California Is Ready to Resume Film Production. But Is Hollywood?

California is Ready to Resume Film Production - Is Hollywood?
Reed Saxon/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Film and television production may be able to resume in California on June 12, but major studios are still weeks — if not months — away from rolling cameras.

Before shooting can start or resume on movies and TV shows, the various labor unions that represent everyone from the grips to the actors to the directors, have to sign off on safety procedures for how sets should operate in the age of coronavirus. Nearly 200 people from across the entertainment industry were involved in drafting a white paper outlining new safety protocols that range from increasing testing and temperature tests to quarantining casts and crews. Insiders predict that the final sign-off on those plans is between four to six weeks away.

“For the major film productions and a handful of premium TV shows, this pandemic was like tranquilizing an elephant,” said one top film studio executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We’re not going to be able to stand up right away.”

Even if the government declares that sets can re-open in Los Angeles, the movie and television business has become so global in scope that sources at the studios believe it will take time before most productions resume. In Los Angeles, Warner Bros. was half-way through shooting “King Richard,” the story of Richard Williams, father and coach of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, which stars Will Smith. Some of the major tennis scenes still have to shoot.

Television shows with live studio audiences, such as late-night programs, could start filming on sound stages in the coming weeks after doing lo-fi versions that were shot in the homes of hosts such as Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. However, most production companies remain skeptical that they will be shot in front of crowds until much later in the year or even 2021.

In terms of scripted shows, every TV studio rep that spoke with Variety expressed that they were not planning to immediately restart production on June 12. One rep said that their studio is tentatively targeting to get some shows rolling in July, with that being the most concrete date offered by those who commented. There was also no indication as to which shows would be the first out of the gate once studios gear back up.

It’s possible that production could resume on major movies that were filming in countries such as Australia and New Zealand before domestic crews can call action. Disney has the team between the upcoming “Avatar” movies quarantining in New Zealand, but it’s unclear when they can start back up. Warner Bros. is hopeful that Baz Luhrman’s “Elvis” with Tom Hanks and Austin Butler could start shooting by August (most of the cast and crew, save Hanks who got coronavirus, stayed Down Under, so they won’t be hamstrung by travel restrictions). And Paramount has already announced that it hopes to start shooting the next “Mission: Impossible” movie in Italy this September.

In other parts of the world, the U.K., where “The Batman” and “The Little Mermaid” were filming or about to start shooting when coronavirus hit, is hoping to get production up-and-running by mid-June or July. Warner Bros. had earlier signaled that it hoped to resume work on “Matrix 4” by early July when it signed eight-week extensions in May to keep the actors on hold.

At Universal Pictures, the major priority is remounting the English set of the next “Jurassic World” sequel, which was shuttered and saw stars including Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard sent home as global borders closed in March to prevent transmission. There’s also Oscar-nominee Rachel Morrison’s directorial debut “Flint Strong,” which was in production in Canada.

A decent indicator of what might come online in Hollywood’s back yard are the productions that received this year’s allotment of California tax credit incentives — including Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” at Paramount, Universal’s “Dear Evan Hansen” musical movie adaptation, Amazon’s Lucy and Desi Arnaz biopic starring Cate Blanchett, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest from Focus Features. None of the companies behind those titles had updates to share on their shooting status on or after June 12.  Those projects are required to enact one day of filming to qualify for millions in rebates, within 180 days of the allotment. Extensions were granted after the pandemic hit.

Government leaders may want to get the economy back on track. For Hollywood, however, things won’t return to normal for some time. The entertainment industry is still navigating an uncertain landscape, one that requires them to create a whole new playbook of safety guidelines. That means that for the foreseeable future, it will be anything but business as usual.

Joe Otterson contributed to this report.