With more time at home, many of us are glued to Netflix and/or other streaming services. While it may be impossible to run out of new things to watch, we could run out of new things we want to watch. And that raises questions.
I’ve worked as a set costumer, costume designer, consultant, tailor and pattern maker in film and TV for 30 years on all kinds of productions in all kinds of locales—from middle-of-nowhere Texas to New York City. What’ll it take to reopen the industry?
Let me tell you …
The Business of Film & TV
Film and TV is a business.
Contracts often refer to it jointly as Film/TV or Motion Picture/TV Film and insurance factors into when/how both are made. Related policies have civil-authority and imminent-peril clauses built in with coverage of $500,000 to $2 Million depending on production size and budget.
When the industry shut down mid-March, producers filed multi-million dollar claims. My union local listed 60 or so productions filming in NYC which were shut down about then. If each filed a low-end claim, that’d be a $30 Million payout in this city alone.
Talking to Gene Maddaus for “Variety,” entertainment insurance broker Bob Jellen said: “In the (entire) movie industry, there’s probably between $300 Million to $500 Million in claims because of coronavirus.”
If it’s that bad for business, what will insurers cover going forward? On April 20, Deadline.com speculated that crew members may have to sign COVID-19 waivers excusing production companies from liability. What this and similar articles didn’t consider were labor unions.
Non-union and independent productions notwithstanding, crews won’t go back to work until safety protocols are negotiated into their contracts.
Long Hours & Sick Days
The Film/TV industry considers a 10-hr. workday standard for those not on a shooting crew. Shooting crew members regard 12-hr. days as normal, though 14- to 16-hr. days five days a week aren’t uncommon.
Most unions stipulate 8- to 10-hr. turnarounds—the hours “off” an employee must have between leaving and reporting back to work. Why? Tired workers are more likely to get sick, injured or lose their lives. Still, every crew member seems to have a story about driving while exhausted after clocking consecutive 14-hr. plus days.
In 2014, Gary Tuck, a teamster working on the New Mexico-based drama “Longmire,” fell asleep driving home after an 18-hr. day. Seven years earlier, “Pleasantville” second camera assistant Brent Lon Hershman fell asleep behind the wheel and slammed into a utility pole after a 19-hr. day. Neither survived.
When I worked as a set costumer in Austin in the early 2000s, I’d commute home after 15- or 16-hr. days. One particular movie I worked on had night shoots (not uncommon), meaning a drive home in morning rush hour. I’d call my friend/co-worker and we’d talk just to keep each other awake.
The business fosters a culture of comparison, too: boasting of hours worked, of being tired. People stand around talking up extended shifts and exhaustion. They also come to work sick, since there are no paid Sick Days. In fact, union contracts specify a waiver of applicability of related legislation.
Both should be addressed before production resumes.
Crowded on the Set
Film sets, in particular, are crowded. A small crew is 100 people. If a large crowd scene is being filmed, crew numbers can total 300-plus. Even a “closed set” can have at least 25 people working on it.
In “Two Projects Are Filming Again,” published May 15 by “N.Y. Times,” Nicole Sperling wrote about a Netflix series filmed in Iceland and a horror movie shot in Australia: Both productions isolated their crews for the duration of shooting, broke on-set crews into pods to limit interaction and utilized frequent COVID-19 testing.
“It’s not an inexpensive way to operate a film,” said Lucas Foster, a producer for the horror film. Other factors of note? That Australia shoot was an independent one (non-union) and the series in Ireland had a cast and crew of 80. I’ve been on productions where the Wardrobe & Costume Dept. alone totaled 80. Foster did note that what happened “in Australia is not a direct crossover to shooting in Los Angeles or Vancouver.”
Most major network film and TV productions (from ABC and HBO to Starz and beyond) are union—especially when filmed in the U.S. or Canada. Union members tend to want health insurance and an hourly salary with overtime that reflects their skill levels. Non-union gigs mean lower budgets, lower wages, lower safety thresholds and no benefits (i.e., health, pension, annuity). Non-union salaries also tend to be calculated at a Day Rate with no overtime: Same pay each day despite hours worked.
Isolating crews could be one solution for relaunch—but what about in dense cities like New York? Productions could move to Long Island or upstate after restrictions are eased, making it possible for producers to quarantine entire crews in hotels near shoot locations.
When Shooting Resumes …
Will huge crowd scenes be a thing of the past? Will background actors be digitized, created entirely by computer? Will CGI evoke crowd atmospheres? Technology can already render photorealistic people and backgrounds.
On May 12, “Hollywood Reporter” published a piece by Carolyn Giardina on how one Google exec, Paul Debevec (Full disclosure: He’s my cousin), made “socially-distanced filming look” natural. As Giardina said, his technique “uses a 360-deg. light stage and controllable LED lighting whereby actors” are filmed separately and then composited in.
Paul’s told me that the secret to making virtual and augmented realities look “real” is lighting; specifically, the way light reflects off of things. A decade ago he added: “We’re still working out how light reflects off fabrics. Many engineers don’t have a lot of experience with how material and cloth behaves—the way it folds or drapes. You could provide that kind of expertise.”
So, what does it all mean? Even as a union member with 30 years of experience, I honestly don’t know for sure. I do know there are lots of talks going on, across film and TV, about how we can all move forward safely. We’ve needed a new way to make movies for a very long time. Perhaps the pandemic will be the catalyst.
If so, we may be back to making content before you get thru Netflix!
Chase that Digital Unicorn!
Like what you just read? Follow these select source links:
Andreeva, Nellie & Mike Fleming, Jr. “Reopening Hollywood: From Insurance to Testing, Crowd Scenes & Craft Services, Here Are the Pandemic Problems Studios Are Trying to Solve Before the Restart” (April 15, 2020). Deadline.com.
Giardina, Carolyn. “Socially-Distanced Filming That Looks Normal? How a Google Exec Is Making It Happen” (May 12, 2020). HollywoodReporter.com.
Maddaus, Gene. “Productions Need Insurance to Start Rolling—but Actuaries Don’t Want to Take the Risk” (May 20, 2020). Variety.com.
Sperling, Nicole. “Two Projects Are Filming Again. Here’s How They’re Doing It” (May 15, 2020). NYTimes.com.