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Coronavirus Spike Puts Hollywood’s Back-to-Work Plans in Serious Jeopardy

Hollywood Film and TV Production Covid-19
Marc Aspinall for Variety

On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading expert in infection diseases in the U.S., testified before Congress amid growing alarm surrounding the 80% spike in confirmed COVID-19 infections in the past two weeks. About halfway through the session, Sen. Elizabeth Warren asked Fauci for a direct assessment of where the country could be headed if the surge in cases is not abated. He did not mince words.

“We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day,” Fauci said. “I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around. And so I am very concerned.”

The implications of Fauci’s alarming forecast are clear to anyone who lived through the previous three months: hospitals moving perilously close to over-capacity, states retrenching into strict quarantines, and an already tattered economy plunging deeper into the abyss. That potential future is especially dire for the entertainment industry, which already has record levels of unemployment as the pandemic all but halted production throughout film and television, effectively freezing the content pipeline and cutting off millions of livelihoods.

The shutdown had just started to soften this month, as a handful of U.S. productions — ABC’s “The Bachelorette,” CBS’s “The Bold and the Beautiful” — began slowly getting back to work, with others quietly preparing to start up again in the coming months. Those plans were predicated, however, on the assumption that COVID-19 cases were either leveling off or dropping nationwide, providing a safer environment for productions to move forward.

Instead, cases have exploded. On Monday and Tuesday, California hit record numbers of daily confirmed cases, led by Los Angeles county, which has hit over 103,000 total cases of the over 230,000 total cases statewide. Cases are similarly skyrocketing in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, while the popular production hubs of Louisiana, Georgia and New Mexico are seeing a precipitous rise as well.

The facts on the ground are swiftly placing the industry into an excruciating double-bind between literal and figurative life and death.

“From the studio’s perspective, from a bunch of people who are looking at their quarterly numbers and not going to be on set, there’s a tremendous desire of ‘We’ve got to go go go go go.'”
Senior executive at production company

One top film executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that production is something “the town is going to have to power through, unless an outbreak shuts them down.” The executive pointed to a large volume of “existential-level anxiety” — but rather than about contracting COVID-19, about “committing to making content for our livelihoods in spite of it.”

Another senior executive at a major production company, also speaking anonymously in order to be candid, had a more ground-level view of the issue. “Obviously, from the studio’s perspective, from a bunch of people who are looking at their quarterly numbers and not going to be on set, there’s a tremendous desire of ‘We’ve got to go go go go go,'” said this exec. “Your natural bent as a producer is, like, ‘Great, let’s go!’ We want to get stuff going. But, you know, I think the producers, and certainly the filmmakers and the actors are all like, ‘OK, it’s all well and good to have these hypothetical ideas, but safety is paramount.'”

Much of the past three months have been spent on exactly that concern, as various industry bodies fashion a latticework of health and safety guidelines meant to make production safer. The results so far, however, have been haphazard.

On June 17, Variety reported that the CBS soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” — one of the very first major productions to return to work — had to pause filming a day after restarting to “better accommodate the large volume of testing needed,” according to a spokesperson for the show’s production company. Six days later, the show blamed “several false positive” COVID-19 results for the temporary shutdown.

Testing is clearly a critical barrier for many productions getting back into full gear.

“It’s all predicated on testing and having so much testing and fast testing available,” said “Ozark” showrunner Chris Mundy in Variety‘s “A Night in the Writers’ Room” roundtable discussion on June 24. “It feels like you could see a way forward, day-to-day checking in on people. I don’t know what happens if one of your leads gets sick, that’s a whole different scenario.…I don’t know what the reality of that is in terms of that level of testing.”

If a production is able to adhere to necessary health and safety protocols, it still has to find a location that is safe enough for the dozens or hundreds of people required to be on set — and live nearby — especially in states like Georgia and Louisiana. Both have aggressively tried to reopen, sometimes against the advice of public health officials.

“People are really suspicious of the political leadership in those states,” says the production executive. “Frankly, what’s the compliance going to be now that this whole wearing masks thing has become politicized? So I think there’s a real reluctance to want to A, get on a plane, and B, expose yourself to something that feels much higher risk.”

“The studios are watching what’s going on in the 14-day timeline of cases, [if] the number of new cases is declining or increasing.”
Joe Guest, production manager

In other words, states that have minimized their COVID cases could become far more attractive centers for production. “I think it’s really important to look at the conditions in the state or territory where you’re planning on going back to work,” says production manager Joe Guest (“Avengers: Endgame,” “The Plot Against America”). “The studios are watching what’s going on in the 14-day timeline of cases, [if] the number of new cases is declining or increasing.” He singles out the difference between New York, which has brought COVID-19 cases down to roughly 500 per day, and Florida, which has weathered between 5,000 and 9,500 cases per day for over a week.

“If you asked me whether I want to go shoot in Florida or in New York — you know, New York, absolutely,” he says. “Florida seems dangerous.”

Of course, finding a geographic location is just the first step: Productions still need to settle on an environment both suitable for the creative demands of the script and the logistic necessities of filming in the middle of a pandemic. That isn’t easy.

“Nobody wants us on the street,: showrunner Michelle King (“The Good Fight,” “Evil”) said in the “Night in the Writers’ Room” Variety roundtable. “We’re having to write toward filming on our sets, but then every health provider can agree on only a few things, and that’s that you don’t want to be indoors with a lot of people for long periods of time — which is filming on a stage. It really is a conundrum…there’s nothing to talk about if you can’t be on a stage. That is crucial.”

With dwindling options in the U.S., some productions are beginning to entertain moving to Europe, where COVID-19 spread is far more under control.

“I’ve received more than a few calls from studios and producers looking to relocate their productions to one our European bases in Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest,” says David Minkowski, head of production for Czech production services company Stillking Films (“Carnival Row,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”). “They are looking for safe havens from otherwise hot spots in the U.S. and also certain European countries.”

Several major studio productions are already scheduled to start production in the U.K. — “Jurassic World: Dominion” in July, “Mission: Impossible 7” in September. And  representatives for Mid Atlantic Films in Hungary, Bavaria Studios and Production Services in Munich, Germany, and Studio Babelsberg in Berlin all tell Variety that they’ve noticed an increased interest from more U.S.-based productions in using their facilities. Although the European Union is currently restricting travel from the U.S. due to the rise in COVID-19 cases here, special exceptions could be made for U.S. citizens coming for specific film productions.

“I’ve received more than a few calls from studios and producers looking to relocate their productions to one our European bases in Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest.”
David Minkowski, head of production, Stillking Films

Adam Goodman, managing partner at Mid Atlantic Films, says that production employees could apply for “travel exemption permit” through the Hungarian police, and then fly into the country on a designated date. If they have a negative COVID test, they could even skip the two week quarantine.

“The mechanism there is to move crew and cast from the U.S. to Hungary relatively quickly,” he says.

Indeed, Csaba Káel, the Hungarian government’s film commissioner, provided this statement to Variety: “Now that the state of emergency has ended, restrictive measures have been eased and the travel restrictions are continually being lifted; special exemption can be granted for non-EU residents to enter Hungary without mandatory quarantine.”

Even for deep-pocketed studios that are able to shoulder the costs associated with relocating an entire production to Europe, however, there is still a finite number of soundstages available. “Stage space is becoming an issue, certainly,” says Goodman. “The jigsaw has been thrown up in the air and we are trying to put the pieces back together, and they are not all fitting back together because shows that have been delayed are now encroaching on the calendars of shows that want to come.”

Needless to say, all of these issues could be entirely mitigated if the COVID-19 cases in the U.S. started to fall again, but that is a factor that is entirely out of Hollywood’s control.

As Christopher Miller, co-founder of the production company Lord Miller with Phil Lord, tweeted on June 25, “There are a bunch of movies and shows that are hoping to start production soon (including some of ours) but they won’t be able to go if the Covid numbers keep rising. So if you want fresh new content please wear a damn mask and help stop the spread!”

Leo Barraclough, Matt Donnelly, and Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.