning to accept a new, unpredictable and troubling reality.

“I have a lot of clients with productions that they want to shoot in 2020,” says Ramo. “But it would be arrogant and misleading of me to offer them any sort of assurance that’s possible. We’re still in a period of uncertainty. We’re still in a pandemic, so it’s not like we’re going to wake up tomorrow and no one will be infected.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.