What does the film industry do during yet another lockdown? Assumes a bunker mentality, keeps its head down, and quietly presses on with what needs to be done. To the outside world, everything looks to be at a standstill – no cinemas are open, and there isn’t one huge release on the calendar until James Bond in early April. But production – when it can afford to – keeps calm and carries on.
Shooting a blockbuster with a nine-figure price tag is certainly one professional activity that can’t be achieved at home. The situation is different now from last March, when a number of high-profile shoots went on hiatus to resume later in the summer, with a full set of Covid safety measures robustly in place.
British film crews, renowned around the world for their problem-solving capabilities, have dealt with Covid-19 and adopted a new set of conditions for working despite it. In a high-spec facility like Pinewood, Shepperton or Leavesden Studios, this means daily temperature tests at the gate, strict hygiene, and bi-weekly testing, combined to create a kind of “green zone” in which many hundreds of crew and actors can responsibly work. Any positive tests are carefully tracked and traced to isolate those employees at risk.
This all comes at enormous cost, though. Jurassic World: Dominion was the first major shoot to resume last July, and wrapped on November 7 at Pinewood, two days into the country’s second lockdown. The 100-day shoot was only possible because of 40,000 Covid tests and all the additional staff thus implied; 150 hand sanitiser stations, 60 extra sinks, you name it. This all cost something in the range of $6-8m extra for a film originally budgeted at $165m. (0.25 per cent of the tests done came back positive.)
That film isn’t due for release until summer 2022, taking no chances with the uncertain timeline for cinemas reopening this year. Right now, similar practices are enabling other high-profile shoots in the UK to pick up where they left off in December, including Fantastic Beasts 3 at Leavesden and an undisclosed Disney+ Star Wars title at Pinewood, likely to be Diego Luna's Rogue One spin-off Andor.
Matt Reeves’s The Batman, which transformed part of Liverpool into Gotham during the city’s October lockdown, is scheduled to wrap next month if all goes according to plan. Meanwhile, shifting from Leavesden to the Surrey-based Longcross Studios for the final part of principal photography is Mission: Impossible 7, after a Christmas break which may or may not have brought Tom Cruise’s blood pressure down to industry-standard levels.
The latest lockdown hasn’t endangered these shoots, but it has certainly put them under greater strain. Even more regular testing protocols are needed to address the greater transmissibility of the virus’s new mutation. Costs have risen – anti-Covid measures can now standardly add 20 per cent or more to a smaller film's budget. Operational hurdles include hotel closures – where are crew from overseas meant to stay? – and restrictions on international travel.
If Cruise’s on-set rant was supposed to communicate anything, it’s that the daunting logistics of doing all this are only worthwhile if everyone pays attention and sticks to the rules. But whose rules? Cruise’s? Productions are turning to safety advice from the likes of First Option, a media consultancy which updates production companies on what they ought to be doing – the general gist being, everything they were doing already, “but better and more of it”.
The industry training body ScreenSkills has stepped up by offering certification through a Covid awareness course. Meanwhile, the likes of the BFI and creative union Bectu have been helping smaller productions continue thanks to their funding support and lobbying initiatives.
None of this entirely compensates for a deafening lack of state guidance in this whole arena. The gov.uk website lists “film and TV filming” under its exempted business practices, but that’s it. It’s entirely fitting that the section of Bectu’s website labelled “key information and government advice” comes up empty with a 404-style error message. “No one is really policing this,” one film industry professional, preferring to stay anonymous, tells me. “I know of low budget films still going ahead and having to reallocate budget. The bigger question is the ethical conduct of producers.”
American film sets have introduced the position of “Covid safety co-ordinators” or “compliance supervisors”, responsible for training the whole crew in awareness – not unlike the “intimacy co-ordinators” given crucial functions on shoots in the wake of #MeToo. The UK, however, lags behind on this front, typically delegating this role to someone who already has a job title.
Tom Cruise went ballistic on the Mission: Impossible 7 crew for breaking COVID protocols...pic.twitter.com/WbIpVlja7w
— Rex Chapman🏇🏼 (@RexChapman) December 16, 2020
All eyes may be on Cruise’s film and the industry’s other tentpoles, but for legions of smaller shoots that can fly comparatively under the radar, the lack of governmental monitoring has effectively created a Wild West. Confusion is rife on what’s even permissible. Many productions simply can’t afford the equivalent level of testing protocols, but are still managing to proceed under self-imposed conditions.
It’s tough for the smaller films out there – any independent feature that was meant to start shooting this month could find itself prohibitively out of pocket or forced to postpone, unless a stringent approach to preventing viral spread falls by the wayside. Low-budget films have to count every last bean, and mixing thermometers, masks, test kits, other PPE and on-site medics into the equation gets costly fast.
While taking a shortcut with private vaccinations could be the industry’s next salvation in months to come, it’s only the big boys who will find this realistically affordable. Meanwhile, the studios are forging on, test by test, temperature check by temperature check, in the hope that these behemoths see the light of day in a mask-free, panic-free 2022. It’s unclear what the overall entertainment landscape will look like in eighteen months, but if we’re interested in watching something even more than usually expensive, there should be one or two options.