How movie industry execs see sets changing as filming resumes during coronavirus pandemic


Ice T is seen on set of ‘Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’ on March 06, 2020 in New York City.

Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin

After months of production shutdowns, Hollywood is eager to get the cameras rolling again.

But that’s easier said than done in as coronavirus continues to spread. While several states have issued proposed guidelines for restarting film production, there is still no consensus within the industry of what restrictions or safeguards will ultimately be needed to get cast and crews back to work safely. 

Studios in states that have allowed nonessential businesses to reopen have begun to ready their lots for production crews. The hope is that shooting can resume this summer.

In the interim, production companies have used their time in quarantine to handle preproduction — polishing scripts, video casting and scouting future locations online — or post-production — editing, special effects and adding scores. Those tasks can be done remotely. 

But until a vaccine is widely dispersed, it’s unclear what normal will look like. The film production process is extensive, requiring a number of different groups — hair and make-up artists, costume designers, set decorators, actors, cinematographers, cameramen and sound producers — to work together seamlessly. In the new reality of coronavirus, those jobs, which are done in close proximity to one another, become more difficult.

Four industry experts weigh in on how these crews could adapt to handle these challenges and how the entirety of film production, from script to final edit, could be altered forever. They expect there could be changes in the types of scripts being considered and how they are filmed. The changes could give a boost to indpendent film makers and will likely need a bit of creativity to design solutions. Here’s what they had to say: 

Frank Patterson, CEO of Pinewood Atlanta Studios

Pinewood is one of the biggest names in the film industry when it comes to studio space, and Frank Patterson is the CEO of its Atlanta-based lot. The Georgia studio has been the filming grounds for nearly a dozen Marvel films and is also the space where Disney is filming several of shows for its Disney+ streaming service.

Patterson told CNBC that the studio hopes to be opened in early June, but doesn’t expect shooting on the lot to begin until late summer. 

“We think preproduction will be early summer,” he said, noting that this stage of production on the lot is predominantly the construction of sets.

A top priority for the studio is ensuring that all of the teams on the lot, regardless of which production company they work for, are all operating under the same safety measures, including testing and social distancing.

While he speculates that there will be some changes to the day-to-day operations of the studio and of film production, he doesn’t expect there will be any major impacts on the production value of the content produced on set.

“We have the good fortune of working with some of the greatest storytellers,” Patterson said. “They don’t want it to be anything other than great. We are not going to compromise the quality of work.”

Productions may not be able to hire 150 background actors to stand in a field and pretend to be zombies, as they did in pre-pandemic days, but crews will be able to sort out creative ways to achieve the storytelling elements they need for a particular project, he said. That could be done via technology or through practical special effects.

“There won’t be any shot that we can’t get, it’s just how we get it that’s going to change,” he said.

Ryan Millsap, CEO of Blackhall Studios

Safety on the lot of Blackhall Studios, just 25 miles north of Pinewood, will be paramount, according to CEO Ryan Millsap.

Millsap’s lot has played host to a number of Hollywood blockbuster productions including “Godzilla: King of Monsters,” “Venom” and “Jumanji: The Next Level.”

Blackhall recently made a large, undisclosed investment in air filtration products from Global Plasma Solutions, a company that specializes in clear air technology.

The product is installed into the air handling systems and works by producing positive and negative ions. Those ions are drawn to airborn particles by electrical charge. Once the ions attach to the particle, the particle grows larger by attraction other nearby particles of the opposite polarity. These particles then become too large to pass through the filtration system.

It just wasn’t on our radar, but this is an example of an entire economy that is about to emerge,” Millsap said of the new technology.

The sound stage lot at Blackhall Studios in Atlanta, Georgia.

Blackhall Studios

But, technology isn’t the only strategy that could be used at Blackhall. Millsap’s lot has outdoor locations that could be used to build a small town, for example, and act as a controlled environment for shooting.

This way crews wouldn’t have to travel to an actual street where they wouldn’t be able to control who comes and goes, and where they would have to be more vigilant about sanitation.

Linda Seger, author of “The Collaborative Art of Filmmaking”

Film production isn’t just the act of physically shooting a movie, but also includes the process of writing a script.

Linda Seger, author of “The Collaborative Art of Filmmaking” and a screenwriting consultant, said that the kinds of scripts that are written in the wake of coronavirus could be quite different — at least until normal production procedures are back in place.

Seger said that some writers may look toward creating scripts that have fewer locations and fewer characters in order to minimize the risk of a coronavirus outbreak on set. 

Intimate dramas or claustrophobic horror movies could be stories that act as a solution to social distancing restrictions, she said.

She also suggested that during the casting process, production companies could look to, actors who are members of the same household — a married couple, fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, etc. These family members have likely been social distancing with each other.

The order in which scenes are shot for a film could also change. Typically, movies are filmed out of order anyway, but productions may choose to do scenes with multiple characters or scenes of a romantic nature later in a shoot, while prioritizing one character scenes or outdoor scenes for the beginning of the production. 

“Mission: Impossible 7,” for example, is eyeing a return to filming in September, but will shoot its outdoor sequences first.

Dan Mintz, CEO of DMG Entertainment

“The regulations that are going to come are going to be very stringent at the beginning,” Dan Mintz, CEO of DMG Entertainment, a production and distribution company, said. “If a vaccine comes out, you can see this go away very quickly.”

In the meantime, Mintz foresees insurance companies being the driving force behind whether productions restart or whether they wait. 

Pandemic insurance could be a new obstacle for production companies looking to begin shooting. Already Canadian production teams have contacted their government to discuss a partnership that would help create policies for Covid-19 coverage.

The Canadian Media Producers Association has proposed that producers would pay premiums for coronavirus coverage that would feed into a pot to pay for any potential claims and the government would only contribute financially if there wasn’t enough in the pot to cover those claims. The government back-up, the organization argued, would boost confidence in the industry being able to return to work.

Mintz, who has worked with Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures and Sony during his career, foresees independent film blossoming during this time. Smaller crews, intimate stories and a “scrappiness” that isn’t often seen from the bigger players in the industry could lead to an influx in new voices in the film industry.

“There is going to be the ones that step out, that take the chance and say ‘I can work through a difficult situation faster and that will add value,'” Mintz said.

“I do believe that creativity overcomes all,” he said.

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