For weeks, ABC/Sony Pictures TV’s medical drama The Good Doctor looked like the show that would restart U.S. series production in Vancouver, leading the way out of the coronavirus-related shutdown. The cast flew in and started a mandatory two-week self-quarantine, and the series entered pre-production, targeting the week of Aug. 10 to begin filming. Then last Friday, July 31, the entire crew was laid off and pre-production was put on hold.
The drastic measure was the culmination to an escalating standoff over COVID-19 safety protocols related to testing. It is being closely monitored by other studios as it could have potential implications for the more than 30 TV series that shot in Hollywood North, with a dozen or so eying to start production there by end of August.
For almost two months now, the U.S. studios have been unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a safety protocols agreement with the major Hollywood unions. The frequency of testing has been a major issue, with the unions pushing for more frequent testing than what the studios consider feasible.
Ironically, the situation is reversed in Vancouver, with Sony TV (and other studios) insisting on rigorous testing and the local unions pushing back, calling for far more limited testing of the crews they represent.
Their request is not arbitrary, it stems from the current guidelines in British Columbia, a province that has been widely praised for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic with 3,834 total cases and 195 deaths to date on a population of 5+ million. The number of hospitalizations recently dropped to 5.
Citing the relatively low number of case and causalities from coronavirus in the Vancouver since the pandemic began, local authorities and entities want less testing. In fact, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer in BC, recently said “right now, in our communities with the rates of transmission that we have, just randomly testing people with no symptoms is not really a benefit.”
Meanwhile, the current SAG-AFTRA guidelines in the U.S., which are followed by any shows that have started production amid the pandemic, call for actors to be tested three times a week and the crew once a week. I hear that is what Sony TV had been planning to do on The Good Doctor before BC Council of Film Unions, which is made up of IATSE, Teamsters and International Cinematographers Guild locals, and various actors’ unions, balked at the idea.
The Good Doctor, as well as most other series filmed in Vancouver, feature mostly American casts (and some overseas actors like The Good Doctor star Freddie Highmore), who are represented by SAG-AFTRA. Most crews working in Vancouver, including the laid-off Good Doctor one, are local, represented by BC Council of Film Unions.
That creates a conflict between SAG-AFTRA’s rules, which require crew members to be tested weekly for the safety of its actor members, and the BC Council, which does not want its crew members going through invasive testing every week. In addition to the very low numbers of COVID cases, the BC union’s arguments reportedly include the fact that everyone on set is obligated to wear a mask and everyone flying into Vancouver, including all actors and creatives, is mandated to undergo a two-week self-isolation.
This conflict had been brewing for weeks until it came to a head late last week when pre-production on The Good Doctor was suspended and the crew was let go. (According to sources, Sony TV plans to rehire the staffers once the show resumes pre-production.)
Neither side has been willing to budge. Sony TV is standing by the SAG-AFTRA safety guidelines designed to keep actors safe, which the studio has to follow in order to secure the guild’s blessing for its members to participate. BC Council, also has been firm, arguing that they have jurisdiction in Vancouver and set their own rules for production filming in British Columbia that suit best their members based on the local conditions.
There is another issue related to how the information from the testing would be handled and who would have access to it. Because of the large volume of testing that would be required, Hollywood studios have been planning to contract their own private labs. (Just a couple of show’s tests would exceed the number of test performed daily in the entire BC province, currently just over 1.5K a day.) There are concerns by Canadian officials and unions that BC privacy laws could be violated in the testing process as private companies are brought on-board and on-set.
As of now, pre-production on The Good Doctor is still down but all parties continue in talks to find a solution ASAP. “The American producers need to understand that we have our own guidelines and standards here and they can’t ride roughshod over them because of the COVID crisis in California,” a veteran industry local declared Wednesday.
A Sony Pictures Television spokesperson released a statement to Deadline about the situation: “There is an issue with COVID-19 testing, which we are working to resolve with the BC Council.” The relevant IATSE local in Vancouver had no comment on the issue of testing and The Good Doctor when contacted by Deadline.
Suggested procedures to restart production in Vancouver were announced by the B.C. Motion Picture Industry COVID-19 Best Practices Coalition in late June, though a more comprehensive self-described Pandemic Production Guide has yet to be released.
While Sony TV has been at the forefront, tackling the testing issue with the BC Council head-on because it was the first one to attempt a production restart in Canada, other studios and producers have been examining the issue for the past week or so and participating in the search for solutions as their shows would soon be in the stage The Good Doctor was in when it shut down. So far, most if not all that had set tentative start dates remain in early pre-production with plans to start filming contingent on the successful resolution of the standoff with BC Council. That includes shows like ABC/Disney’s A Million Little Things, Big Sky and Mighty Ducks, Warner Bros. TV’s Supernatural, The Flash and Superman & Lois, CBS TV Studios’ Charmed and Netflix’s Midnight Mass. We hear some series may have pushed their target start dates by a week or so but others are staying put for now.
TV executives we spoke with are optimistic that a compromise would be reached but noone would commit to projecting a timeline on when that may happen.
The longer the standoff lasts, the more Hollywood studios would sour on Vancouver as the go-to non-U.S. location for producing high-end series on a reasonable budget.
“They could end up losing work,” one producer said, noting that shows could start moving to the U.S. if the safety protocols on both sides of the border could not be synced-up.
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