Costume designer Joanna Mae Park and her husband Steven Jones, a production designer, had been working on Netflix’s “Pieces of Her” in Canada in mid-March when television and film productions the world over began rapidly shutting down amid a collective effort to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
The couple had moved all the way from Sydney for the job, having their 18-year-old and 21-year-old remain at home while enrolling their youngest, a ninth grader, in a new school in Vancouver. The project had been in its ninth week of pre-production and just a week away from filming when work was first suspended, and then forced to a halt. That meant a sudden move back to Australia — the country’s officials had on March 16 urged its citizens to fly home before overseas travel became “more complex and difficult” — and another change of schools for their son, who had just settled into his new classes.
Netflix has continued to keep Park, Jones and the rest of the show’s crew on payroll during this time. The streaming giant had on March 20 announced the creation of a $100 million relief fund to support its production members, with $15 million earmarked for third parties and non-profits that offer emergency relief to casts and crews across the globe.
Variety has since learned that Netflix is increasing its hardship fund by 50% to $150 million, and will now cover workers through the month of April on productions that, like “Pieces of Her,” had to stop filming due to the ongoing public health crisis.
“We look after my mother, my niece, my three children, two dogs, a mean cat — we’re all under the same roof together,” said Park. “But not having that financial burden, knowing there’s a little bit of money coming in and we weren’t cut off — I was very humbled by it. And I think a lot of people and a lot of my crew were very grateful for this support, because a lot of other big productions have not followed suit. They’ve just cut their crews, and these are big companies that could really look after [their workers]. It’s the whole scope of humanity that works in a film production. I just think the fact that Netflix has realized that there’s people’s lives behind this content and they’ve made an effort to support us, when they didn’t have to, is really admirable.”
The company has also upped the amount being given to outside organizations supporting the industry during this time. So far, donations have included $1 million apiece toward the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, the Actors Fund and the Television Fund in the U.S., 1 million Canadian dollars to AFC, 1 million pounds to the British Film Institute with Film & TV Charity, 1 million euros to the Italian Film Commission, $1 million to the Producers Guild of India, 1 million euros to Audiens in France, and 25 million pesos to the Academia Mexicana de Artes y Ciencias Cinematograficas in Mexico.
The main relief fund covers the pay of several thousand crew members.
Netflix’s head of worldwide physical production Ty Warren says the company is intent on making sure that it will be prepared for a time when production can resume, and is working on developing the proper protocols to ensure a safe working environment in a post-pandemic world — though what exactly that entails is not yet clear.
“My hope is in seven weeks we’ll have a much better idea of what that looks like,” he told Variety.
Warren knows what it is like to go from production to production, as a former crew member himself.
“We’re super dependent upon those people and wanted to make sure that we as a company did the right thing,” he said.
It is difficult to foresee when production will be able resume, given that stay-at-home orders continue to be extended, amid a dearth of testing stateside and uncertainty over when it will be safe to re-open stores, schools, businesses. Park notes that prior to the outbreak, the freelance life was unstable, but at least they knew there was always “another job around the corner.”
“With this pandemic, we don’t know when we will be able to work,” she said. “So a lot of film technicians, they find themselves in a position that they haven’t been in for 20 years, where they just have hardly any savings and no work. And they can’t even work from home. So they’re feeling very hopeless and anxious about the future.”
“The Witcher” alone employs more than 400 people. The Netflix fantasy drama shoots just outside London and had been filming for five weeks — after nearly half a year of preparation — when the stop orders came in.
Line producer Matt O’Toole says the series is still able to accomplish some post-production work with editorial and visual effects from remote locations, but that around 70% of its crew hasn’t been able to continue on the series, by virtue of the physical nature of their work. Netflix’s hardship fund amounts to about seven weeks of pay in the meantime.
“That’s 400 people who who can find some security in that because obviously in the freelance world everybody is incredibly nervous about where their next job is coming from,” he said.
O’Toole has also noticed that those same crew members are paying it forward.
“What I’ve seen literally almost every day or every couple of days, there’s crew members setting up new charity pages with donations, [started with] their own money” to support the homeless and other under-served groups.
He has not been aware of any crew who have been able to find new work in the interim, given the near-total shutdown of productions, the lack of remote work capabilities, and their unique sets of skills that are not transferable to other industries. In the meantime, O’Toole is trying to plan for the day he and others will be able to return to set.
“At some point, someone is going to press the ‘go’ button, then we have to know what we’re doing up to be able to get up and running, and get everybody working again as quick as possible,” he said.