By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES – Along with hair stylists, camera operators and the hundreds of others who make magic happen for TV and film, Hollywood is counting on a new supporting member for future productions: COVID-19 consultants.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted producers, movie studios and workers’ unions to seek expert advice on how to safely reopen film and TV sets, which shut down worldwide in mid-March.
In demand are epidemiologists and other public health specialists to provide detailed strategies for dealing with large crews who work in cramped spaces, makeup artists who get face-to-face with stars, and actors who kiss, hug and fight on set.
The shutdown has taken a severe financial toll across the industry, as well as on cities such as Los Angeles that benefit economically from production. Restarting is important to companies, including Netflix Inc, Walt Disney Co and others, which need fresh programming to engage audiences.
While sets remain empty in the United States, productions are ramping back up in South Korea, Australia, Sweden, as well as New Zealand, where James Cameron’s “Avatar 2” is restarting this week.
People who work in the industry expect to see smaller crews, regular testing, hand sanitizer everywhere and the use of computer-generated imagery to create big crowds on screen when work resumes.
‘Village of staff’
Writer-director Tyler Perry has taken the lead on getting cameras rolling again, announcing plans to begin shooting two BET television series on July 8 at his studio complex in Atlanta.
Perry’s 330-acre self-contained lot offers housing where people can be isolated to help prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes a sometimes fatal respiratory illness called COVID-19.
In a 31-page outline, Perry said “it took a village of staff, medical doctors, epidemiologists, lawyers, union reps, talent and their reps, crew members, insurers, and a lot of other great thinkers” to develop safeguards.
One was Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious diseases expert at Emory University, who said he advised that all cast and crew be tested at the start and at least once during the two weeks they remain sequestered for a shoot.
Del Rio also made recommendations on hygiene and other protections, though he noted nothing offers a 100% guarantee.
“It may fail” to keep coronavirus completely out of the set, he said. “But I think it’s also not feasible to say we’re going to wait until the virus goes away, or we have a vaccine, because then we might as well not work for the next two years.”
Unions representing actors and set employees, including SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Directors Guild of America, have hired experts from Harvard and the University of California to help develop guidelines.
All are looking to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is taking input from labor and industry representatives and said he is aiming to release protocols for film and TV shoots as early as this week.
Actors are watching closely. Actress Anna Kendrick, in an interview promoting her HBO Max series “Love Life,” said some ideas she’s heard sound like they’re from “somebody who’s never been on a film set.”
“In my experience people on film sets, as opposed to people in an airport, we all know we’re on the same team, we’re all just trying to keep each other safe,” she said. “I think it can be done, but I haven’t seen super great solutions yet.”
Handling the coronavirus is complicated in television because many workers are freelancers, said Dr. Paul Litchfield, an occupational physician, who helped develop guidelines for TV networks in Britain.
“People are moving in and out of your bubble to other productions with other companies,” he said. “So it’s making sure that the guidance is consistent across (TV) companies.”