Following a lengthy production shutdown in British Columbia due to the coronavirus pandemic, the B.C. film and TV industry is now officially back in full swing. Given the jurisdiction’s appealingly lower COVID-19 infection numbers, productions have been betting on B.C. — in fact, it’s even busier than prior to the March 13 shutdown. For example, there were 58 productions in town the week of Sept. 15, 2019. This year during the same period, there were 69. For the week of Oct. 15, 2019, there were 53 productions filming in B.C.; this year, there were 76. And during the week of Nov. 15, 2019, there were 49. Currently, around 60 projects are shooting.
There was what has been described as a “Herculean” effort to get the productions up and running again, with the industry actively lobbying the B.C. government. And the government has been responsive. After all, B.C.’s film industry is a multibillion-dollar concern, and, along with travel, is one of the most significant pillars of the province’s economy. According to the Vancouver Economic Commission, more than $3.1 billion was related to the entertainment industry’s spending in the province.
During the height of the pandemic, ActSafeBC, a not-for-profit health and safety association that’s industry-funded and led, brought together a number of stakeholders to help put together a pandemic production plan and offered the industry an opportunity to have their own safety plans vetted and reviewed by advisors. Since opening up for review in June, ActSafe has reviewed nearly 227 motion picture safety plans.
“When it comes to implementation, it is the employers’ responsibility to implement it, while working with the workers so that they can keep their location safe. But we were able to help in making sure that the plans that they have met the recommendations and meet the standards or guidelines that are required by the province,” says Manu Nellutla, the organization’s executive director, who notes that there has been an active sharing of information between other jurisdictions, including Ontario. ActSafe has also developed a COVID-safety awareness course, which it released in October, and has held webinars on mental health.
“What I’ve seen on the film list is more shows now than there have ever been before in Vancouver,” says Brightlight Pictures chairman Shawn Williamson, who’s being kept busy producing shows incluidng “The Good Doctor,” “Upload” and “The Mighty Ducks.”
No one wants to admit that this is indeed the so-called new “normal,” but sets are looking more than a little different these days — all in the name of safety.
B.C. provincial guidelines required productions to come up with a solid safety plan, but, says Williamson, “the film [industry’s] plans went above and beyond what was necessary to reopen to normal industry.”
In fact, Williamson has been involved in creating five or six different plans for the various studios that Brightlight is working with.
But protocols have varied significantly across productions. Most require masks, compliance teams, temperature checks, sanitization, avoidance of self-serve food, strict rules around physical contact and social distancing efforts. On shows associated with larger U.S. studios, protocols tend to be stricter and may involve testing up to three times a week for those in zone A via an FDA-approved TagPath COVID-19 combo kit or a rapid test. Other measures include protective goggles that may be required to be worn, plexiglass placed in lunch tents, wellness surveys administered prior to arriving on set, segregated zones maintained, and productions may mandate the use of specific medical masks provided to crew. Many productions have also significantly limited departmental crossover, attempted to provide shorter days when possible, limited access to the set, implemented remote viewing on iPads and restricted large crowd scenes, often using VFX/greenscreens to avoid bringing in too many background performers.
At North Shore Studios/Mammoth Studios, which house shows such as “Nancy Drew” and “The Good Doctor,” they’ve taken an extra step by installing an automated key system that restricts access and assists with contact tracing.
“Back in March, we had a conference call with all of our producers, production managers and coordinators of all the shows that are on the lot here,” says Paul Clausen, vice president of North Shore Studios. “We had an open conversation about how we’re going to move forward and work together.”
Clausen says he gets a lot of calls from shows trying to relocate to B.C. because they’ve found it too difficult to get going elsewhere. “Even shows that were scheduled for Australia,” he says, “because I think people just want to be a little closer to home. And because they want to keep working, everyone seems to be happy to just follow the rules.”
“The protocols are extreme,” says Williamson, “but we’ve been so far operating for about four months or so with some level of success.”
Shooting is different, of course. “It’s exhausting for the crew because they are working with masks and goggles on, and trying to do a job where we normally come very close [to each other] and now you can’t,” he says. “We’ve changed how we deal with monitors and blocking, we’ve restructured affectively how we shoot, but I expect most studios and shows are operating in a similar manner.”
Ironwood Studios, which houses shows including Lionsgate’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” and CBS’ “Charmed,” has also worked closely with productions to ensure that the filtration systems for air exchange were up to standards, as well as helping create entrances and mapping for traffic flow throughout the studio.
“We helped the productions in our spaces draft the best safety protocols possible in order to ensure the safety of their crew,” says Alex Godrey, VP of Ironwood.
But productions aren’t restricted to stages only — shooting on location is still happening, but taking into account social distancing and with strong preference given to areas that have very limited access to the public.
“All of our shows are slightly different in how they’re dealing with locations but we are certainly much more aware now when we’re scouting, where we may or may not be in contact with people outside our production,” says Williamson.
Those consuming content that has been shot during COVID may notice some differences in the blocking and distancing, and in some cases, even physical interaction between cast members might be limited.
“Everyone seems to be adjusting the creative around the requirements in order to stay safe, as we continue to learn about COVID and what it means for us,” Williamson says. “Within the film community, everybody knows that we work so closely together and we don’t want anything to endanger that. I think we’ve been very compliant and smart to listen to the guidelines as a country, and certainly as a province.”
Things take longer than they used to, and there was a learning curve to the new safety protocols, but, says Directors Guild of Canada B.C.’s executive director Kendrie Upton, “reports are that crews feel safe, and I’ve even heard a story or two of how people are keeping things lighthearted in the midst of all this.”
Although numbers have been up for local director hires initially over those pre-COVID, Upton says they’ve watched them drop closer to where they were last year before the pandemic hit. They’ve launched a website, directors.ca, aimed at helping promote their helmers to productions and studios.
“This is like Google for finding the perfect director for your project,” she says. “We also worked last year with the Human Rights Tribunal to get approval for a special program that allows us to gather and share diversity information regarding our director members who self-identify.”
Upton notes that there are more TV movies shooting now. “They were an excellent format for people to return to work, as they’re compact enough for the protocols to be implemented without fatigue and the smaller crew numbers were a great way to relaunch and pave the way for the larger shows.”
According to Upton, not only are members feeling safe overall with the protocols, she’s also noticed that the situation made more people willing to speak up when they see something that’s of concern, and looking out for their teams overall.
“We get calls from members who want clarification of their production’s safety plans. … People are being proactive and taking care of each other, which is as it should be.”
The few people who have tested positive for COVID are reported immediately and the Provincial Health system kicks in at that point to track, trace and instruct people as to what to do.
“There haven’t been many shows that have had to pause their production schedule due to a positive test. Overall I’d say the system is working well for film in BC.”
The future may be impossible to predict, but something that B.C.’s film and television industry has shown time and time again is its adaptability and incredible resiliency.
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