During California Governor Gavin Newsom’s May 20 Economic Recovery Listening Tour: Entertainment Industry Zoom panel, he announced that on May 25, the state will issue guidelines to allow film and TV production to begin in some California counties.
However, Newsom’s protocols won’t include guidance from an industry-wide joint task force that’s quietly worked over the last three weeks on its own plan for how film and TV production can safely resume. They have prepared a 30-page white paper, currently in an early draft, written by representatives of major guilds (IATSE, DGA, SAG-AFTRA) and the studios (via the Association of Movie Producers and TV Producers) in conjunction with advice from medical professionals.
The report itself is being written for a very specific audience: The Governors, and according to multiple sources, specifically NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo as well as Newsom, whose states are major film and TV production hubs. The report clearly states its goal in the first sentence of an early draft acquired by IndieWire: “The Industry-Wide Labor Management Safety Committee Task Force (the “Task Force”) respectfully submits the following recommendations for consideration and adoption under a future Governor’s Executive Order for the resumption of motion picture, television, and streaming productions in an environment that minimizes the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19.”
There’s a certain disconnect between the efforts of the white paper and Newsom’s announcement. Newsom on Monday will lay out guidelines for production to resume — but that will happen before hearing from the industry task force designed to make recommendations to government of how to do so safely. Sources have suggested that the task force originally hoped the white paper could be presented to Newsom by May 18. However, it’s now expected to take another couple of weeks.
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IndieWire has read the white paper, and spoken with multiple task force representatives who say that as an early and “incomplete” draft it will need to be significantly refined, and could be altered in meaningful ways. It is currently out to various unions and studios for comment, before it will be rewritten.
A spokesperson for IATSE told IndieWire that its own team of hired epidemiologists are currently reviewing the report. “Review is happening,” wrote the spokesperson. “Many of the things in the report are topics of bargaining and will have to be agreed on in negotiations, but how those occur will be informed by these experts.”
As for the guidelines currently drafted in the white paper, these include: virtual location scouts; fewer minor performers; set visitors and live audiences discouraged; one-time COVID-19 testing; and eliminating large groups of background performers.
In its current form, the report is most forceful when discussing education, recommending mandatory training, and implementing processes to audit and enforce its completion by all cast and crew. It also recommends that all sets and locations have “a trained COVID-19 Safety Monitor… This individual should be present on set at all times during work hours [and] will oversee and monitor physical distancing, symptom monitoring, disinfecting protocols, and PPE education.”
The paper lays out a hierarchy of controls against COVID-19: Assess crew wellness before they’re on set, provide “engineering and administrative controls,” and make personal protective equipment as essential as a cell phone. The most prescriptive part of the plan focuses on education, hygiene, PPE, and social distancing, and it highlights cast and crew as the most effective line of defense.
It recommends one-time nasal swab testing of all cast and crew 48-72 hours prior to start of production, although “If testing supplies or capacity are limited, priority should be given to those who may need to work in close proximity and/or with limited PPE, such as cast, hair/makeup, and costumers.”
Recommendations include a daily electronic survey pushed to the mobile devices of all cast and crew, confirming that they are symptom free before they can access the set; extra cleaning crews responsible for wiping down high-touch surfaces and equipment; and breaks scheduled every four to six hours to facilitate wipe downs.
Temperature screening is not recommended, as “the benefits are unlikely to be worth the effort.” Ditto repeat testing: “Given the prolonged nature of many productions, workers with differing schedules of varying lengths, repeated universal testing would be highly complex to coordinate and is likely to be very low yield.” An exception: While scenes requiring intimate contact such as kissing or simulated sexual activity should be limited “when possible,” actors who do participate in these “should have a documented negative SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR within 48 hours prior to the scheduled activity.”
Face masks or other PPE are required at all times, except when not feasible due to production circumstances (such applying makeup to an actor). The task force does not recommend universal glove use, since it creates a “false sense of security” and therefore an increased risk. However, gloves should be used when cast and crew touch “potentially contaminated common shared equipment” that “cannot feasibly be disinfected.”
The plan recommends that productions rely on virtual meetings and writers rooms, stagger arrivals and lunch times for cast and crew, “eliminate crowd scenes” (and, large gatherings of background actors), and limit “the number of people involved in a specific activity.”
In many cases the report identifies significant dangers, but does not — in its current form — restrict those activities. For air travel of cast and crew, the report recommends productions “consider chartering a plane rather than flying commercial.” Live studio audiences “should be avoided,” but are permissible with safety precautions. Scenes featuring stunt performers should be limited “when possible.” Shooting on location indoors, including private residences, is permitted as long as it hasn’t recently been occupied or used by people who may have been infected with COVID-19, and it is vacated 48 hours prior to shooting.
While the phrase “should limit” is used repeatedly in the white paper, and it recommends few mandatory changes, task force insiders said that in many cases this should be considered placeholder language that could, and in many cases would, become stronger in subsequent drafts.
Yet it’s what is not in the report that might be most revealing. The task force punts on potential sticking points like restricting crew size, or the length of the work day beyond limiting production hours to encourage a healthy and rested cast and crew “whenever possible.”
Similarly, while it advocates for flexible leave policies that allow employees to stay home if they are sick, or care for children or sick family members, there is no mention of guaranteeing pay for someone who needs to miss shoot days. Nor does the report talk about if, or when, a production would to be shuttered due to a cast and crew member receiving a positive test for COVID-19.
The report also skips over the question of enforcement — and exactly who is responsible for it — which will likely be the biggest hot-button issue for the tens of thousands of crew who work on Hollywood productions. In other countries, on-set safety advisors are empowered to dictate how elements of production are executed to keep cast and crew safe, and have long been a legal requirement.
These elements are unlikely to change in future drafts: Task-force insiders tell IndieWire that that these matters are viewed as being outside their purview. While many on the labor side point to the industry-wide task force as “the way forward,” and the white paper promises a Phase 2 that will outline department specific procedures, organizers warn the task force’s work is specifically geared toward gaining governmental approval to reopen – viewed as only one of many obstacles in the path of Hollywood resuming production in any meaningful way.
It is along these lines that the various stakeholders remain hard at work on their own plans. The specific procedural elements necessary to figure out before production resumes will be workshopped inside the various stakeholders‘ working groups.
While the task force includes DGA representatives, the guild’s own National Board Committee (headed by Steven Soderbergh) is still hard at work on its own detailed plan. Studio continue to create their own playbooks, and IATSE this week hired a powerhouse team of epidemiologists as advisors.
No matter what guidelines Gov. Newsom brings before cameras on Monday, the path to understanding how Hollywood will resume production remains long, bumpy and, for now, unclear.