LOS ANGELES • When veteran Hollywood actor Gregg Daniel was offered an audition for a new movie in Los Angeles, he nearly did not show up – the pandemic was well under way and “no one was shooting”.
“I almost hesitated even going to the audition,” he said. “I’m African-American, I’m over 50, and disproportionately, black people were dying of Covid-19, but the script was so good and I’m an actor at heart.”
Fast forward to today and Daniel has completed boxing drama 7th & Union, filmed in the streets of the eerily quiet Californian entertainment capital.
Thanks to relentless testing, on-set “Covid-19 officers”, sanitation stations and enforced social distancing between takes, “everything went smoothly” and safely, said executive producer Jolene Rodriguez.
Yet it is one of just a handful of film productions to resume in Hollywood since Governor Gavin Newsom gave the green light back in June. Health fears, uncertainty and a second wave of coronavirus cases have meant few movie producers braving a return so far – with some heading elsewhere or even overseas.
No state in the United States has suffered more than California, which has so far recorded more than 620,000 coronavirus cases, including more than 11,000 deaths.
The main hold-up for movie studios is talks between employers and unions to agree on a new set of standard, industry-wide safety protocols.
“We’ve been working on it for many, many weeks. There are a lot of complicated issues,” said Mr Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief operating officer of actors guild SAG-Aftra, which has joined forces with Hollywood’s directors, technicians and Teamsters unions.
Among discussions are daily testing for actors performing “the more dangerous work from a Covid-19 perspective”, such as intimate sex or fight scenes.
Once negotiations are completed – a deal is expected by next month – the major problem of coronavirus insurance persists. The cost of restarting a production only to shut down again due to an outbreak is so high that insurers are excluding Covid-19-related claims from new policies.
For now, the trickle of film productions going ahead needs to be approved by unions on a case-by-case basis. A “cottage industry of boutique testing companies” have sprung up to service film sets that cannot afford in-house testing, said Mr Crabtree-Ireland.
Meanwhile, producers have learnt to be creative about filming locations, with busy public areas not feasible, said FilmLA president Paul Audley. “Writers are really clever – so we know some of the shows may be writing for areas that are more isolated, like an industrial area.”
Another far riskier approach has sprung up – filming without permission at all.
“Right now, the No. 1 complaint that we’ve had on the books is for illegal filming,” said Mr Audley, adding that coronavirus-wary Los Angeles residents are more vigilant than ever in reporting guerrilla shoots.
Still, despite the growth of other filming hubs, such as the state of Georgia – where mogul Tyler Perry has set up a self-contained, 133ha production “campus” – many film-makers appear determined to remain in Los Angeles.
“Our members prefer to work close to home and I think especially in times of uncertainty like this, they feel more comfortable,” said Mr Crabtree-Ireland. “In terms of what the prospects for Los Angeles are, I wouldn’t suggest anyone should count LA out.”
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