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What a Reopened Hollywood Looks Like: COVID-19 Officers on Set and Budgeting for More Shutdowns

Hollywood is waiting and ready (as much as it can be) to get back to work
June 4, 2020

As seen on The Wrap

“There isn’t any one moment where there’s going to be a flip of a switch, ” HBO production executive Jay Roewe says.

Hollywood is waiting and ready (as much as it can be) to get back to work nearly three months after industry-wide production was halted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the industry’s COVID-19 Task Force coming together on a set of guidelines, there still remains a lot of uncertainty. That was among the main takeaways during a webinar featuring a group of physical production executives on Wednesday, hosted by Entertainment Partners. Everyone agreed Hollywood is facing an unprecedented situation that will require a larger level of collaboration than ever before — and an incredible amount of flexibility.

“There isn’t any one moment where there’s going to be a flip of a switch, and we’re back in production,” said Jay Roewe, senior vice president of west coast production at HBO. “Every single show has its own unique aspects to it. Every show is in different places.”

Hollywood’s COVID-19 Task Force on Monday submitted to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom recommendations for safety guidelines to resume film and television production. California and Los Angeles County were supposed to have released their own safety guidelines to allow studios to resume production, but have yet to do so.

Leslie Belzberg, executive vice president at Imagine Entertainment & Television, stressed that the guidelines are simply a starting point: “It gives us some sort of a template to work from, which makes it easier for us to engage with the various individuals we need to work with.”

Some of the recommendations in the White Paper (which can be read here) echo those released by the British Film Commission on Monday, specifically pertaining to cleaning practices that have been implemented by other industries, as well as daily symptom checks and regular testing. But the Safety Committee also strongly recommends an “autonomous COVID-19 Compliance Officer” tasked with ensuring that safety precautions are being taken at all times.

“We’ve had safety people around, but we need the experts of this disease and understanding how it works to be part of our process. And so I think that’s certainly what the position will be part of,” Roewe said. “Because we were going to be working in this new world, training all of us on how to go to work… it’s going to take repetitive understanding.”

While installation of safety protocols will be key to resuming production, several other hurdles still remain for film and TV projects to get back to work. Multiple studio insiders have told TheWrap that studios are still determining how implementation of these protocols will be carried out on projects of various sizes, particularly blockbusters like “Jurassic World: Dominion,” “The Batman,” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Insurance and the specific protocols for various shooting locations in other states and countries are also issues that are still to be resolved.

“People are gonna have to get used to doing things in a way that we have never done them before,” Lipman said. “For some people, I think it will be relatively easy. They’ll be able to understand what’s at stake and do their jobs. For other people, it’s going to be difficult. I’m sure there will be a lot of discussions with directors about re-staging scenes differently.”

Belzberg said the lengths of days will need to be explored, with the potential for “longer prep, shorter days.”

“It just is going to require crew to be prepared,” Belzberg said. “And it’s going to take longer to do that before we get up and shoot it.”

The concern about a second wave of the virus in the fall and winter could impact budgets, as studios need to plan for another shutdown.

“What happens when and if there’s a second wave and how we address downtime and budget for downtime, whether that’s an additional COVID contingency that we’re now required to carry within our productions,” said Peter Oillataguerre, president of production at Spyglass.

The biggest wildcard that would affect how long these new protocols last, and how stringent they have to remain, is the possibility of a vaccine for the disease. Depending on who you talk to, a vaccine is either a handful of months from being ready or more than a year away. But the consensus best-case estimate is early next year. The World Health Organization said there are currently more than 100 candidates in development.

Lipman wonders if those who think a vaccine could be ready for mass production by early next year would lead to some productions taking even longer to get back. “Is this going to mean there’ll be some people who feel like, ‘You know what, we’re close to a vaccine. I’ll hold off on returning in the fall,'” he said. “So we just have to let more things play out.”

Even if and when a vaccine does get produced and is safe to use, he doesn’t foresee production ever going back to the way it was before.

“It’s hard for me to imagine going back to pre-COVID production within a couple years at the very least,” he said. “We kind of have to see how things develop. This may not be the last crisis that we have to face in terms of figuring out production.”

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