Will New COVID Surge Slow Hollywood's Plans to Ramp Up Productions and Live Events?

Will New COVID Surge Slow Hollywood's Plans to Ramp Up Productions and Live Events?

July 20, 2021

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Will New COVID Surge Slow Hollywood’s Plans to Ramp Up Productions and Live Events?

Sets are under scrutiny and events like premieres and concerts are in limbo

The rise of new coronavirus cases has led to more than just the tumbling Dow. Three major film and TV productions have paused shoots in the last week, while many live in-person events have been postponed or canceled — renewing worries in Hollywood that the industry’s recent progress may face new setbacks. Certainly it means that safety protocols will not be diminished anytime soon, producers and other industry insiders told TheWrap.

“With COVID rates increasing again and a growing number of vaccinated people experiencing breakthrough cases, and even hospitalizations, I think vigilance will increase and folks will clamp down once again to ensure a safe set,” director-producer Matt Leslie told TheWrap. “Producers are not taking this lightly.”

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The spike in COVID cases and hospitalizations may well have been a factor in an agreement on Monday night to extend existing safety protocols and allow producers to require vaccinations on film and TV sets. “Producers will also have the option to implement mandatory vaccination policies for casts and crew in Zone A on a production-by-production basis,” according to a joint statement by Hollywood’s guilds and the producer’s AMPTP association. The guidelines, approved by SAG-AFTRA’s national board, require productions that mandate vaccines to provide enough notice for unvaccinated cast and crew to get the vaccine and build immunity to the virus.

When Hollywood’s guilds began talks with studios last month about revising the Return-to-Work Safety Agreement, both sides expected to agree to loosen the protocols that have been in effect since September. On June 25, the number of daily new cases in Los Angeles County had fallen below 200, and that total had not risen above 1,000 per day since February 22.

Then, just as the safety agreement was set to expire on June 30, the L.A. County Department of Health recommended that vaccinated people continue to wear masks in public spaces, muddying the guidance that Hollywood was basing its protocols on and leading the guilds to announce that the current safety agreement would be extended while discussions with the studios continued.

In the three weeks since then, the Delta variant has led to a surge of new cases among the unvaccinated, causing active hospitalizations to more than double in L.A. County from 255 on June 25 to 528 — while daily new cases counts rose above 1,500 last week.

The new mask mandate in Los Angeles County that went into effect Saturday has also thrown a wrench into in-person events, movie premieres and plans to return to office work. WME closed its offices for the week of July 19 and will re-evaluate on-site work based on any additional changes to the state’s guidelines. UTA reopened its offices in Los Angeles on June 15 with an invitation to those employees who had been vaccinated, but the agency is remaining consistent on that policy while having employees in masks indoors in L.A.

Live events have been impacted as well. Foo Fighters last week postponed a planned show for Los Angeles’ Forum on Saturday after a member of the band’s organization tested positive for coronavirus. A screening of the Mark Wahlberg film “Joe Bell” that was scheduled in Beverly Hills and hosted by Endeavor Content was also canceled last Friday hours before it was meant to kick off. Megan Fox on Monday said she would not attend a premiere of her film “Midnight in the Switchgrass” due to the rising coronavirus cases. And in the case of recent screenings for Apple’s “Ted Lasso” and Amazon’s “Jolt,” attendees are required to test negative for COVID to enter, with rapid testing available at both sites.

A representative for one major studio told TheWrap the company plans to be “very careful” moving forward with any upcoming L.A. premieres or events, including hosting afterparties outdoors. Another studio rep explained that everyone is remaining “cautious” and waiting for further instruction from health officials, and no events have been canceled. And while plans to return to offices hasn’t been solidified, no changes have been made either.

While it’s increasingly likely that film and TV sets will have to maintain strict safety measures for the foreseeable future, many productions stateside may not notice much difference. Eric Fleischman of Defiant Studios has two films shooting this summer and fall, and he says their plan will remain “identical to how we ran set in August at the height of the pandemic.” In fact, there may even be a silver lining.

“SAG extending the already-existing protocols indefinitely is not much of a change in terms of on-set protocols, sadly,” Fleischman said. “Fortunately, the cost of masks and PPE has gone down as the world opened back up, so while testing (and especially testing background) is still very much in effect and costing the same as it has, the silver lining is total PPE costs for productions should be relatively cheaper than they had been even top of year this year. Honestly, as long as rules DON’T change and SAG creates new restrictions that truly could inhibit a production from running its course, I think a lot of producers will, unfortunately, find the process old hat now.”

A studio rep also added that its safety protocols likewise have never changed since they were first put in place and the company will be continuing to thoroughly test throughout production. And the Los Angeles Times recently reported that some COVID safety policies may remain as best practices even after restrictions do loosen.

That may be less true of the U.K., where on Monday the government lifted most of its domestic COVID-19 restrictions even as cases have spiked to the highest levels since January and climbed 41% from last week. Some in England referred to Monday as “Freedom Day,” but composer Andrew Lloyd Webber was among those who slammed the government’s shifting guidelines that he said forced him to close his latest London musical “Cinderella.”

“The impossible conditions created by the blunt instrument that is the Government’s isolation guidance, mean that we cannot continue,” Webber said in a statement. “We have been forced into a devastation decision which will affect the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of people and disappoint the thousands who have booked to see the show.”

Film and TV production in the U.K. has also taken a hit in the last week with a surge of COVID cases. “Bridgerton” shut down production on the show’s second season after it reported two positive COVID tests. The next day, Netflix also had a partial shutdown of its musical movie version of “Matilda,” with first unit production going on a temporary pause for as much as 10 days depending on results from subsequent tests and contact tracing. On Monday, HBO paused production on its “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” after a Zone A production member tested positive, leading that individual to be isolated in compliance with industry guidelines. And Kenneth Branagh was forced to cancel a production of “The Browning Version” for next month at Riverside Studios in the U.K. after COVID-forced absences kept the cast from rehearsing.

As of Sunday, L.A. County’s Public Health department reported 1,635 COVID-19 cases, four new deaths and 507 current hospitalizations. Statewide, California on Monday for the weekend said that its three-day total for cases was 14,097, with a 7-day test positivity average of 4.1%, which is a 1.1% increase from the week prior, according to the state’s dashboard. 61.3% of people in California are fully vaccinated, with another 9.2% of the population partially vaccinated, according to the state’s vaccination data.

Beatrice Verhoeven and Reid Nakamura contributed to this report.