January 17, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

COVID surge upends ‘essential’ Hollywood production plans

As the surge in COVID-19 cases overwhelms L.A. hospitals, producers, film workers and their unions are still grappling with how and when to get back to work after a holiday pause.

Due to the rising infection rate, several studios including CBS, ABC, NBC and most recently Netflix have delayed film and television productions that were set to restart this Monday until Jan. 11 or Jan. 18.

SAG-AFTRA and other entertainment industry unions have asked representatives of the major studios to extend the hiatus period, although there is no consensus about how long that should last, sources familiar with the discussions said.

On Sunday the actors union and a group representing advertisers “strongly encouraged” producers of commercials and independent films to also delay their work as dozens of COVID-19 outbreaks were linked back to film sets.

“We recommended a pause in production even though our safety protocols have been effective, because this is not a great environment for members to go to work in Southern California,” said David White, national executive director of SAG-AFTRA.

The Directors Guild of America said it has told employers that it is prepared to work with productions to further extend the production pause. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has not commented.

Since March, California has included film industry workers as part of an essential workforce that has been exempt from stay-at-home orders, a source of consternation among restaurant operators and other businesses who’ve been forced to shut down.

Although the L.A. County Department of Public Health has allowed music, TV and film productions to operate, it asked them last month “to strongly consider pausing work for a few weeks during this catastrophic surge.” But the department stopped short of forcing productions to stop, leaving unions and studios to figure out how to proceed.

That’s a delicate task for guilds that must balance the need to protect the health and safety of their members while avoiding another long-term shutdown that would create further hardship for thousands of workers.

Union officials say they don’t have the legal authority to stop their members from working.

“My responsibility is to try to give my members a choice or options as to whether they work or not, and it’s up to them to decide,” said Steve Dayan, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 399, which represents casting directors, location managers and studio drivers. “These are difficult decisions.”

He noted that some productions are under pressure to finish shoots and may continue to film even as COVID-19 hospitalizations reach record highs.

The inconsistent approach has frustrated some crew members.

“If you want to shut us down, shut us down. If we can shoot, let us shoot,” said Monty Buckles, an L.A.-based freelance union sound mixer who wrapped his last commercial shoot on Dec. 22. His next job on Jan. 11 was canceled, he said.

“It creates more stress, confusion and uncertainty if they sit on the fence and throw empty platitudes at the problem,” Buckles added.

Adam West, a field representative at the Motion Picture Costumers IATSE Local 705, is among those pushing for a shutdown because the healthcare system is already overburdened.

“Not all our members or IATSE agree with me,” West said. “A lot of people want to keep working.”

Hollywood has put guidelines in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. In September, studios and unions agreed on a set of safety protocols, including testing before employees start work on a set and during production.

Dayan and others say the protocols have kept coronavirus outbreaks to a minimum, according to data from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers viewed by The Times. In Los Angeles County, only 0.2% of all positive coronavirus cases as of Nov. 28 were attributable to the film industry, according to the data.

There have been clusters of coronavirus infections identified recently among workers at three Warner Bros. productions in Burbank — “Lucifer,” “The Kominsky Method” and “Young Sheldon.” In total, 35 people have tested positive as part of those infections.

An additional 45 positive coronavirus cases have been identified at the CBS Studio Center in Studio City, according to newly released county data. Twenty-three coronavirus cases have been identified among workers at NBC Universal in Studio City and Universal City, including on the show “Mr. Mayor.” And there have been nine coronavirus cases among staff at Netflix Productions’ office in Gardena.

Amid the outbreaks, NBC’s “Mr. Mayor,” “Kenan” and “Good Girls,” HBO Max’s “Hacks” and Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” were shifted from this Monday to Jan 11, according to a person close to production, who declined to be named. Production on NBC’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” will resume Jan. 18, said the source, who was not authorized to comment.

Netflix has paused all local production for projects scheduled to shoot this week and next week, including shows such as “Family Reunion” filming at Paramount Studios. The streamer’s big-budget movie “Gary Man” was pushed to the end of January, but some shows such as “True Story” are scheduled to start filming in mid-January, said a source close to the company.

Film permitting has fallen to the lowest levels since production restarted in June, said FilmLA President Paul Audley. Much of the activity is in commercials. At stake for advertising agencies is their biggest payday of the year: the Super Bowl.

“It’s important that all aspects of the media industry pay attention and are carefully and appropriately abiding by the very, very thorough protocols and safety practices that we have in place,” said Matt Miller, chief executive of the Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers.

But on the issue of a shutdown, Miller said only the health department could decide such a move. “They are the only ones that know enough about everything going on to know whether there truly needs to be a shutdown.”

Among the shoots scheduled to film this week are an NFL commercial, the Food Network series “Guy’s Grocery Games” and the reality TV show “The Lost Worlds,” according to FilmLA, which handles permits for on-location shoots in the city and county.

Although some scripted production is underway, there is little activity from major motion picture or television productions.

“We have some longer range permits that we’re working on with some films out toward the end of January and February and I’m sure that they may have to reconsider based on how things are going in the county,” Audley said.

Times Staff Writers Rong-Gong Lin and Wendy Lee contributed to this report.