A short-lived sense of security from plummeting coronavirus cases prompted several global-facing projects in the U.K. to restart over the summer, but as the threat of new COVID-19 restrictions looms large, the industry is rushing to crank out film and TV productions this fall, in what could be the last gasp for production in 2020.
A rising caseload prompted six-month-long restrictions on group gatherings and early closures for the hospitality sector on Sept. 24, but the U.K. remains one of the most active production hubs in Europe. Getting cameras rolling, as evidenced by “The Batman” brouhaha, is a major gamble, but those who can afford to take the plunge say there’s much to be gained — if they can pull it off.
Roughcut TV is shooting in south London, where cameras rolled Sept. 2 on six-part comedy “Bloods” for Comcast-backed broadcaster Sky. Managing director Ash Atalla began planning the shoot from the depths of lockdown in spring.
“It felt insane that we’d get to film a TV show, but at some point, you have to make your best educated guess and say, ‘The end will be here’ [and start planning],” Atalla tells Variety of his seven-week shoot. “We tried to set a date that felt optimistic but not impossible.”
The Emmy-nominated producer says this period is a “sweet spot” for international distribution, where a handful of freshly completed projects will be given more exposure by distributors facing a dearth of new shows to sell.
“Get it done now, and those distributors who have brand new titles to launch next year might feel like they have a much more valuable asset,” urges Atalla.
While the U.K. production sector isn’t impacted by the new 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s warning that more “firepower” will be employed if cases — projected to reach 49,000 a day by mid-October — don’t fall has made many in the industry nervous about the near future. Further complicating matters is that a government-backed indemnity fund underwriting projects with budgets of up to £5 million ($6.4 million) per production, announced in July, has yet to even go live.
“When you consider the weather and daylight hours, there was a little window in late summer and autumn [that was available to shoot] and it felt like that insurance scheme wasn’t quite up and running quick enough,” says Atalla.
Some shows, however, are taking winter in their stride. Mark Strong-fronted drama “Temple,” another London-set Sky show, is in the midst of a 90-day shoot stretching through to January.
“We have to live with this virus for months, so it’s important that shows that are up and running can prove you can work in these conditions,” says Liza Marshall, head of production company Hera Pictures.
Casting has proven tricky for Hera because actors who’d normally flit between jobs aren’t being released by some broadcasters. “People are trying to hold on to actors for their own jobs,” says the BAFTA-nominated producer. But keeping it local has meant keeping business contained.
“During lockdown, in all my conversations with Sky, it felt like this show was more achievable than others that were pushed to spring because they’re set in different countries,” Marshall says.
Getting cameras rolling anywhere during a pandemic isn’t a decision taken lightly, but the U.K.’s early COVID-safe protocols and the promise of an insurance scheme has provided critical assurance, says MSR Media boss Philippe Martinez. The York-based producer recently completed Christmas comedies “Miss Willoughby and the Haunted Bookshop” and “Father Christmas Is Back,” starring Kelsey Grammer, Elizabeth Hurley and John Cleese.
“The first question we had was whether these stars would agree to work during COVID-19, and to our surprise, people who don’t need to work because they’re financially sound said ‘yes,’” Martinez says.
Clauses requiring actors to return to the film within 12 months if there was a COVID-19 interruption were also added to contracts.
“We had no cover, so we took that responsibility,” says Lee Beasley, managing director of MSR Media. “If something happened, we’d have had to shut down and reschedule.”
But ultimately, the insular environment of the Yorkshire countryside was conducive to COVID-era filming. “It really is a bubble,” says Beasley. “We managed to film two multimillion-dollar productions in the past three months.”
Indeed, the U.K. has become a chameleonic backdrop for even the most complex productions. BBC Two’s Arctic thriller “The North Water,” starring Jack O’Connell and Colin Farrell, had one week left to shoot in northern Canada, around icy Nunavut, when the pandemic forced a shutdown. Producer See-Saw Films waited several months to see if they could return, but adverse fall weather conditions prevented a reshoot.
“CGI saved the day on that project. We elected to shoot on stage against green screens,” says Nicky Earnshaw, head of production, detailing the shoot at London’s Black Hangar Studios’ 32,000 square-feet of uninterrupted floor space.
Earnshaw reckons the extra costs and time associated with the British Film Commission’s industry-standard COVID-19 protocols have added around 10%-20% to the budget, but overall, the London shoot was practical given stars such as O’Connell were already there. “We’re lucky that we have U.K.-centric projects on our slate,” says Earnshaw.
Although there are travel restrictions for countries that require quarantines, a government waiver for individuals filming has come in handy for See-Saw, she says.
Studios such as Lionsgate are also taking advantage where they can. “For us, it’s the U.K. for now,” says Marc Lorber, senior vice president, international co-productions and acquisitions. The studio is shooting Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience” over 10 weeks in London, while BBC Wales thriller “The Pact” is in its second week in Cardiff.
Lorber says COVID-19 safeguards cost the studio only 10%-18% of a budget, but they have been generating costs “no one accounted for” previously, such as housing actors who need to quarantine for 14 days. “And as wonderful as the [government’s insurance plan] is the portal hasn’t [gone live yet],” he says.
While the government has so far exempted film and TV from another shutdown, Lorber, like many, ponders what a “circuit-breaker lockdown” — a two-week shutdown of all but essential workplaces to limit the spread of the virus — might look like.
“Are we furloughing people? Is there government support covering that? Or is it that things are on hold and no one is getting paid? Will there be storage and set security you have to pay for? We all have a nagging anxiety in the back of our heads,” he admits. “Everyone dealt with a lockdown, but multiple lockdowns would be financially difficult. Making TV series is not something you can do from home.”
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