Why Film Permits Are Still Being Issued, and Studios Took So Long to Shut Down Production

Crew didn't feel safe, but Hollywood was waiting on city officials to tell them to stop.
Coronavirus: Why Shooting Permits and Hollywood Productions Continued

On March 13, NBC shut down production on their slate of some 35 shows. At this writing, Netflix, Apple, Disney, and CBS are taking dramatic steps to wind down their productions. All of this came after an emotionally fraught week that, in talking to dozens of crew members, many viewed as a breaking point. They were in an impossible situation, stuck between the studios and city officials as major production hubs continue to hand out permits.

To the naked eye, it might seem like the coronavirus has shut down everything in entertainment. Disneyland closed, sports seasons postponed, CinemaCon cancelled, upfronts will stream, and FYC events won’t have an audience. Productions are being shelved and studio releases are indefinitely delayed.

That might give the impression of a proactive Hollywood in the face of coronavirus, but for the thousands of crew members working on commercial, movie, and TV sets this week it remained business as usual in the production hubs of Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York.

In corresponding with dozens of crew members for this article, IndieWire found that they are torn. They know this could be their last paycheck for a while, since only the most elite filmmakers have pay-to-play contracts that guarantee their salaries, but the vast majority also believe that the act of making a movie feels dangerous in the face of the pandemic.

Film sets offer all the contagion risks of other multi-employee work environments, and with the added risks of necessary physical proximity and interaction. Social distancing is impossible when applying hair and make-up, wardrobe fittings, offloading equipment, huddling around a camera, pinning a mic to an actor, or piling into a 15-passenger van to get to the next location.

Marvel's Jessica Jones
Marvel’s “Jessica Jones” crew at workDavid Giesbrecht/Netflix

Production executives have well-established protocols of how to handle an accident on set, or submission of cost reports, but beyond paying for special cleaning precautions, film crews’ corporate bosses are largely rephrasing CDC guidelines in response to coronavirus.

“We are receiving disturbingly little guidance from the studios,” said one line producer. “Please, show me on the CDC website where it addresses how I should handle 30 background players in this chaotic scene my director just staged,” said a second AD.

In Georgia, where state officials reported 31 confirmed and presumed coronaviruses cases and reported the state’s first death from the disease March 11, production is “business as usual,” according to Bert Brantley, CEO of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. He spoke to Atlanta’s WXIA-TV March 11 during a Capitol celebration for Georgia Film Day, which heralded the industry’s economic boon.

“If you’ve ever been to a film set, they are very conscious about safety, and health of all their workers. So this is really something where we feel like they can continue to work. These are usually closed sets so there’s no big gathering of people,” Brantley said. “This is an industry that can thrive in really all kinds of environments and I think as long as everyone takes precautions, which I think the film industry does, we’ll continue to see them churn on.”

That’s exactly what crew members are afraid of. In Chicago, where on Monday a crew member on upcoming Fox show “neXt” that shoots at Cinespace — the 30-stage production facility that houses “Empire,” “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med,” and “Chicago P.D.” — tested positive for coronavirus, it’s still business as usual for the city’s film office.

CHICAGO FIRE -- "I'm Not Leaving You" Episode 722 -- Pictured: (l-r) Joe Minoso as Joe Cruz, Miranda Rae Mayo as Stella Kidd - (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/NBC)
“Chicago Fire”Elizabeth Morris/NBC

“At this time, film permits continue to be issued,” wrote a spokesperson for The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). “[We are] closely monitoring developments around the Coronavirus Disease 19 (COVID-19) and sharing safeguards and best practices as outlined by federal health authorities and state and local officials.”

That may sound cold, but no film office was ever intended to evaluate health safety concerns of coronavirus. While they serve many functions, film offices are clearinghouse for film and TV productions that must coordinate with the police, fire department, and other city officials for approval and support. A film office isn’t going to shut down production; that’s the responsibility of larger city agencies, which are tasked with coordinating the response to to COVID-19.

If the Chicago Department of Public Health, or the Mayor’s Health Commission in New York, issues a ban or advisement — such as those that mention outside activity, or a prohibition of gatherings — film offices evaluate and seek clarity of how it specifically applies to production, as they would any new ordinance or law.

So far, government actions haven’t severely impacted production. On March 11, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an order prohibiting gatherings of over 250 people, but that’s more than most sets. At this writing, most locations in the LA region are open for film permits, aside from City Hall, schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Los Angeles City College. Shoots on city-owned property are restricted to casts and crews no larger than 50 people. In fact, city officials in major production hubs, who spoke to IndieWire on condition of anonymity, expressed little concern about the specific threat of 100 crew members shooting on the street or in a studio.

Production crew, extras, and camera operators get ready to film an episode of NCIS:Los Angeles on location in Los Angeles on Monday May, 1, 2017Location Filming, Los Angeles, USA - 01 May 2017
Location filming, LAAP/REX/Shutterstock

This leaves crews trying to take matters into their own hands as they share information through job-specific private discussion boards and constant communication. In the process, they discovered some best practices. Craft service has long been identified as a source for outbreaks of the flu or cold, but crew members report that productions are swapping communal serving tables for packaged food brought by one designated server. By delivering to individual crew members, rather than having everybody line up at mealtime, it limits the points of contact.

Meanwhile, on-set anxiety continued to ratchet upward. Positive tests of IATSE crew working live events, and on set in Chicago, and Hollywood sets abroad, makes it all but inevitable that the virus would hit major production hubs. On March 12, word spread through New York production circles that Amazon put Season 2 of “Modern Love” on hiatus in response to a member of the cast and crew falling ill with fever and being tested for COVID-19. That same day, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio declared a state of emergency and admitted the situation in the city radically changed in 24 hours as the number of confirmed cases doubled.

“This is horrible. No one wants to be here, but everyone feels obligated,” said one DGA member working on a studio project.

Productions are also losing locations, often with little notice, and have trouble making their days as a result. Three location managers tell IndieWire they face major location dropout: With employees working from home as much as possible, locations are unable to staff their facilities. Or, they simply don’t want 75 crew members traipsing through and increasing the chance of exposure.

Between the increased difficulty of finding places to shoot, the precautions necessary to make a set or location safe, directors trying to take social distancing into account while staging scenes, and the frayed mindsets of filmmakers and cast, many who spoke with IndieWire indicated they didn’t think they were doing their best work. “We’re kind of just going through the motions,” said one department head.

Added a prominent New York producer, “Studios are waiting for the Mayor’s Office to shut us down. Our only hope is if they stop issuing permits, or the mayor or governor taking far more radical steps to shut down the city.”

The bottom line, they know, is the same as it ever was: Money.

With Tom Hanks quarantined with coronavirus, Warner Bros. is unlikely to incur any financial loss on the Elvis Presley film he was shooting in Australia. Principal cast, and often the director, receive full medicals before every shoot because insurance guarantors know that if something happens to a key player, they are on the hook for any losses associated with delays and responsible for financing reshoots.

However, none of that is true if a studio pulls the plug on a production midstream due to overarching coronavirus concerns. Before any TV show or movie rolls camera, the production has committed $100,000 to $400,000 for the shoot day in equipment and vehicle rentals, set construction, location and studio fees, salaries, and hundreds of other budget line items. What’s more, the cost — and logistical nightmare — of reconstituting everything when the threat of the virus has passed would result in overages unlikely to be covered by any insurance policy.

Most lawyers anticipate a fascinating legal battle as productions attempt to invoke the concept of force majeure with insurers. The assumption is if cities start pulling permits and closing productions due to pandemic, producers can argue that they’ve been shut down by “an act of God.”

James Ponsoldt directs Tom Hanks in "The Circle"
James Ponsoldt directs Tom Hanks in “The Circle”Frank Masi

“The one type of insurance that might provide compensation would be the completion bond,” said attorney Mark Litwak. “This is insurance that pays to complete a film if it goes over budget or cannot be completed because of an act of force majeure. More likely the insurer would pay for extra costs incurred because of a delay in production.”

Studios that can stop productions before they start have much less to lose. While some costs have been expended prior to shooting, they are minimal compared to starting a 100-day shoot in the face of an unpredictable pandemic. Meanwhile, putting more established shows on hiatus mid-production is less of a risk since they are well-oiled machines that have exclusive deals with cast and sets housed year round on soundstages.

What’s obvious to many crew is that studios’ concern for their employees’ well-being were not extended, at least in actions, to the crew who came to work this week.

“Studios are failing us on a deeply human level by leaving this for the film office to decide when we shut down,” said one producer. “And the worst part is realizing we are massively increasing our chance of exposure, and then every night going home to our families.”

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