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Post-Pandemic Hollywood: Why Working in Entertainment Will Never Be the Same

Working in entertainment may never look the same again.

To hear numerous executives tell it, the past 12 months have shifted the paradigm for modern office life. Gone are the days of staying tethered to a desk until the boss leaves for the night. Showing up to work with a nasty cold no longer a badge of honor but a mark of disregard for your colleagues. And getting hired for a job that is headquartered in a totally different city or working remotely from a distant location might become more commonplace.

Masks, social distancing and hand sanitizer will become staples of workplace culture in the way that copy machines, water-coolers and desktop computers were once emblems of corporate life. At the same time, companies are reassessing travel budgets. Far-flung set visits, meetings on different coasts or continents, premieres in multiple locations and globe-hopping press junkets may all be a thing of the past even as it becomes safer to travel.

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Isabel Seliger for Variety

“Face-to-face interaction is still going to be important and can’t be replicated,” says Michael Burns, vice chairman of Lionsgate. “But I still think our approach to travel will be altered. We’ve discovered a lot of problems can be resolved via Zoom.”

To get a sense of the new contours of a business that has been battered by the pandemic, Variety spoke with dozens of entertainment industry players, almost all of whom predicted that the nature of office life and how movies and television shows are made, marketed and distributed will be fundamentally changed.

“People are fooling themselves if they think we’re going back to a pre-pandemic work lifestyle,” says Arianna Bocco, president of IFC Films. “Yes, we all want to be able to gather together again, but some aspects of our virtual existence are going to remain. It’s been an awful year, but it allowed us to think in a more progressive way about how we achieve a work-life balance by giving people more flexibility.”

Big media companies such as WarnerMedia, Disney, Amazon and Comcast have been surveying staff as they contemplate overhauling their workplaces. On the topic of reopening offices, the common refrain is “No sooner than the summer.” And that may be overly optimistic according to various executives who still express a lot of trepidation about going back in the foreseeable future.

ICM Partners is a good example of how the back-to-office effort will play out once health officials offer the green light for people to gather en masse. Just a handful of its most essential workers are in office. When the agency reopens its Los Angeles headquarters and New York and D.C. bureaus, only every other workstation in its open-office areas will be occupied, reducing workspace capacity by 50% – and each station will be divided by plexiglass.

The agency’s hallways will be marked one-way-only to prevent people from passing each other in walkways and potentially contaminating airspace. Only four people can be in an elevator at any given time, restroom capacity has been limited and each floor is equipped with hand sanitizer stations. Masks are a must, obviously. When employees trickle back in, they can expect to be welcomed with PPE goody bags on their desks filled with a mask, hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray and a stylus (so they don’t have to touch the buttons in the elevator with their hands). It will also contain a smart thermometer from Kinsa, which has a contract with ICM for no fewer than 600 thermometers; employees must check their temperatures daily and answer a wellness questionnaire two hours before they arrive at the office.

Jennifer Dodge, president of Spin Master Entertainment, a subsidiary of toymaker Spin Master, also has a temperature-check system in place. While she’s itching to get back into the studio — and even resume a life that involves trips through airport security — she does not foresee a return to her downtown Toronto office earlier than the summer. For the 20,000-square-foot studio, which employs 70 full-time employees, she has modeled out a few scenarios that include staggered seating arrangements and fewer seats in boardrooms.

“[There’s the] hoteling approach, where people just come in and grab a desk that’s socially distant,” says Dodge. “Then others will be planned out: having certain productions coming in on odd days and certain productions coming in on even days, for instance.”

Former Lionsgate motion picture group chief Erik Feig just signed a five-year lease for a bigger, airier office for his shingle Picturestart, after the pandemic nudged him toward not renewing the lease at the company’s current space. The free-standing building will feature “revamped airflow systems.” And he, like others, is installing distanced workstations and plexiglass dividers, and asking for self-reported temp checks.

But Feig, for one, misses the “casual serendipity” of running into people in the office. “I’ve always found unplanned encounters are the most fruitful kinds of things that end up happening,” he says. “So we wanted to have a place that was a wider space than what we would normally have thought.”

Whether everyone will want to physically come back to work is another matter. Studies suggest that between 15% to 30% of staff would prefer not to return to the office full time, and that desire is leading corporations to come up with novel ways to accommodate their rank and file. Among the ideas being discussed are allowing staff to work remotely for at least one to two days per week or to occupy shared office spaces that they would sign up to use on certain dates. Even those spaces might look different. Instead of a desk, a chair and a phone, there might be collaborative rooms where several colleagues could gather to tackle projects.

Nearly 80% of ViacomCBS’ more than 20,000 staffers will work in a hybrid environment after the pandemic — up from the 70% it previously disclosed — with most employees sharing desks at the office and working part of the week from home. The model is intended to offer flexibility but also give the merged Viacom and CBS the chance to cut real estate costs as it seeks out synergies over the next few years.

Freeform president Tara Duncan, who stepped into her role at the top of the cable network in June, has not yet set foot in the company’s Burbank headquarters. But she connected with her new staff through team-building activities like virtual cooking classes and cocktail nights.

“It’s been completely bizarre,” she says. “I work in my dining room, where I joke with the team that it feels like I’m in an episode of ‘Black Mirror.’ But I have to say, there’s also been something nice about everyone dropping a little bit of the office guard, if you will.”

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Brian Rea for Variety

Industrial Media CEO Eli Holzman had an oracle that sounded the pandemic alarm earlier than most, one that came in the form of colleague Matt Sharp, the CEO of Sharp Entertainment, a division of Industrial Media. Sharp is the unscripted TV powerhouse behind “90 Day Fiancé,” “Man v. Food,” and most notably, a NatGeo show about people preparing for the end of the world. Sharp phoned Holzman in late January 2020; Holzman recalls him saying, “Listen, keep in mind: I created ‘Doomsday Preppers,’ and I’m a little paranoid. But if they close the schools here in New York, my editors won’t be able to do their jobs.”

Industrial Media switched to a remote, cloud-based editing system in February ahead of the lockdowns. Now, Holzman has become more open to conducting business from afar.

“We hired lots of people that we’d never met in person,” he says. “Borders are drawn by people, by government. They don’t actually corral talent. There is a great opportunity to work with people from around the world.”

Hollywood is an industry that runs on power lunches and premieres, where handshakes and hugs are ubiquitous. That will likely change given how much more conscious people are, after months of avoiding COVID-19, of the way diseases spread.

“I’m never going anywhere without sanitizer,” says Eric B. Fleischman, the producer of “Sleight.” “I feel like all of us have become Howard Hughes, washing our hands obsessively with the bar of soap that our mother gave us.”

Fleischman says movie sets, where cast and crew members often spent hours huddled together in confined spaces or combing over the food at the craft services table, were often a hotbed of colds, flus and other diseases. Going forward, productions are expected to take a different approach, encouraging people to stay home if they’re not feeling well.

But don’t expect those expense-account meals at the Four Seasons to vanish. Many of those interviewed were quick to point out that TV and film is a “relationships business.”

“Lunches are the things that are going come back very strong, very fast, because lunches are where those personal relation- ships are established that go a little beyond just this project or that project but ‘How are your kids doing? How’s your family doing?’” says CBS Entertainment chief Kelly Kahl. “Those things are important. That’s also a great part of our business. The relationships, not just in the company but outside the company. And that really feels like it’s suffering.”

The loss of building a rapport doesn’t just apply to high-powered studio and network executives.

“When I was still an assistant, lunch culture and coffee culture was massive for my network,” says TV writer and #PayUpHollywood co-founder Liz Alper. “There’s such a tremendous loss because it’s so hard to make a personal connection over video. … What you’re missing is energy.”

That extends to post-production work. Filmmakers figured out ways to finish their films remotely even as communities went into lockdown last spring, but they missed the spirit of teamwork that exists in the editing bay.

“Film is a collaborative process, so nothing replaces being in person to exchange ideas and vibe off these artists,” says Diane Paragas, director of “Yellow Rose.” “The editing process in the beginning is the easiest to do remotely since the editor can make their initial cuts, but as it gets more into the finer cuts, I find it better to do it in the same room, where you can audition different takes or alternate shots.”

Zoom may be part of the fabric of the future, but junior execs and assistants are likelier to feel the pang of not being in the office, which can function as a critical milieu for observing industry veterans thriving in their natural habitats. And where a shared elevator ride or break room encounter might have served as a useful way to exchange pleasantries, younger staffers are now challenged with finding new opportunities to get on the radar of top brass.

“I think working from home has been challenging, specifically for younger agents who are building their careers and their relationships,” says ICM partner Adam Schweitzer, managing director of talent and branding. “Not having that in-person [relationship] with the buyers who they typically work with, or want to get to know, is hard.”

The brave new world has made buyers and managers more accessible online, however, and the agency can hold bigger meetings with studios, networks, production and management companies. “You wouldn’t necessarily go out to lunch with someone and bring 10 colleagues along, but it’s easy to put them on a Zoom and give your younger colleagues the opportunity to have access and a bit of face time,” he says.

For TV writers, the marathon video sessions that have replaced physical writers’ rooms have been exhausting. It isn’t the same, many say, in a creative profession that feeds off the energy in the room. Still, says Alper, some writers are discussing the possibility of moving out of state to be closer to family should the virtual environment persist. “I think we’re going to be on the Zoom model for a very long time,” she predicts. “It’s saved the studios a lot of money and they like that. They like having a reason to cut their costs wherever they can.”

Since production resumed last summer at a time when the pandemic showed no signs of abating, movie and TV sets have taken on a very different atmosphere.

“The work got more efficient,” says Jason Blum, producer of “Get Out” and “The Purge.” “There’s not a lot of chitter-chatter and socializing. People want to get in there, get the work done and get home so they can take their mask off.”

Keeping the cameras rolling during the COVID lockdown has been excruciatingly challenging, leading filmmakers to be that much more resourceful.

Collaborators and friends Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales were fed up with quarantine and eager to get back to work after several projects they were supposed to shoot were scuttled or delayed indefinitely as production ground to a halt and forced the actors to remain largely confined to their homes. But last summer, Duplass and Morales were among the first wave of filmmakers who figured out a way to get back to work during the pandemic. Using the advice of health experts, the pair shot a low-budget movie, “Language Lessons,” that used a small ensemble of actors and a skeletal crew. Some precautions, such as applying their own makeup and handling costumes, were a concession to a raging public health crisis. Other elements of the scrappy production helped them shoot more economically and more efficiently in ways that could help shape the industry’s approach to post-pandemic work.

“As I went forward in this business, the budgets got bigger and the size of the sets grew,” says Duplass. “The pandemic forced me back down to working minimally just to be safe. But it also ended up revitalizing me and reminding me of what it was like when I was making the props myself and hanging the lights myself and doing my own hair and makeup and all of those things. There is a place for that moving forward. There needs to be a resurgence of this kind of streamlined approach, because it will free up budgets and that will free us creatively.”

It’s been nearly a year since the pandemic forced filmmakers like Duplass and Morales off the set and into an unprecedented period of isolation. However, there are signs that society, with the help of critical scientific advances, is sucking the air out of a virus that upended cultural life and reshaped the media and entertainment industry.

Vaccinations are rising, and COVID-19 cases, at least in the U.S., are declining. More movies and shows are going into production than at any time since the pandemic struck, and with cinemas reopening in cities like New York, there’s a sense that Hollywood is easing back into the old ways of doing business.

The COVID protocols that have been instituted on sets have been largely effective, but they are costly, adding as much as $10 million to $12 million to the budget of a major tentpole release, while tacking on an additional 15% to the film’s budget. That’s expected to be the cost of doing business for the foreseeable future. But that’s not the only financial challenge.

Even as the pandemic recedes, there will be no going back to normal anytime soon in the world of film production. Producers have had a hard time planning projects without knowing how exactly they will reach audiences. Even when in-person film festivals return and theaters are fully reopened, there will still be a lag in the production pipeline.

“We’re a good 18 months — even with the best news in the world — before people feel comfortable with the production plan they might have had in place two years ago,” says Jean Prewitt, president and CEO of the Independent Film & Television Alliance.

The IFTA is keenly focused on the issue of production insurance, which affects midrange independent films more than any others. Major insurance carriers are refusing to cover losses associated with the COVID pandemic. And even when vaccines are widely available, insurers will exclude coverage for future pandemics.

“So many indie producers have their hands tied,” says Rob Paris, president of Rivulet Media, which recently produced “Please Baby Please” with Demi Moore. “They can’t get bonded and they can’t find insurance policies that cover them. A lot of movies without major distributors and deep pockets behind them are struggling to get made.”

Brian Kingman, managing director of the entertainment practice at Arthur J. Gallagher, says he got a call from a well- known producer who was planning to have his whole cast and crew vaccinated in Israel, and wanted to know if he could get COVID coverage.

“And my answer is no,” Kingman says. “There’s just no insurance or reinsurance support in the marketplace to allow for coverage of COVID-19 or any other pandemic.”

Some smaller projects have been able to go without COVID coverage. They tend to build into the budget a contingency to cover a possible shutdown, and front-load the scenes with the bigger actors in hopes of getting them to finish their work as quickly as possible.

“And then you’re just running for it, going as fast as you can and just trying to get through it,” Prewitt says.

Movies and shows that have shot during the pandemic also learned to stage ensemble scenes in the first days of filming because those are the hardest to reschedule if disaster strikes.

“You have to get creative and be flexible, because there’s always the danger of getting shut down and not being able to reassemble your actors at a later date,” says Dylan Sellers, president of Limelight, the producer of “Palm Springs.” “It’s a lot easier to find time to get one actor to come back and shoot something. It’s much harder to bring back two or three.”

But that kind of creative scheduling might not be enough for a larger project — say, more than $5 million — that needs financing from a commercial bank, which has always required insurance for such contingencies. Larger studios are able to get along without COVID coverage (though they may not like it), but the projects in the middle are in big trouble.

“The true independent producer is kind of in a jam,” Kingman says. “The unfortunate thing is that’s where some of the best movies come from.”

Another key question is whether film productions can require crews to be vaccinated. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced in December that employers can require vaccines. However, Republicans in state capitals around the country are pushing bills that would prevent employers from issuing such a requirement.

“That could result in different rules in different states that companies would have to look at in deciding where to shoot films,” says Ivy Kagan Bierman, a labor attorney who works with several studios and production companies.

Even in liberal states like California, it could still become tricky to fire someone or deny them a job because they refuse to get the vaccine. The person could claim that demand goes against their religion, or that they have an underlying health issue that prevents them from getting vaccinated.

“There’s no protected class for anti-vaxxers,” Bierman says. “But there are other protected classifications. We are already starting to see some claims related to COVID based on age discrimination.”

Trade unions played a critical role in negotiating COVID safety protocols and would likely weigh in on any vaccine requirement. SAG-AFTRA did not comment on whether it would oppose such a mandate.

Hollywood could help shape the cultural understanding of the COVID pandemic, says Joshua Loomis, author of “Epidemics: The Impact of Germs and Their Power Over Humanity.” Loomis pointed to three potential historical parallels: the influenza pandemic of 1918; the polio outbreaks in the ’30s-’50s; and the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s. Though the Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people worldwide, few movies or books were made about it in the decades that followed.

“People just wanted to forget it,” Loomis says.

In the case of polio, Hollywood took a leading role in raising money for the March of Dimes and celebrating the medical professionals who fought the disease. During the AIDS epidemic, Hollywood helped foster empathy with the suffering of its victims in films like “Philadelphia” and “The Ryan White Story.” So far, Loomis believes that the polio experience provides the best guide to how Hollywood will address COVID-19. As an example, he noted that the Golden Globes invited first responders to attend the ceremony, much the way that Hollywood celebrated the nurses and doctors who fought polio.

“The focus becomes on these amazing heroes — these frontline workers that dealt with unimaginable hardship,” Loomis says.

In each public health crisis — even in the AIDS epidemic — Hollywood has also avoided the harshest realities of the disease. Loomis expects that will be the case this time as well. A movie could be made about the race to invent the COVID vaccine, but probably not one about the realities of intubation or life inside a nursing home as residents die one after the other. Other producers and filmmakers believe that, at least initially, audiences won’t have much appetite for content that grapples with a plague that society just spent more than a year battling. Instead, many producers are focused on making escapist films or programs.

“Stories that are more uplifting and optimistic will be at a premium,” predicts Milan Popelka, chief operating officer of FilmNation, the company behind “Arrival” and “Late Night.” “There’s more than enough stress in the world. I don’t think people will be interested in watching something that adds to their stress levels.”

What awaits on the other side of this COVID crucible remains to be seen, but everyone seems to agree that many aspects of Hollywood life as it relates to customs and cultural norms will inevitably look different.

“No one has a crystal ball, but I would imagine that nothing will look the same way it did pre-pandemic, and that’s in almost every category you could list,” says Adam Fogelson, chairman of STXFilms.

But as Hollywood focuses on redefining the workplace, more productions get rolling and movie theaters on both coasts begin opening their doors, there is good reason to be hopeful that brighter days are ahead.

“It’s been a very long tunnel that we’ve gone through,” says John Fithian, head of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, “but we’re finally starting to see the light at the end of it.”

Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.