‘Too Much Money at Stake’: Lengthy L.A. Production Shutdown Seen as Unlikely

Courtesy of Lara Solanki/Netflix

The COVID-19 numbers in Los Angeles County are dire, and hospital beds remain at worryingly low capacity, pushing Hollywood to delay when most L.A.-based television shows go back into production. At this stage, most major studios — including CBS TV Studios, Warner Bros. TV, Universal TV, and as of Monday, Netflix — are looking to return to set in mid-January.

But while the positive case rates across the county are grimmer than ever, nearing or exceeding 10,000 new COVID-19 cases daily, the current tenor of conversation around town appears to be less focused on a total shutdown akin to that of the spring of 2020, and more centered on cautiously assessing the situation on a day-to-day basis.

“The cupboards are bare and there is too much money at stake,” said one TV producer who wished to remain anonymous. “We’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we can do this safely. Are we doing it safely? We are being incentivized to believe that we are. So I think everyone is going to continue to take calculated risks.”

He, like many others in the industry, noted that rigorous safety measures have been implemented on set, regardless of the impact to show budgets. Protocols that have sprung up over the last 10 months include routine cast and crew testing, COVID compliance officers, constant mask-wearing on set, assigned zones to regulate contact, among others.

That the past year has offered the entertainment industry time to test and refine safety rules has offered some measure of comfort and confidence, though that has by no means eliminated the risk of contracting the coronavirus on set. “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet,” “Mr. Mayor,” “Lucifer,” and “Young Sheldon” are some of the TV series that have logged positive COVID-19 cases into the double digits, as Variety has previously reported.

“Doesn’t mean we should still be shooting, but at least there’s that,” added the producer.

On the agency side, the hold on production this time around is not growing the same kind of worry caused by the initial months-long shutdown at the outset of the pandemic.

According to multiple talent and lit representatives that spoke with Variety, the current situation feels like a blip on the radar. The one-week extension of the hiatus for certain shows is not likely to materially affect the workflow of those productions, they said, and everyone fully expects both cast and crew to receive their normal pay. From their perspective, the move by the studios is more an effort to ease public concerns while keeping production going, given that the studios have invested millions in COVID protections over the past year.

The only way they see things changing is if the guilds and unions intervene in a significant way; if the labor groups officially call for a complete shutdown of physical production, the studios will have no choice but to comply. From the agencies’ vantage point, there seems to be virtually no scenario in which they would shutdown completely and once again risk the loss of jobs and revenue.

On Sunday, SAG-AFTRA, the Producers Guild of America and the Joint Policy Committee jointly issued a statement recommending a temporary hold on production, with SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris emphasizing that “Patients are dying in ambulances waiting for treatment because hospital emergency rooms are overwhelmed. This is not a safe environment for in-person production right now.”

SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White told Variety on Monday that thus far, the implemented on-set COVID measures are working but the union continues to keep a close eye on the evolving situation.

“We’re constantly monitoring the situation and to date, our safety protocols are effective,” said White. “However, the assessment of the environment in which production occurs, including such data points as hospital capacity and surges in the local infection rate, are also critical. As everyone knows, at this time we are all very concerned about these environmental factors.”

Netflix is the latest studio to push back its return-to-work date for fewer than a dozen shows shot in Southern California to mid-January. (Shooting on “Dear White People,” a Lionsgate-produced show for Netflix, has also been suspended for an additional eight days.) CBS Studios was the first to make the decision, on Dec. 29, to pause production beyond the usual holiday hiatus, which would have ended on Jan. 4. Other major studios soon followed.

While industry insiders say that minor adjustments to schedules or production dates may be made, they are largely not expecting the months-long shutdown that brought the town to a standstill through the spring and summer of 2020. The balance between keeping entertainment workers safe and keeping them employed is a precarious one.

“We want the industry to thrive,” said White. “We want members to be able to put food on the table for their families.”