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British Production Sector Moves Forward Gingerly as Filming Resumes

British government gives the green light for film and TV production to resume, but how can this be done safely?
June 17, 2020

As seen on Variety

Earlier this month, the British government gave the greenlight to film and TV production to resume, but how can this be done safely?

During a panel discussion on Wednesday, moderated by Joseph Chianese, executive VP at consultancy Entertainment Partners, three prominent figures in the British production sector spoke about how the industry is figuring out how to implement the guidelines issued by the British Film Commission, “Working Safely During COVID-19 in Film and High-end TV Drama Production.”

Jamie Christopher, a first assistant director on movies such as Marvel’s “Black Widow,” urged “patience” as the guidelines were put in place and he cautioned against any complacency.

“The biggest changes I see coming are in the amount of crew and cast on set and the balance of what that will be and still maintaining an efficient workplace,” he said.

“Another massive challenge will be maintaining these guidelines [until a vaccine arrives],” he said. “We can all be led into a false sense of security once it’s all working.”

Matt Spooner, a production safety consultant whose recent credits include “Mission: Impossible 7” and James Bond movie “No Time to Die,” said that the changes amounted to “an enormous structural change.” He said the greatest challenge would be “gaining crew confidence” that they “are going to be safe in this environment.”

Samantha Perahia, head of production at the British Film Commission, said the BFC’s guidance “is a living thing – it is a live document,” as it would be constantly updated. For example, further guidance on hair and makeup would be added soon.

The guidance for the public around “mass gatherings,” she said, did not apply to the production sector, and that the BFC’s guidelines had been “created specifically for our industry.” That said, the core things for people to remember is social distancing as well as the regular washing of hands.

Spooner said that the biggest focus was around training and “empowering the crew” to allow them to “make the right decisions.” He said a middle tier of management would then need to support the crew and to “make judgements” regarding how procedures are implemented, and what “risks are acceptable.”

Christopher said that implementing the guidelines would be led by a “COVID manager” – a new role that has been introduced by Disney – who would “concentrate on everything COVID.” There would also be a supervisor working alongside this person.

That said, Christopher underscored the point that it would be about “teamwork” and that communicating the guidelines was key. He added that he was finding that “the crew themselves and the heads of department are also wanting to be extra cautious.”

Testing would be key, he said, and if someone was found to be suffering from COVID there would be “isolation areas” where they would be moved to, and bespoke transport would be on hand to take them home or to hospital. He added it was important to “keep everyone calm” in such a scenario, and not have a “knee-jerk reaction,” leading to a production being shut down.

Spooner said he thought a COVID “compliance officer” would need to have a health and safety background and would need a management background as well. “You are going to be launched into a situation that could be very emotionally charged. It could be complexed. You could be dealing with difficult matters within a department,” he said. They would also need “an understanding of budgeting and how to manage costs.”

Spooner spoke about the need for “resilience planning” and “scenario planning” to ensure the show could continue if a member of cast or crew, or an entire department, became sick. Having alternative stage space or an alternative location was also worth considering in case the first option was closed down. This would increase costs, but “it will save your bacon in the long run,” he said.

Christopher said that an approach adopted by Tyler Perry in Georgia with the crew confined to a compound during the shoot, rather than going home or traveling to accommodation off-site, was not desirable, in his view. “It is something I am very dubious about,” he said. “I question putting everyone in one basket.” He asked: “How do you police that?” People would “sneak home for the weekend.”

He added that his production was lucky to be based at Longcross Studios, where there weren’t any other productions, so there was no danger of “cross contamination.” “We can control our areas,” he said.

When discussing the costs associated with guarding against COVID, Perahia said that a key consideration when designing the guidelines was that it should be “scaleable” so lower budget productions would be able to implement the guidelines.

She added that the cost of COVID precautions should qualify for the U.K. tax relief. Insurance was also a key issue. “A lot of smart people are working on it,” she said. Regarding the U.K.’s 14-day quarantine period for those entering the country, she said they had applied for an exemption for the industry. She added that the BFC was looking to learn from other sectors, such as professional soccer, which is restarting this week, having implemented a rigorous testing and safety regime.

Ending on a positive point, Spooner said: “We can build back and we are going to build back better.”

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