Life on a film set is hard enough, with personality clashes, squeezed budgets and last-minute script changes, but now Covid-19 has forced the industry to confront a far bigger existential problem: can the show really still go on?
This week the government gave the green light for filming to start again as long as production companies comply with physical-distancing guidelines, promising to work closely with the screen sector in order to “give confidence” that they can return to sets safely.
But British film and TV producers are concerned that the UK is “behind the curve” on developing guidance that combats the risk of Covid-19 on sets, with some predicting that filming on British-based dramas will not start until September or October at the earliest.
Production teams are awaiting new industry-wide guidance on how to work safely on sets from the British Film Commission (BFC), the national agency that has undertaken a consultation process asking figures from across the industry to give their feedback on new safe-working standards.
Andrew Eaton, who produced the first two seasons of The Crown and the Formula One film drama Rush, said countries such as Iceland and Sweden, where filming has already restarted, have been better at providing film and TV production teams with clear standards.
“It is real finger-in-the-air stuff at the moment,” said Eaton. “No one really knows until we start doing this what the practicalities are. The BFC is slightly behind the curve, we’ve already had guidelines from the Nordic countries, and from some studios in America.”
Eaton said September or October was being discussed privately as a realistic return date for productions, but that when they eventually do restart it will be in a dramatically different landscape. “If you’re working with an older actor, they might say, ‘I’m not happy to do intimate scenes,’” said Eaton. “ There are going to be moral issues about whether or not we are putting people at risk.”
Adrian Wootton, the BFC chief executive, said once the consultation is concluded on Friday the new procedures will be considered by Public Health England and if signed off they could work as a “roadmap” for studios and filmmakers. “We really have to get this done and get government supporting it before we flag up a false dawn by saying everyone is ready to go when they’re not,” he said.
“This is not a cosmetic exercise. We’re not saying, ‘Here’s a guidebook, you can carry on as you did before,’ because no one believes that is possible. It’s only going to be possible if there are adaptations,” he added.
Those moral questions are butting up against the economic reality for an industry where the majority of the workforce is freelance, and many do not qualify for government support schemes.
“There’s £1bn worth of mothballed production in the UK,” said Wootton. “What we want is to help start that up again because then thousands of people can get their jobs back and we can start generating really big amounts of revenue for the UK. We want to do that, but do it safely.”
Netflix, which has stopped all UK production, has started filming again in other countries, putting in place ad-hoc measures depending on location. In South Korea, where Netflix is filming two dramas, cast and crews regularly have their temperatures taken, and if anyone shows signs of infection, production is paused. In Iceland, where testing is more widely available, the whole cast and crew of the Scandi thriller Katla agreed to be tested before filming started.
The lack of testing availability in the UK is a key concern for producers, Eaton said. “If you’ve got the ability to test and continue monitoring people, it’s much easier to feel that people are safe and to control it.
“A lot of people I know are researching online how can we get access to test kits, some are looking into getting scanners to take people’s temperatures. I’m sure on bigger productions they’ll be investing in that kind of kit to keep people safe.”
Another issue is insurance. Eaton said there was a fear that if filming starts again and there is a Covid-19 outbreak on set, productions that are not sufficiently covered could be plunged into financial uncertainty. “If you start filming and your lead actor gets ill or has the symptoms, then you’d have to stop, and everyone who they’re in contact with would have to self-isolate.
“The worst thing that could happen is that someone starts filming soon and you get a case and that leads to more infections. If that happens, I’m sure they will close us all down again.”