The coronavirus has hit the industry like a wrecking ball.
Starting late last week, news emerged — sometimes in bursts — of productions shutting down across the globe.
In every case it wasn’t a decision that was made lightly, after all the lives and livelihoods of the cast and crew will be temporarily derailed by the decision. But what choice do studios and producers have? The alternative is to plough on and risk the safety of everyone on their sets, which can resemble “a breeding ground” for viruses given the number of people working often in relatively close confinement.
Shutting down a production in the blink of an eye is no mean feat, especially when it’s the financial and logistical size of, say, “Stranger Things.” Yet when executive producer and director Shawn Levy gathered over one hundred members of his cast and crew into a huddle on Friday morning, the decision had already been taken.
“I was having phone calls with Netflix while directing takes and blocking scenes,” recalls Levy. “We shared the news with our cast and crew that we would be pausing production out of an abundance of caution. There were no sick crew members, no one was exhibiting symptoms, but it seemed like the right thing to do.”
It was a “bittersweet moment” for everyone involved. They were a month into production, which at this point four seasons in “feels familial for everyone.” Having to tell the entire cast and crew that they had to stop “when we felt like were on a roll” felt like bursting everyone’s bubble.
“When you’re shooting, you create this micro society, this community. You’re aware of the world beyond, but in all of my years directing and producing, I’m hard pressed to come up with any comparisons for this truly global situation,” Levy says.
Concerns of the implications the two-week shutdown might have on the crew in particular were aired almost immediately, as during the announcement, Levy says he was interrupted by a veteran crew member who asked if they were going to be paid during the hiatus.
“He made the important point that it isn’t always policy, it isn’t always the norm in this industry,” Levy says, noting that Netflix has agreed to pay the crew for two 40-hour work weeks during the hiatus. “I’m just happy that Netflix wants to do right by the health and well being of the people who make this show.”
The shutdown came only 10 days after Netflix released a video of the lively table read for season 4, and almost exactly a month after a teaser trailer dropped which really got fans’ juices flowing with a big reveal that was left hanging at the end of season 3.
The timing arguably could not have been worse, and Levy describes the experience of dismantling the massive set at such short notice as “intense.”
The crew finished their scheduled shoot on Friday, and then everyone went their separate ways to “wherever they thought they should in terms of social distancing and sitting out,” Levy says.
Meanwhile shutting down a series like “One Day at a Time” was a more gradual process. The show, which was resurrected for its fourth season by Pop TV, had shot two episodes with no audience before taking off on a planned hiatus, according to a source close to the production. Shooting was supposed to be back in action the week of March 16, but for obvious reasons it has been postponed until next week, at which point the producers and studio will reassess.
However, given that it looks like COVID-19 might not be going away anytime soon, showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce have chosen the path of many other shows in taking their writers’ room virtual.
According to Royce, there is a possibility that this policy could be instituted to a certain extent in the long term, even once COVID-19 has stopped wreaking havoc on life in the United States.
“It’s good for the environment not to drive so much,” Royce says. “But for comedy writers being in a room, nothing replaces a group of people riffing off of each other. It’s tougher to do that now. But there is plenty of individual writing like notes and stuff, and I could definitely envision organizing the week where we try to do four days in and one day working from home. It’s definitely given us useful tools for later.”
Looking at the shutdowns from a studio perspective, Bunim-Murray chairman and CEO Gil Goldschein says that he and his leadership team had been preparing for this worst case scenario for some while.
Goldschein returned from a series of meetings at Banijay, which owns Bunim-Murray, in London three weeks ago, and immediately assembled what he calls a “COVID-19 internal task force” comprised of his head IT, head of production, head of post-production, head of facilities, head of HR and legal and finance, to deal with the crisis.
“We had been preparing to go remote from a corporate and post-production perspective,” he explains. “I had a weekly staff meeting with all my heads of departments via Zoom, daily update meetings in all the department are still happening, we’re up and running post-wise, my development team is continuing, it’s business as usual to the extent that it can be.”
In terms of shutting down the company’s primarily non-scripted productions, it was an “equipment down, pulling our crew off locations type situation.”
Despite statements from President Trump (which Levy and Goldschein are keeping abreast of, along with the rest of the country) that the coronavirus nightmare could last until July or August, everyone seems to be cautiously optimistic that productions will be getting back under way soon.
The hope for Levy is that no longterm delay to the highly-anticipated season 4 will result from the shutdown.
“We want primarily to make sure that all our crew and cast remain safe and healthy in these scary times, and secondarily that as people who love and feel devotion to this show that we make, be hopeful that if everyone does follow protocols and these distancing strategies, with commitment, in the short term, we can avoid the ramifications becoming long term,” Levy says.