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Hollywood Studios and Unions Near Agreement on Safety Protocols to Restart Production

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Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

Hollywood’s major studios and key industry unions are close to inking an omnibus agreement to restart TV and film production in the U.S. under newly crafted safety protocols mandated by the pandemic.

The sides have been bargaining over all manner of challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis since June, after an industry coalition issued a white paper with proposed safety standards for turning the cameras back on.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the collective bargaining arm for Hollywood’s major production entities, has been knee-deep in negotiations for weeks with IATSE, the Directors Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA, the Producers Guild of America and Writers Guild of America on safety concerns and adjustments to existing contractual commitments amid COVID concerns. The details of safety protocols were the primary focus of the negotiation — how tests would be administered and how often, and the level of PPE required for various production scenarios for on stage versus on location.

The AMPTP declined to comment, as did IATSE, the DGA, SAG-AFTRA and Teamsters, the unions that have been at the crux of the discussions because their members are crucial to getting the cameras rolling on physical production.

On the business end, the big hurdles for the major studios have been questions of legal liability, sick pay and benefits for those who get sick or quarantined, the cost of the mountain of PPE required on set and who pays for it, and perhaps most significantly in the long run, the reduction in crew size implemented to accommodate social distancing requirements. The unions, not surprisingly, were concerned about setting precedents by agreeing to shrink the size of crew requirements on movie and TV sets. Studio executives have not been shy about questioning the traditional size of production crews at 100 or more at a time when technology has transformed the content creation process.

In the final sprint to setting a deal, the toughest sticking points have been the details on sick pay and time off and who shoulders the liability if cast and crew members fall ill.

The studios have already restarted a number of primetime series and movie shoots by engaging in separate negotiations on a project-by-project basis with unions. The majors and other large producers have also gone territory by territory — including Canada and Europe — to set deals. The conclusion of the AMPTP’s omnibus pact will nonetheless make it easier for the majors and others to move forward with new projects.

Industry sources said studios and networks are now haggling hard over the new COVID expense item in series budgets. Sources said deals have been emerging at a 50-50 split between producer and platform on shouldering the cost of testing, PPE and extra staff needed for COVID purposes.

The past few months have been a grueling time for the industry’s business affairs executives, with so many new contracts to be hastily haggled and executed. Industry sources noted that AMPTP president Carol Lombardini has had a marathon year of juggling multiple coronavirus safety negotiations on the heels of hashing out new master three-year contracts earlier in 2020 with the DGA, WGA and SAG-AFTRA.

One source close to the situation said Lombardini has stated that sorting out COVID-19 concerns was among the most complex and difficult negotiations she’s tackled in nearly 40 years as a negotiator with AMPTP, given the life-or-death stakes created by the pandemic.

Studio executives have been pushing in the final stretch for more specific rules around COVID-19 testing after a string of problems with inconsistent and inaccurate test results that have led to quick shutdowns of shows that just got on their feet, including the ABC drama “For Life,” produced by Sony Pictures TV in New York.

SAG-AFTRA is known to have made a big push in the last few days for generous sick pay terms for sidelined actors. One studio executive called the performers union’s bid a “big overreach” but said the sides are inching toward a compromise. The executive said IATSE, which represents hundreds of thousands of below the line works, has been “reasonable” and focused on getting its members back to work, even in diminished numbers to start.

Industry sources say that one notable silver lining to the strict safety measures is that productions appear to be moving faster and more efficiently as there is renewed focus on getting as much done as possible in a day.

“There are fewer disruptions and distractions for the core group (required on set) and there are no entourages that come with the talent every day,” said a senior studio executive who has been knee-deep in sorting out safety measures on TV series. “We’re seeing efficiencies.”

Dave McNary contributed to this report.