Reopening Hollywood: NBCUniversal Begins Return To Work On The Lot, Tests COVID-19 Production Protocols

Dominic Patten/Deadline

EXCLUSIVE: More than three months after Hollywood came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, NBCUniversal has begun a cautious return to work.

Drawing from a comprehensive plan initiated mere days after its 400-acre Los Angeles facility shut down March 13 as well as the latest government guidelines, the Comcast-owned company this week began an incremental reopening for employees at its headquarters just off the 101 Freeway, according to internal documents obtained by Deadline.

NBCU did not comment about the return-to-work program when contacted by Deadline, but as the internal documents outline, the stages, workspaces and other physical areas of the studio have been substantially transformed with a fortified safety-first approach. In that process, NBCU saw a small number of hands-on production and operations staff return to work June 15.

Entering a now very different environment of social distancing, mandatory face masks, sanitizing stations, revamped floor plans and app-based lunch orders, returning employees joined security and news bureau staff who had remained at their posts over the past several weeks.

“Employees were identified based on their role being core to production and operations and are doing jobs that are more challenging to be performed remotely,” an NBCUniversal memo noted about who would be coming back to the lot this week, with an emphasis on people who needed to actually touch things like camera equipment and sets.

To that end, NBCU ran a production-resumption exercise on the backlot on June 12. Including the direct participation of corporate production executives, the drill brought together about 25 individuals as the cast and crew on an imaginary scripted series to pressure-test safety protocols and possible worst-cases scenarios. (For those checking your calendars, yes, June 12 was the same day recently released government guidelines gave the OK for Tinseltown to return to set, at least in theory.)

Putting theory to the test and with each volunteer of the so-called show wearing T-shirts announcing their role (ACTOR for the actors, for instance), the drill ran through a daily check-in process, coronavirus and temperature testing, catering, mic tests and the shooting of an actual scene under the conditions. In practical terms, with the early summer months usually set aside for prep, NBCU has seen the likes of America’s Got Talent, Superstore and The Voice shooting on its lot later in the season the past few years.

In that vein, utilizing measures suggested by the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force’s white paper and others, the mock production also dealt with the dangers of the surprise introduction of a piece of equipment on site that hadn’t been sanitized, and a crew or cast member developing a fever, I’m told.

All employees who entered the lot this past week were also given a self-described Welcome Back Pack after their temperature checks. It contains two masks and two bottles of hand sanitizer (both made in-house); a hotel-like door hang for housekeeping to clean or not clean a room or area; mini-sanitizers; and a multi-purpose tool designed to avoid direct contact with surfaces, handles and elevator buttons.

Coordinated the studio’s Facilities and Administration department, NBCU decided to manufacture its own COVID-19 protection materials after experiencing too many unreliable deliveries. Senior leadership were also concerned that their requirements could possibly take away much needed resources from frontline healthcare worker and other first responders.

Consequently, with the added bonus of keeping staff on the job, the F&A unit quickly repurposed its workrooms and jet printers into an assembly line of sort on a variety of products. The result is that 19,000 masks are been sewn, more than 2,000 gallons of the 75% alcohol sanitizer has been shipped to NBCU locations in the Tri-State area and Florida and over 2,000 copies of the multi-purpose tool have been delivered to NYC facilities as well as those designed for West Coast use, sources confirm.

Among the applications for the tool is to push elevator buttons, a potential contagion hot spot. For the foreseeable future, usually crowded elevators and dining areas at the Universal City location will be distinctly pared down under social distancing orders.

As you can see in the photo to the left, elevators will now only accommodate two riders at a time with indicated positions to keep them as far apart as possible. Additionally, hundreds of bathroom doors at the facility have been outfitted with a specially constructed lower door clip that allows entrance without employees having to touch a potentially tainted handle.

Also, the company has repurposed its Thrive hospitality app to accommodate staff to cut down on the congestion of lunchtime, even with a spattering of staff on-site presently. Employees can now pre-order their meals from the commissary via the app, receive a notice when said meal is ready and pick up a specified bag with their name on it – streamlining the process for safety at almost all points. Once employees have their meal, they will be noticeably separated if they choice to eat in the public dining area – as the signage in the photo below shows.

Currently, according to individuals familiar with planning at the Jeff Shell-run company, the vast majority of the 10,000 staffers who usually work at NBCU’s West Coast complex will continue to do their jobs remotely for the time being. There are no imminent efforts to bring more than a couple of hundred people back to the lot. At the same time,  I hear there are hopes that the adjacent Universal Studios Theme Park will reopening later this summer – with a July date optimistically anticipated.

Overseen by the company’s Business Continuity and Crisis Management teams, the NBCU return strategy was put together in remote collaboration with 30 Rock in NYC, the DreamWorks campus in Glendale, the NBC Sports Network offices in New Jersey and the Miami-based Telemundo – all of whom have their own reentry schedules.

Of course, even as confirmed cases of COVID-19 are spiking again in LA County, NBCU isn’t the only studio out here in Hollywood moving forward to get back to business. Fox, nearby Warner Bros and many others are also significantly engaged in their own plans and protocols, I hear.

However, as you can see from the detailed material Deadline has acquired, the home of the Fast & Furious franchise is well on the road to reopening.

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