EXCLUSIVE: “Everything is on the table”, says British Film Commission and Film London CEO Adrian Wootton about the manual being drawn up to help kick-start production in the UK post-lockdown.
Industry vet Wootton is leading the UK’s Inward Investment Recovery Group, which is co-ordinating a widespread consultation with producers, studios, streamers, unions and industry bodies about how they can safely get back to work once Covid-19 restrictions ease.
The working group, which is oriented toward high-end film and TV drama, is one of a handful of units set up by the BFI to tackle the fallout from coronavirus. There are also groups for exhibition and distribution (led by the CEA and FDA), domestic broadcasters (led by PACT chief executive John McVay) and independent film (led by BFI CEO Ben Roberts).
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The Inward Investment Group, which itself has legal and VFX/post-production sub-divisions, is working “intensely” with the BFI on getting UK cameras rolling again. The outreach includes all the U.S. studios, including Netflix and Amazon, and UK hubs such as Pinewood and Warner Bros. Leavesden.
Wootton explains, “Our intention is to produce a robust code of practice and protocols, covering best practice on set, insurance, risk, liability, medical advice, travel and more. The manual will help us build our argument to government that we have a recovery plan and can get back to work.”
The hustle is understandable. Billions of dollars are at stake. Last year, production spend in the UK surged to $4.7BN (£3.6BN), a 16% increase on the previous record. Hit shows such as The Crown, His Dark Materials and Killing Eve, and movies including No Time To Die and Venom 2, helped supercharge the business. Netflix signed a long-term deal to make Shepperton its de facto UK production hub and Disney entered a similar deal at Pinewood. The content created at those and other UK hubs then dominated at the box office and online. This year, however, those numbers will plummet. Production has stopped across the country – The Batman, The Little Mermaid, Fantastic Beasts 3, The Witcher and Sex Education are among impacted films and series – and cinemas are closed.
Wootton is hopeful that the consultation for the guidelines can be completed within weeks. Once they are drawn up, they will be vetted by UK health authorities. In an ideal world, he says production might begin again in a matter of months, though the UK government has yet to announce any exit plans from the lockdown.
“We’d love to think that shooting might start again in mid-summer but that is completely out of our hands. That is up to the government’s lockdown policies. I want to get us to a position to be able to make the request. The government is listening. They are asking for recovery plans.”
In recent weeks, there have been examples of production getting back underway in Asia and Scandinavia.
“We’re looking at every example we can find of where people are developing protocols,” says Wootton. “Whether it’s the U.S., Scandinavia, Australia or the domestic UK broadcasters who are working on news and current affairs programs. Work is happening on a daily basis.”
What will the manual cover when it comes to on-set practice? “Contact, cleansing, volume of people on and off set, protective equipment, travel…everything will be covered,” says the former London Film Festival director and one-time acting BFI head. It will likely be available to download online once ready, he adds.
Crew will want assurances that the guidelines will be followed just as much as the employers. Will the protocols be legally enforceable? “We’re not policemen,” says Wootton. “We don’t have statutory powers. This is a series of best practice recommendations. But we have a business and legal sub division looking at liability and risk management. We want people to want to adopt these measures, which will fall within the law. We are working closely with the unions as well as the employers.”
Could studios look to adopt their own measures? “I’m sure each company will want to make amendments,” says Wootton. “But the studios are integral to our group. We are engaging everyone and we are hoping to have one guide that will work across the industry.”
Netflix chief Ted Sarandos said last week, “We’re currently in production in Iceland and in Korea, and we’re taking some of those key learnings about how we run those productions today and applying that to our plans to start our productions around the world.”
However, for local producers and the studios, it may be some time before things return to how they were. If ever.
“There are going to have to be modifications to the way film and TV shows are made,” Wootton admits. “There will be differences. It won’t just go back to normal in a few months. The government has said that social distancing will likely be in place until the end of the year. Producers we’ve spoken to are very aware of this.”
The traditional film and TV sectors are haemorrhaging money due to the pandemic. But Wootton is upbeat that the UK can bounce back.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. Everyone is relishing it because they want to get back to work. The UK was in a fantastic position before COVID-19. The demand for content on the streamers is going through the roof. My medium-term view is that the demand is going to be even greater for UK talent, infrastructure and content, but we’ve got to get back to work. That’s our fixation now.”
“We can help with the national recovery,” he continues. “We can employ a lot of people very quickly and generate income quickly. After 2008, the creative industry bounced back quickly and helped the economy. The creative economy grew at 9 percent last year compared to 3 percent for the economy as a whole. We helped keep the UK in the black. Our argument to government is that if you can help us get back to work, we can help UK PLC.
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