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Industry Infighting, Union Turf Battles Slow Development of Back-to-Work Plan

Coronavirus Placeholder COVID19 Variety
Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

The entertainment industry’s efforts to develop safety protocols for restarting production is predictably becoming a brawl among the major studios and Hollywood unions that has delayed the presentation of the industry’s back-to-work plan to state and local officials. As Variety has reported, jumpstarting production amid the coronavirus pandemic will be complicated and expensive.

The industry task force that was assembled last month to address the safety issues has generated a 30-page draft of a white paper that is designed to convince governmental officials to give Hollywood the greenlight to resume production. A copy of that draft is believed to have made its way to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, which spurred his announcement on Wednesday that the state plans to issue guidelines for resuming TV and film production on May 25.

But the white paper is not complete and has not been signed off by all of the participants in the task force, which has spurred anger and finger-pointing among union and studio officials and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the labor negotiating body for the major studios.

Some on the white paper task force had hoped to be able to get the draft to officials by the early part of this week, but amid the grumbling about the fact that the draft has been widely circulated — and first reported by Indiewire — a final version is not expected for at least another week if not longer.

A source at one of the major guilds told Variety that though they had been reviewing the guidelines, they were not involved in the drafting of that plan. Another union source said IATSE has hired its own experts, and will create more craft-specific procedures also likely to be released next week.

And a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson said, “SAG-AFTRA has not yet signed on to any specific set of procedures for reopening.”

“We are completing a set of initial protocols with input from our expert epidemiologists, industrial sanitation specialists, member leaders, and staff, and are working in collaboration with our fellow guilds and unions, and the industry,” the spokesperson added. “Our draft report will soon be presented to our member-led Blue Ribbon Commission on Safety and Executive Committee for review, modification and adoption.”

Whether each union will release its own separate plan, causing further confusion, remains to be seen. What’s clear now is that the industry is not speaking with one voice on the billion-dollar question of getting back to work.

The leak has stirred big-time tension with IATSE and the DGA. SAG-AFTRA is also scrutinizing the proposals in light of the challenges posed for performers, as outlined in detail in the draft. The entire process has been complicated by the fact that the AMPTP has been juggling near-simultaneous master contract discussions with the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA for the past few weeks. In light of the pandemic, the AMPTP is also poised for what are sure to be difficult labor talks with IATSE  on coronavirus-related safety concerns and the need to at least temporarily shrink the size of traditional Hollywood film and TV productions to comply with social distancing mandates.

The unions have a lot at stake in those decisions. Job classifications and staffing requirements are tightly controlled by the master contract agreements that each union hammers out in three-year cycles in negotiations with the AMPTP. The tension is unavoidable given that industry leaders want to bring production back as soon as possible, while union officials have every incentive to protect as many jobs as possible.

The task force white paper draft does not address the issue of shrinking crew sizes to minimize the number of people on set — a change that other plans have taken as a given. Nor does it address how the inevitably high cost of conducting extensive testing, cleaning and safety monitoring will be covered, and who will pay for it. Nonetheless, the process of putting the guidelines together has been slowed by the fact that so many constituencies demand a say.

Netflix, meanwhile, is said to have developed its own document for high-level production guidelines that have been presented to a number of film commissions in recent days. That is seen as another potential complication to the entertainment industry presenting a united front on how to get cameras rolling safely again, particularly in Hollywood’s home state. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, was the only major entertainment industry employer represented at Newsom’s virtual industry round table conference on Wednesday. Netflix is not formally a member of the AMPTP but has been in consultation with the white paper task force.

Sources close to the situation emphasize that the white paper is designed to be a blueprint for governmental bodies evaluating the safety concerns around production. Individual entertainment companies and unions are also devising their own specific guidelines at the same time. That is vital because so safety and health decisions will inevitably have to be tailored on a case-by-case basis depending on the nature and location of production.

But the white paper is an important document because it represents the commitments that Hollywood studios are making to authorities regarding COVID-19 testing rules, social distancing measures and cleaning and sanitizing procedures. Knowledgeable sources stressed that there was dismay among members of the task force at the wide circulation of the draft because there’d been a stated focus from the start to get all major stakeholders behind a uniform plan.

The task force was assembled last month after a request from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. For Hollywood, the key audience for the white paper is Newsom and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which has broad power to dictate when production can resume.

The task force of around 50 participants was put together by the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee, a long-established entity that deals with safety and training concerns related to production. The committee, which holds monthly meetings, includes by safety, physical production and labor relations executives from the major studios and union reps from SAG-AFTRA, DGA and IATSE.

In the eyes of some studio executives, the reset of production necessitated by the pandemic lockdown is a natural moment to take a hard look at Hollywood’s production protocols. There’s a feeling among many senior executives that crew sizes are too big and that technology can enable crews to do more with less.

Unions, on the other hand, are looking to ensure the safety of their members. And they want to guard against employers taking advantage of the social and economic chaos to slash jobs.

The white paper draft paints a picture of a working environment with dramatic changes necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak. The new rules for TV and film production on soundstages and on location will likely include a designated COVID-19 safety monitor present at all times and some form of daily health check-in. All participants in a production will have to be tested via nasal swab for COVID-19 two to three days before filming is to begin.

Daily temperature checks and glove usage are not recommended. The report states: “The logistics/operational aspects of temperature screening are complex, and the benefits are unlikely to be worth the effort.”

All participants in a production, including animal trainers, should complete COVID-19 safety training before production begins.

The work day will be interrupted for regular cleaning and wipe-downs of sets and equipment. Meal service will be done on a staggered basis to avoid having big groups of people eating together. Buffet lines for craft services will give way to cast and crew members picking up individually wrapped meals or portions.

The white paper also recommends keeping the brakes on the production of certain types of unscripted shows and docu-series until the COVID-19 threat has eased. “Defer shooting of certain live shows and competition shows where crews must follow contestants around uncontrolled areas and interact with the public,” the draft states.

The draft suggests that creatives will be encourage to minimize the use of actors under the age of 18 and minimize the need for sex scenes, fight scenes and other close-contact sequences. Before any intimate or fight scenes are shot, actors and stunt performers involved should be again tested for COVID-19 48 hours before filming begins.

Sources stresssed that the white paper, a copy of which has been obtained by Variety, is still in draft form and that major elements are subject to revision.

Among other notable recommendations in the preliminary report:

** Productions that require extensive travel should consider charter flights rather than commercial.

** For long shoots, producers should consider renting apartments rather than putting casts and crews up in hotels to minimize interaction with the public.

** The use of paper should be minimized as much as possible, meaning that scripts, call sheets and other paperwork should be handled electronically as much as possible.

** The use of petty cash is discouraged.

** The staffers congregating around the video village area should be limited to the director, the DP and a script supervisor as much as possible.

** Makeup kits should be designated for individual cast members.

** Actors should be encouraged to do their own hair and makeup as much as possible.

** When shooting outdoors, productions need to have adequate tents or other covered spaces so that cast and crew can stay six feet apart if they need to shelter quickly for rain or other conditions.