Producers weigh desire to return to work quickly with practical realities

As signs emerge that a return to production could be in sight, producers are examining the complex question of how and when to resume filming on specific projects.

For nearly 10 weeks, the two biggest questions facing the film and TV industry have been when and how the production sector can return to work.

Now, with a unified list of production guidelines for Canadian-shot projects expected within the next few weeks (and other jurisdictions laying out their own back-to-set measures), the answers to those questions are seemingly coming more clearly into focus.

But while there is a collective eagerness to return to physical production – and thus get crews back to work and production schedules back on track while enough shooting months remain in 2020 – that must be balanced with the practical realities of entering a new, uncertain and fast-changing era of production.

Against this backdrop, producers are pondering how and when to dive back into production, while at the same time considering the safety of workers, the specific requirements of individual projects and the overall health of their businesses.

Matt Code of Wildling Pictures, which saw its feature film See For Me shut down halfway through production in March, said he’s comfortable being among the first producers to resume shooting, provided that producers have total clarity on how best to keep people safe on sets.

“I’m happy to be among the first ones back if that’s how it works out. We’ve been working tirelessly to re-evaluate all of our projects and find ways to keep them moving forward with minimal creative disruption while also being sensitive to the realities of our changing world,” he told Playback Daily.

“Having a production that was sidelined mid-shoot, there are significant advantages to being first back and we are essentially operating with a mentality of the second we can safely shoot and have all our pieces available, we will. We owe that to our financiers and our collaborators,” added Code.

Of course, given the complexity of so many situations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, producers aren’t simply going to jump into production without weighing up all aspects in relation to their specific projects.

“As producers, we’re always balancing risk with reward, and never more so than in this COVID-ian situation. Right now, until we have more information about this virus or strong, sustainable and financially viable protocols in place, the risk outweighs any reward,” Amy Cameron, co-founder and executive producer at Cameron Pictures, told Playback Daily of a potential restart to production. “Our industry is working to adjust that balance – and we’re working together, which is excellent – but it entails hundreds of conversations with crews, cast, buyers, government and health officials until every level of production has a clear idea of how we move forward and their individual concerns are met.”

During an Entertainment Partners-hosted webinar last week that brought together film commissioners from across Canada, the consensus was that a comprehensive set of guidelines and measures will be distributed in early June. However, even when those protocols are released, it won’t simply be a case of productions racing to be the first to return.

“In terms of being first, I’m frankly more focused on the specific parameters of each production and whether they can be done safely. That will likely mean smaller projects with reduced crews can go more quickly,” said Scythia Films’ Dan Bekerman, who has several projects, ranging from $10-million-plus features to smaller second-unit shoots to complete in-progress projects, poised to shoot once it becomes safe to do so.

And beyond getting everyone on the same page with production protocols and safety guidelines, the issue of insurance coverage for COVID-19 is an ongoing concern for projects of all sizes. Bekerman stressed that everything is contingent on gaining clarity on what production insurance will look like going forward.

“Insurance or lack of it could dictate which projects can actually shoot, overriding all the other concerns,” he said, adding that a water-tight safety plan isn’t attainable in a situation with so many variables and unknowns. “What’s been shown repeatedly throughout this pandemic is that the desire for definitive, irrefutable safety measures cannot be met. The risk is omnipresent and the question is how to manage it, not eliminate it entirely, at least until a vaccine arrives.”

With it looking unlikely that insurers will provide coverage for production stoppages or delays related to COVID-19 in the near term, some producers say they would prefer to see how the situation evolves before diving back into production.

“We aren’t talking about a little risk here,” said Lauren Grant of Clique Pictures. “I have no desire to be first or early with [going back into] filming, as health, safety and people’s lives are at stake.”

Meanwhile, marblemedia co-CEO Mark Bishop said his company is currently assessing the production requirements to restart live-action filming on a number of newly greenlit series. In order to get the wheels turning once more on its live-action production, marblemedia has studio space on hold for later this year, in addition to its own 50-acre backlot in Orangeville, ON. “We plan to start shooting as soon as it’s safe, and we will continue to share our best practices on set with others in the industry,” he said.

Bishop, who sits on the CMPA’s executive committee board, said he is involved in daily calls regarding new processes and ensuring proper safety protocols are implemented on set. “There are practical realities everyone is concerned about; studio space, crew availability, accelerated shoot schedules. The looming uncertainty of what it means to have smaller crews, to only shoot outdoors initially, big changes to food service on set, less people on set interacting with each other and other parameters that could be an immediate new reality,” he said, highlighting also the ongoing collaboration between production companies to ensure that the “rising tide lifts all boats.”

“This will only get more difficult with a condensed production schedule – less months in 2020 to produce and we also acknowledge filming days will be shorter due to new COVID safety measures on set,” he said. “So yes, there is a race to get back to production. But never at the expense of safety.”

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