U.K. Industry Debates Realistic Start Dates for Film and High-End TV Production

The Batman batmobile
Matt Reeves / Warner Bros.

The U.K.’s $4.5 billion film and high-end TV industry has turned its attention to when production can restart now that the country’s official coronavirus safety protocols have been published.

It’s likely that a number of major productions will be up and running as early as July, while September or October is a more realistic timeline for most. For others, it could be next year.

Warner Bros., for example, is reportedly keen to restart filming “The Batman,” starring Robert Pattinson in the title role, as soon as it is safely possible. Other major productions that were halted in the U.K due to coronavirus include Netflix’s “The Witcher” and Disney’s live-action “Little Mermaid.”

Published today, the British Film Commission’s 44-page set of guidelines provide a comprehensive framework for production to resume safely, although the road ahead remains complex, not least due to insurance considerations. As revealed by Variety, proposals for a government-backed insurance plan to help underwrite productions have now been submitted to government.

BFC chief executive Adrian Wootton says the guidance provides a “roadmap” for filming to restart, but that industry training as well as production planning based on the guidelines will be required first. “It’s not like producers are all going to pick up the guidelines today, and say, ‘Okay, we can start shooting again by the end of the week.’ I think we’ll inevitably see a staggered start,” explains Wootton.

“There’s an education piece [that’s needed] to make sure everybody really understands the guidance,” adds Wootton. “We’ve gone into pretty exhaustive detail, so we want to make sure everybody really understands their usability, and how they can access them and scale them.”

U.K. body ScreenSkills is currently developing basic-level training around the guidelines, which will be delivered free online and rolled out later this month. Wootton also says there will be a series of workshops that will run in the next few weeks that will explain in more practical detail how the guidance should be applied.

Some productions could start shooting in July and/or August — most likely those that can film in a managed setting like a studio. “I would like to think that it can happen in weeks rather than months and months,” says Wootton.

Sara Putt, managing director of Sara Putt Associates, the U.K. agency for film and television heads of department, says the guidelines “feel like a very big move forwards” by providing a framework for the industry to budget, plan and risk assess against.

Many of the line producers Putt represents have been doing budgets and feasibility studies based on the guidelines. “There are shows talking about moving back into pre-production in early July to be shooting in August,” says Putt. “There are a couple of shows talking about being in production by late July.”

Medium-sized TV dramas are likely to lead the way in resuming production, as bigger shows have more moving parts.

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Courtesy of Katalin Vermes/Netflix

Alex Boden, chair of the Production Guild of Great Britain and whose producing credits include Netflix’s “Cursed” and “Sense8,” welcomes the guidance, which he says gives producers and everyone on a crew a good sense of what’s needed to start shooting again. “We are now able to re-budget, using this guidance.”

As for start dates, Boden says it will be up to each production to determine how soon they are able to film again. “I would like to see productions starting up again shortly and it would be great to think that we might see features and high-end TV filming again by September or October. It all comes down to being able to provide a safe environment for cast and crew. Studio shoots, which can be contained and controlled, may have the advantage and find it easier to start up.”

Boden says producers and financiers are trying to be realistic while factoring in additional costs for the measures recommended by the safety guidelines. Those who don’t have to shoot right away may choose to wait until everything opens up again.

For those who do return, production is likely to be complex. The BFC guidance focuses on establishing safe systems of working, implementing personal and environmental hygiene measures, and keeping as many people as possible two meters apart during production.

For now, that means actors can’t work in close proximity, so scripts will have to be rewritten or VFX or camera solutions will have to be applied to make them appear so. “Some things are going to have to be worked around by technology until the guidance changes or there’s a vaccine,” says Wootton. He notes that the guidance will be updated weekly, and amended whenever government guidelines change.

Partly as a result, many producers are adopting a wait-and-see attitude before going into production. That’s the case in the independent, lower-budget sector, too.

Erebus Pictures and Producers Roundtable co-founder Helen Simmons says the guidance is very thorough and useful — and she is quick to acknowledge the hard work it has taken to pull it together. However, for indie productions, “Insurance remains the key issue and until that’s resolved, we won’t be shooting anything.”

Aside from that, Simmons notes that making the set safe will also require a lot of extra time, money and preparation, something that smaller budgets are going to struggle to cope with. “Our plan is to wait it out a while longer and see what happens, especially if a second wave is imminent,” she says.

“We’re using the time to develop everything on our slate, and if insurance is possible and smaller productions are starting up nearer the end of the year, then we might try to get one of our more contained productions off the ground. But realistically we aren’t expecting to shoot until 2021,” says Simmons.

Meanwhile, Wellington Films producer Al Clark, whose credits include the thrillers “Calibre” and “London to Brighton,” is targeting later in the year. “We welcome the new BFC guidance and will be studying them closely as productions get underway over the summer, and in the run up to our intended next project this autumn,” says Clark.