Lights, masks, action! Producers adapt to pandemic as cameras keep rolling

The 2021 HBO miniseries that showcases the intimacy of married life — ‘Scenes from a Wedding’ — gave viewers in the first few moments a look at the lack of intimacy happening behind the scenes in Hollywood of today.

Showing moments of final preparations before the first call to action, cameramen and other crew members rushed in masked, interactions between the crew were limited and the stars were kept apart until filming began.

Entertainment risk and insurance industry executives confirm this is the standard setting on film sets amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If costumers come on set, other people have to leave. … People aren’t allowed to visit each other on set or in trailers, and masks for everyone unless you’re in front the camera,” said Peter Williams, Global Head of Productions, Entertainment Division, based in Los Angeles, at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, a unit of Allianz SE, covering film productions and risk management.

Filming during COVID-19 ushered in a new way of doing business for an industry that often includes close-up, personal scenes. Since production schedules restarted after the first lockdowns in 2020, film sets have had to adopt pandemic nuances, such as social distancing, and must comply with federal, state and local guidelines, as well as official rules. “back to work” plans put in place by unions such as the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Additionally, there are few insurance products that cover losses from cast and crew infections, and the production breaks and shutdowns that inevitably follow.

“Like all industries in 2020 (film and television), the industry was shut down and no one knew what to do,” said Aaron Baum, vice president of the entertainment and media industry practice group. at Marsh LLC in Chicago. COVID-19 has created “catastrophic” losses for the entertainment industry, filming permits have been revoked and billions of claims have been filed with mixed results, he said.

Now, “everything COVID is ruled out,” said Lori Vitagliano, associate vice president and entertainment group account manager at Lockton Cos. LLC in Los Angeles.

In 2020, the entertainment insurance industry was hit with “everyday” claims for shutdowns imposed on productions in the United States and overseas, Mr Williams said.

“Overall, the film industry started excluding COVID as soon as it became a major issue,” he said.

Booming demand for content

The gap created by a lack of coverage has left rigid security protocols as the only way to keep the company on set, while demand for new TV shows and movies has soared, with most people being locked up in their homes for months.

“There’s this demand” to keep making movies and TV shows, said Michael Greear, an Eagle, Colo.-based senior risk control consultant with Aon Global Risk Consulting, a division of Aon PLC.

People “don’t want to watch a show once a week; they want to watch a show at the same time on a Saturday afternoon,” he said. “Streaming content has grown and we’re seeing more and more being pumped into these streaming services.”

“If anything, demand continues to pick up,” Baum said.

A state of the market report released by Risk Strategies Co., the trading name of RSC Insurance Brokerage Inc., on Feb. 3 noted that while demand for productions pushed the industry into a pre-pandemic stride, “ COVID complications still lingered,” with a 20% increase in insurance rates for film and television productions and virus-related exclusions commonplace.

Experts say that while other industries fumbled to get back to work at the start of the pandemic, Hollywood insisted. A few months into the pandemic in early 2020, the SAG-AFTRA union had its own COVID-19 filming protocols in place to get the industry back into action.

The protocols can add up to 30% to the final bill for productions, according to experts, who say the costs of implementing additional tasks such as social distancing, testing, coordinating shooting schedules and managing on-site travel quarantines can add up. Any pause in production — common, especially with newer variants of COVID-19 — also reduces results, they say.

Mission made possible

The protocols have created some controversy.

Megastar Tom Cruise made headlines in late 2020 on the London set of the latest ‘Mission Impossible’ movie after he was filmed berating members of the film crew for standing too close together. That production faced seven COVID-related shutdowns, one of which resulted in a lawsuit against its insurer.

The blasphemous spectacle caused a stir on YouTube, but for those who handle the business side of a production, Mr. Cruise was right.

After early shutdowns in 2020, “guilds and studios spent a lot of money protecting cast and crew so they could get back to work,” Williams said.

After months of deliberation, unions and studios have agreed on a plan of protocols to get the company going again. “It’s the training, the testing, the hygiene, the cleaning – you name it,” Mr Greear said.

The COVID-19 vaccine, when it became widely available in early 2021, was rolled out, with studios and unions recommending vaccinations first and requiring them later. Netflix Studios, for example, began requiring employee vaccinations in mid-2021.

The protocols also call for on-set COVID-19 compliance officers — they’re now listed in the production credits — and separate areas for cast and crew members based on production roles in a bid to maintain social distancing when possible.

As Mr. Greear explained, “Zone A” usually includes actors and directors, “Zone B” is the cameramen, and “Zone C” and “Zone D” include “everyone” – including many work remotely in post-production operations.

Travel comes with strict quarantine requirements and actors are asked to be extra careful when not filming. “The actors are encouraged not to go out to supermarkets and restaurants while filming,” Mr. Williams said.

Shooting scenes out of order is also common, with production companies rearranging shooting schedules for actors and other cast members, such as extras and those in larger ensemble scenes, to mitigate exposures in case of COVID-19 outbreak, Mr. Baum of Marsh mentioned.

Of all the protocols, testing tops the list, according to Ms Vitagliano, whose husband works alongside set designers for a studio in Los Angeles. She said it’s not uncommon for cast and crew members to get tested every day on set. Her husband, who works behind the scenes as a “greensman” working only with plants, gets tested three times a week, she said.

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