Extras on $et: Inside Hollywood’s Pricey Plans to Restart Production

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Brian Stauffer for Variety

Someone had to take the leap. After months of coronavirus-imposed shutdowns, Tyler Perry announced May 12 that he will begin production at his Atlanta-based Tyler Perry Studios on the second season of his BET show “Sistas” on July 8, and “The Oval” three weeks later. As he ramps up production, Perry will be among the very first in the business to put into action a profusion of untested ideas that have preoccupied the entertainment industry on how to get back to work in the age of COVID-19.

“I’m excited about it,” Perry tells Variety. “I’m excited about being able to make sure that people can take care of themselves and support their families, but also excited about setting a template here that I think could work everywhere.”

He’ll test the cast and his “drastically” scaled back Atlanta-based crew when they arrive at the studio and before they begin production, and four more times during the two-and-a-half-week shoots for each show. Everyone on the set will wear protective masks, and group scenes will be held until after the fourth day on set, when everyone has been tested again. Meals will be served in different “catering pods” on the largest soundstage to maximize social distancing. Perry will fly out-of-town cast members in on his private plane, and, since the studio is a decommissioned U.S. Army compound, everyone working on the production will live on campus.

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Darren Braun for Variety

“It’s really a military effort — and no better place to do that than a former military base,” says Perry.

When asked how much all of these preventive measures will add to the price tag of production, the self-made mogul acknowledges, “It’s an enormous undertaking and an enormous cost to the budget.” (Read more on Tyler Perry here.)

Perry’s words reflect a common and troubling refrain reverberating throughout the entertainment business.

In one harried week in mid-March, as COVID-19 cases and deaths were multiplying everywhere, Hollywood scrambled to shut down, and doing so has exacted a severe financial toll across the industry, as well as on the cities that rely on production as a key economic engine. The even harder work, however, lies ahead: the painstaking — and costly — process of opening back up.

Shorter shooting days will lead to longer shooting schedules; casts and crews will be put in quarantine; there will be added breaks for temperature checks and accurate COVID testing; there will be more extensive visual effects where extras once stood; newly trained personnel dedicated to health and safety will need to be hired; medical-grade cleaning equipment and PPE — and insurance if producers are lucky enough to secure it — will balloon the hard costs of production.

Variety spoke with dozens of studio executives, producers, directors, actors and below-the-line artisans in the U.S., Canada and Europe about what the new normal on set might look like as productions begin to start up again. While everyone’s working on some kind of plan, most (at least, in North America) are not actually proceeding until the impending release of highly anticipated guidelines spearheaded by the AMPTP, which is based on input from studios, epidemiologists and public health officials, as well as sensitive negotiations with the various trade unions.

What’s emerged is a moving target that no one quite has a full grasp of but everyone understands is heading in only one direction: The costs of production, already sky-high, are going to get even higher.

Even without detailed industry guidelines in place, the executives Variety spoke with forecast increased expenses. Any potential cost reductions — shooting only on soundstages, with a smaller crew and cast out of social-distancing necessity — seem like a drop in the bucket. “I don’t anticipate any savings,” says one studio production chief. “We’re looking at more than incremental increases. It’s very hard to say, but on a major movie, as much as 20% increases. And that’s on paper.”

Not everyone is on board with the idea of going back into production before there is medicinal treatment or a vaccine for COVID-19. One director of a studio movie that was in pre-production when everything shut down thinks such plans are irresponsible. The filmmaker, who spoke to Variety under the condition of anonymity, resents that he was sent to scout locations in March when it was clear to him that the world was in a pandemic, and he thinks any plan to restart is ludicrous. “A movie can’t work with masks and social distancing — everyone is all over each other all the time,” he says. “To not face that, either you’re in denial or you’re ignorant, or you’re pretending to not know so the company isn’t liable.”

But one producer engaged in an overall studio deal believes that in order to get back in business, people need to shift from the mindset of taking no risks at all to making production as safe as possible — which, yes, does involve risk. The producer, who did not want to be identified, says pre-production can happen remotely, as can post-production: “We just have to figure out the filming.”

When asked about the consequences of an indefinite production halt across the industry, the producer considers it, and then says: “I mean, look, we all die without it, right?”

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Brian Stauffer for Variety

It will be many months before we know whether the scramble to make movies in a world in which few theaters are open is practical planning for a COVID-less future or delusional magical thinking. Variety interviewed three studio executives overseeing such planning, none of whom was authorized to speak on the record.

Every production will have to have expanded health departments, and “on a big movie,” says one of the executives, “that could be 15 people.”

“Hours will be longer to get the same amount of normal work in a day if we’re getting people in protective gear and taking temperatures,” this executive continues. “Even with adding days. No efficiencies we create will reduce the cost of what we’re doing in the short term.”

For many of the biggest-scaled productions, even having a timeline for returning to work seems premature. As a second high-level studio exec put it, “To state what may be the obvious, I think the really big crew, lots of extras, multi-country production where you sort of are required to globe-trot is probably last in the queue.”

Another executive, who runs physical production at a studio, calls all the speculation “wildly early” and declines to hypothesize about budgets. But this executive certainly foresees more money being spent on COVID precautions — including wondering whether only one actor can get makeup and hair done at a time, leading to more delays. This executive has a “Pollyanna side,” however, and hopes there might be “an interest in doing things in less time anyway” on the part of filmmakers who might forgo filming around the world in favor of soundstages, which are more economical.

“The people who are most passionate about the creative might say, ‘Oh no, I want to make my movie achievable,’” says the executive, who wonders if there will be movies that jump the line that are “containable” — like a single-setting horror movie. “There are so many movies on the docket, but you might see one of the smaller ones get a real good shot,” the executive says. “Who wouldn’t like a nice four-character horror-genre movie right now?”

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Tyler Perry directs an episode from Season 1 of “The Oval” with actors Yvonne Senat Jones,Vaughn Hebron, Teesha Renée and Ptosha Storey. The series is set to restart production July 28. Courtesy of Tyler Perry Studios

Before that can begin, however, this executive would like to test how all of the new protocols will work on a “two-day pickup shoot,” preferably on the studio backlot. “If I were able to shoot a couple of pickup dates and have that happen in July, I’d feel really fortunate,” the executive says. “If it’s August, I’d also feel really good. A whole movie maybe a little bit after that.”

When larger-scale movie production does start again, Pinewood Atlanta Studios — where “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Endgame” and many other tentpole films have been shot — plans to be ready. Frank Patterson, the CEO of Pinewood Atlanta, has set a restart deadline of June 1, and has spent more than $1 million so far on hospital-grade HVAC upgrades, hand-washing stations and security measures to reduce risk of infection. “We decided we’re going to be the safest, cleanest place to make a movie in the world,” Patterson says.

Blackhall Studios in Atlanta is also undergoing preparations to resume work. CEO Ryan Millsap tells Variety that the studio is undertaking a coronavirus retrofit that will include air conditioning filters and antibody testing capacity, which will cost “millions when it’s all finished.” Millsap believes that Blackhall could be just a few weeks away from shooting.

“We’re in pretty serious talks with two major production companies about starting up again in June,” he says, adding that one of the companies is Disney.

Millsap adds that he’s negotiating to lease a 300-unit apartment building about 10 minutes from the production facility. Crew could be housed there, provided with meals and shuttled to the studio for work; they could be quarantined for up to six months. “It’s kind of like a kibbutz,” he says.

However, Mike Akins, business agent of IATSE Local 479, has pumped the brakes on these plans, saying May 12 that production would likely resume in Georgia in “30 to 45 days, at the earliest.”

For at least one big movie, it could be longer. Netflix’s “Red Notice,” a spy thriller starring Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds, had transitioned to shooting in Atlanta after hopping across a series of international locales when it had to shut down production. But director Rawson Marshall Thurber has no idea when it’s going to resume shooting.

“We’re starting conversations about procedures to keep people safe on set so that we can get back to work,” he says. “But there’s really nothing circled on the calendar about when we’ll come back. It could be late summer or early fall; it could be next year.”

“It’s an enormous undertaking and an enormous cost to the budget.”
Tyler Perry

Similarly, actor Zoë Kravitz, who had to suspend work playing Catwoman opposite Robert Pattinson in Matt Reeves’ “The Batman,” says that part of her is “hoping to wake up every day to an email or a phone call saying, ‘We’re ready to go.’” But when that could be remains unclear.

“I’m in touch with everybody, and everyone’s ready to go when it’s safe,” she says. “But no, we have no idea.”

The issue is simply that considering the massive crews, complex stunt work and elaborate sets, costumes and makeup, large-scale productions might be too big to reasonably accommodate COVID-19 precautions without a vaccine.

After all, just suiting up to play one of Batman’s most iconic rogues is not a one-person job, Kravitz says: “You have people just touching your face, touching your body all day long. I need help getting into the catsuit. I can’t do it on my own. I was probably touched more than any job, just because of the clothes and the combat and all of that.”

With their biggest movies on ice for the foreseeable future, studios will likely have to lean even more heavily on visual effects and pared-down production methods to keep their pipelines flowing.

“I’d like to believe that by the end of the year we’re shooting something,” says one high-level exec. “Is that an actor against a green screen alone and the director is directing nearby but still remotely?”

In theory, independent productions are far better situated to get back to work. Yale Prods., which makes movies with budgets between $2 million and $10 million, had shot for one day on “Castle Falls,” a Dolph Lundgren project the company is executive producing in Alabama, when it was shut down by Birmingham’s public health department. In lieu of concrete guidance on how to move forward, the production company is developing its own rules — ones that will cost more. “It is inevitable that we do spend more money,” says partner Jordan Yale Levine. “But we’re trying to minimize how much that is.”

Keeping the cast and crew in a nearby hotel is already in the company’s budgets for location shooting, but the team has been running the numbers on what else will be needed. Yale’s head of production Jon Keeyes says he anticipates additive costs of “$5,000 to $7,500 a week” for thermometers, sanitizing equipment, masks and gloves, an on-site medic and an additional PA in charge of cleaning. Those numbers do not include testing, which the company considers crucial.

Keeyes has been in touch with the Alabama film office, as well as the one in Birmingham. The company expects to go back into pre-production on “Castle Falls” in June, begin filming in July and then start another movie right after that with the same crew. “Obviously, that is predicated on the idea that everyone stays safe and healthy as we move forward, and we don’t see spikes” of people getting sick, Keeyes says.

Because of how nimble independent productions can be, producer Lynette Howell Taylor (“A Star Is Born”) sees possibilities there. “I immediately went into ‘OK, what can we do with five people and a camera?’” Taylor says. “I feel like independent filmmakers are going to have another resurgence again. I think it’s actually an incredible opportunity.”

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Pinewood Atlanta Studios has spent more than $1 million so far on measures to reduce the risk of infection. Courtesy of Pinewood Studios

If indie productions can even get insured, that is. “The information that we’ve gotten from different brokers and people that we work with on the insurance side has been, generally speaking, that it will be difficult to cover any sort of COVID-related kinds of claims,” says Jordan Beckerman, Levine’s partner at Yale Prods. (For more information on productions and insurance, read this.)

Making crews smaller than they already are also requires a fraught nego­tiation of long-established union contracts and conventions that delineate everything from who can set up lights and operate a camera to who can move the director’s chair. According to several sources, that negotiation is ongoing, and is one of the main reasons an industrywide task force that includes members from the AMPTP, SAG-AFTRA, the DGA, CSATF and IATSE has yet to present anticipated guidelines for production to state governments. Meanwhile, several guilds, including SAG-AFTRA and the DGA, are also forging ahead with their own advisory boards and select committees on how to safely restart production, with little clarity to date on whether the larger entertainment community can expect one set of guidelines — or several.

Spokespeople for the AMPTP and the major guilds participating in the industry task force declined multiple requests to comment on the record for this story, save for a vaguely worded statement from SAG-AFTRA national executive director David P. White: “We will continue to collaborate and coordinate with other guilds and unions on safety and protocols for returning to work. No one yet knows when the industry will be able to restart production, but we intend to be ready at the earliest possible time while ensuring the safety of our members.”

Across the pond, however, things are progressing with more dispatch. On May 18, U.K. TV broadcasters published guidelines that cover all manner of television production, with a special emphasis on considering those at higher risk, reducing overall production personnel and minimizing travel. This comes after the British Film Commission released draft protocols on May 6 for film and high-end-drama TV production, including a dedicated COVID-19 health and safety supervisor; “isolation accommodations” for any international cast and crew; replacing crowd scenes with CGI; and additional time for set construction, set dressing, costumes and makeup.

Meanwhile, Iceland announced last week that it will open its borders to international crews and talent on June 15. In Sweden and Denmark, film and television production is already underway. And Australia’s long-standing soap opera “Neighbours” resumed production in April. British Columbia announced that production can begin in June, but until the U.S.-Canadian border no longer requires a 14-day quarantine period, it’s unclear how realistic that restart is. (A source close to Warner Bros. says the studio has no definitive dates for resuming any of its Vancouver-based productions.)

Also, as Variety has reported, Amazon is set to start shooting the 1960s-set comedy series “Voltaire, Mixte” in the south of France in mid-July, and two domestic French films — period drama “Eiffel” and WWII film “Adieu Monsieur Haffmann” — will start shooting in Paris in June.

“I immediately went into ‘OK, what can we do with five people and a camera?’ I feel like independent filmmakers are going to have another resurgence again.”
Lynette Howell Taylor, producer

And according to Adam Goodman, the head of Mid Atlantic Films in Budapest, foreign crews will be able to return to Hungary “by early July, if not sooner.” Goodman was working on four Hollywood productions, including Sony’s period movie “The Nightingale,” starring Dakota and Elle Fanning, and Showtime’s adaptation of the video game “Halo,” when the shutdown happened. He’s now engaged in a “continual assessment, re-budgeting, rescheduling phase” in anticipation of the return of those productions.

“I’ve been on calls where we’re talking about a shooting crew of 30 people — and not necessarily 30 people on set all at the same time — and I’m used to 150, 300 people,” he says. “It’s a bit like when you do a nude scene and you make it a closed set, with a minimal number of personnel.”

But smaller crews, he says, will be at the expense of efficiency, flexibility and speed: “Things will be slower.”

Paula Heffernan, head of production at Element Pictures (“Normal People,” “The Favourite”), agrees. “At the start of the day you need your electrical team to rig the lights, then your art department to dress the set, then your camera department to set up their equipment,” she says. “All of that will take time off your shooting day, and I imagine we’ll have to end up having to extend the shooting schedule. Everyone knows that’s where the huge costs come in.”

Restarting production itself is expensive. Christopher Aird, head of drama at U.K.-based Two Brothers Pictures (“Fleabag”), was filming a second season of the BBC/Masterpiece drama “Baptiste” in Hungary when everything was halted. “To stand the whole production down, pay everyone and then rehire people back up is significant,” Aird says. “Hundreds of thousands of pounds. The gross cost is in excess of 10% of total production. That’s an awful lot of money.”

All those expenses can add up quickly. Michaela Fereday, an executive producer at Red, the production company behind HBO and the BBC’s “Years and Years,” says that for a contemporary, London-based drama series, all the added precautions and protocols could add up to a “ballpark” of about $120,000 (roughly £100,000) per week. One of her company’s upcoming series, “Ridley Road” for the BBC, was two weeks away from shooting in Manchester before the shutdown. She calculates COVID-related precautions for the 12-week shoot could run the production about $1 million — and that’s not factoring in the $340,000 cost of halting the show and then getting it back up and running.

“At the moment on that particular show, I’m facing what could be a million pounds off the bottom line,” she says.

The enormous scale of television productions, which can take nine months to film, can have crews of up to 300 and generally have scores of recurring and guest actors, certainly presents different challenges from movies. And scripted TV has seen budgets explode in recent years because of competition between streamers and traditional corporate conglomerates for talent and projects. But for legacy networks and studios, the addition of coronavirus-related costs on TV productions will further eat away at profit margins that have already been shrinking for years. Which means there’s not much wiggle room for added expenditures, especially when all production immediately ceased in mid-March.

TV productions could especially feel the financial pinch with any kind of crowd scene that would have involved hiring in a few dozen extras for the day. “It depends on many factors,” says Adrian de Wet, visual effects supervisor on the Apple TV Plus series “See.” “Say you have a battle scene in which two armies are charging at each other and the camera is on a drone flying low. That’s an extremely complex scenario that is going to cost somewhere in the high tens of thousands [of dollars]. However, if you were to shoot the scene with a camera in a fixed position, [that] will be a fraction of the cost. Planning is key.”

One U.S.-based TV producer who oversees multiple shows spells out the conundrum. “On the one hand, people have to be safe, as safe as possible,” she says. “On the other hand, we haven’t made any money for months, so there’s no more money!

“I think you might see even more of a line between the haves and have-nots,” she continues, “companies that have to show a profit and companies that don’t.”

An example: One of the ideas that’s been floated to keep sets safer is a strict 10-hour workday instead of the usual plan for 12 to 13 hours, which can often extend even longer. But that would mean a show that normally takes eight days per episode would now take 10, resulting in added costs. Whatever extra equipment and medical experts are needed to ensure the set is safe would likely come out of the show’s episodic budget — at the expense of other things. One showrunner is dreading the money crunch. “We’ve been told, ‘Don’t worry about it — somebody will pay for it,’” he says. “And that somebody is us two months from now!”

The U.S.-based TV producer says one bright spot is seeing the entire industry galvanized to find solutions: “I think right now there is such a unity and alignment of goals. And that’s kind of nice.”

It’s also likely transformative. There’s plenty of run time on the COVID-19 pan­demic before the final credits roll.

“The biggest thing is going to be getting every­one to understand that it’s not just something that’s going to change for a few weeks,” Aird says. “I believe this will be something we’ll be doing for at least a year, maybe two.”

Leo Barraclough, Tim Dams, Matt Donnelly, Daniel Holloway, Angelique Jackson, Brent Lang, Cynthia Littleton, Gene Maddaus, Marc Malkin, Dave McNary, Manori Ravindran and Jazz Tangcay contributed to this story.