Reopening Hollywood: NYC Film Commissioner Anne del Castillo Calls August “Safe Bet” For Production Restart

Editors’ Note: Deadline’s Reopening Hollywood series focuses on the complicated effort to get the industry back on its feet while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. Our goal is to examine numerous sides of the business and provide a forum for leaders in Hollywood who have a vision for how production could safely restart in the era of coronavirus

As much of the U.S. is buffeted by a new wave of COVID-19 cases, New York, once the epicenter of the global pandemic, appears to have the situation in hand after opting for a slower reopening than other states. Densely populated New York City’s return to business as usual is the slowest in the state. As the city entered Phase 3 on Monday, Anne del Castillo, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, talks about NYC’s production reopening timetable, starting small, and being cautious. “The world is watching,” she said.

DEADLINE: When do you see NYC production really restarting, and how? Some had hoped for July.

ANNE DEL CASTILLO: If you asked me that a week ago I might have been more comfortable. But it is already July. August is a safe bet. I think people will really understand the need to protect crews. To shoot in a more controlled environment to begin with. We are in touch with industry stakeholders every day. We’ve been having ongoing conversations since the shutdown about what production will look like. We have been looking for guidance from state and city health officials. It’s interesting … there was this big push. ‘We are going to come back.’ [But] I’ve consistently told people it will have to start small, and that has been born out.

The industry guidance [from guilds and unions] is pretty broad. There are state guidelines. But within that, differences. New York City and Albany are very different. We don’t set health requirements. You guys have to figure out how you want to do business. Our agency is responsible to make sure you are following the laws. You have to follow protocols. We have make sure they are in adherence with the city and state for public health and safety. But we can’t tell you how to organize the shoot.

Production was not even supposed to come back until Phase 4. My team early on was already making plans for what would it look like with a skeleton crew. They decided to move up some pre- and post-production. Then gave permission [for shooting] with a 10-person limit. We were ready. On June 23, in Phase 2, my office opened [for the first time since COVID-19] to accept permit requests for location shooting starting July 1. It’s only gotten a handful because the [10 person] limit is restrictive. We have some pickups, little scenes, commercials. A mixed bag. The bigger productions are just trying to figure out how to organize. Because this is a completely different way of thinking about how this industry, where people are normally on top of each other, can work.

Phase 3 is 25 people. We’ve started accepting applications but can’t start filming until July 17. Not much else is different. Parking is still limited, but in most things it will look similar to Phase 2. For Phase 4, there’s no number specified, but the limit is 50% of official capacity on stages. And outdoors it will be hard for us to have big numbers … with open streets and outdoor dining.

DEADLINE: You noted the different layers of rules and protocols. Is it as complicated as it seems?

DEL CASTILLO: People just have to understand what they have to do. There are six kinds of production activities: pre- and post-production, scouting, office work, construction and principal photography. There’s different kinds of guidance [for each]. Before they can get [permission] they need a safety plan. They have to affirm they have it and post it and provide it on inspection. It’s a rigorous process.

It makes sense when you are actually applying for the actual activity that you are doing. For rigging, you have a construction permit. For office work, you follow office guidance. Makeup will fall under personal services guidance. It’s logical. As we come out of the Phase 3 piece, we are trying to make it as clear as possible in our material, in weekly newsletters. Trying to outline exactly where people need to go [for information]. What’s been a little bit [hard is] the rate at which the guidance comes. For Phase 2, we [got the outline of what was allowed] on June 2, but no indication of the day when it was rolling out. They [the state] announced Phase 2 two days before it happened.

DEADLINE: Does MOME have an enforcement role?

Blue Bloods
“Blue Bloods” Craig Blankenhorn/CBS

DEL CASTILLO: We have our own field representatives to make sure productions are compliant with existing code of conduct and a dedicated unit at the NYPD that specializes in movie production. It’s called the NYPD Movie TV Unit. They help in crafting the guidance for the film office, and we will be sending them out. The TV unit went out yesterday to look at a first shoot that was filming to make sure that they were following the rules. The NYPD unit has been around since the beginning of the office. It helps if you have characters in uniform or firearm props like in Blue Bloods. It runs the gamut. If you need to do street closures, you need a police presence. I wish we had more of them. It’s hard to pull someone off a precinct and onto a set. We will be monitoring to make sure everyone is safe.

But no one wants to get sick no one wants to shut down so they will be pretty strict about their own guidelines when get back. They know the world is watching. The attention is going to ensure pretty strong enforcement. For the very small productions it’s different. But when it gets to bigger productions, even indies, a lot will adapt to the recommendations.

DEADLINE: What were things like in March when production shut down?

DEL CASTILLO: It was booming. We were in the process of figuring out how to better manage all of the production we had going, to reimagine the process. We were looking at 80 shows that would be filming it the city and still had 300 films running from shorts to features for the year. At the time of the shutdown… It is weird to look at things in hindsight, it was a time of uncertainty and some people were catching on faster than others and making calculations even before New York went on pause. We were already starting to see film production go on pause. Some were shooting last episodes of the season or were at a place where they could make a logical break. People thought we would be down for two to four weeks, not such a big deal. We might have had 30 or so productions going at the time at the stop but they were shutting down on their own and we felt we needed to start to reduce numbers of people gathering. We were asking, ‘Can you do it with this number?’ We [had already] started to reduce the number of people gathering. [Which was fortunate because suddenly] the number of people [allowed to gather] went from 250 to 50 in three days. We have open lines with productions. No one was surprised. Everyone saw the writing on the wall.

DEADLINE: NYC has transformed itself from pandemic central to leading the nation in controlling the virus, while new infections are surging in other cities like Los Angeles.

DEL CASTILLO: To me it feels like the consistent measured approach that we’ve taken. Like we put the kibosh on indoor dining, [figuring it was] better to do it before everyone has invested time and money into a restart. We have been super thoughtful about how we are rolling things out.

I told them [productions], ‘No it will be really small.’ And I always said, ‘You are going to thank me, because I want to make sure that once production starts going we can go on a forward trajectory and not stop in the middle.’

We [NYC] started the manufacture of our own PPE because Governor Cuomo said from the beginning, during the shutdown, that there wasn’t enough. Our colleagues at the Economic Development Corp. transformed the Brooklyn Navy Yard into a medical equipment operation, making masks and gowns. It got that up in four weeks. I think all of that speak to a preparedness and a thoughtfulness.

I feel bad for what I have seen happening there [in LA]. People were saying, ‘L.A. is opening, why can’t you reopen?’ And now they have had to slow it down a bit. Even though there is this idea of competition [between the cities], I think we all want everyone to work and want all creatives to continue to create. So I just feel for what’s happening in other parts of the country and am just really glad we have been able to manage that the way we have… I am happy to see people back to work and taking public safety and health very seriously and being very cautious about how they are approaching reopening. New Yorkers and New York have done a pretty damn good job of protecting each other and ourselves as we move into the restart and I am very hopeful. There are a lot of folks that want to come back I will be happy to see our Made in New York productions back in action.

(This interview was edited for clarity)

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