Over the last couple of months, the Hollywood studios successfully negotiated new collective bargaining agreements with the major guilds. But hammering out industrywide safety protocols for film and TV production during the coronavirus pandemic is proving hard to reach a consensus on.
It’s been five weeks since the Hollywood unions and guilds on June 12 released their White Paper of detailed safety guidelines that was to serve as a starting point and a blueprint in the negotiations with studios. After weeks of talks, progress has been made but there are still multiple outstanding issues that are proving difficult to overcome, which is further delaying the start of production even in locations where the pandemic is largely under control, like British Columbia, New Zealand, Hawaii, as well as New York, which today allowed film and TV production to resume.
Despite the slow progress, indie studios like Sony Pictures TV and Lionsgate have been actively planning for production restarts contingent on a union agreement, with Sony TV setting tentative early-mid August start dates for such series as The Good Doctor (Aug. 4), S.W.A.T. (Aug. 4) and The Goldbergs (Aug 17), I hear. Additionally, the CW/WBTV’s Supernatural is gearing up to finish its final three episodes.
Main obstacles to a deal between the studios and the unions include testing, the status of COVID on-set coordinators and should crew members who test positive be paid, I hear.
As Deadline reported last month, testing quickly emerged as a major sticking point in the negotiations, which I hear has not been resolved yet. The issue is not whether to test or not but has to do with the frequency and type of testing. For now, the nasal swab test remains the most accurate, but it also is the most invasive. While daytime dramas The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless resumed production with twice-a-week testing for the cast and those who interact with them, I hear the unions are pushing for daily testing for the main cast and those around them in the overall studio agreement.
Besides the level of discomfort daily nasal swab tests would cause, a much bigger issue is how quickly and accurately any tests could be processed. California, along with other states, is experiencing a surge of new infections, resulting in more tests being done and sent to labs, which could cause backlog.
Tyler Perry’s Sistas this week had to push its start of shooting by a day because overwhelmed labs in Atlanta could not process the tests of the cast and crew quickly enough. Additionally, the incubation period for the coronavirus is 5 days on average and as long as 14 days, so a cast or a crew member could produce multiple negative tests and still be infected, making testing a treacherous area that is hard to navigate.
Like testing, appointing a special COVID/health coordinator on every set to ensure that safety guidelines are followed was among the first ideas that people in the industry got behind. And like with testing, the disagreement is over the fine print. I hear it involves whether the coordinator should be a union member — something the guilds are insisting on — or not.
Given the current stage of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., with new cases breaking records almost daily, it seems inevitable that occasional crew and cast members would test positive despite all precautions. Which leads to another major issue — who will be responsible if that happens. I hear the unions want a quarantine triggered by a positive COVID test to be treated like paid sick leave. Meanwhile, I hear studios are arguing that if someone tests positive at the start of a shoot, they should be disqualified and a temporary replacement is hired in their place. Otherwise, studios would be paying double for a job — both to the infected staffer and their substitute, which could become a major financial issue if it impacts multiple employees on multiple productions. This is a complicated casus from financial, medical, legal — and human – perspective.
While negotiations with the unions are going on, TV studios had been cautiously planning production restarts so they are ready when an agreement is struck. Most major studios have been eying August for production to potentially resume, with the moving target currently focused on late-August and early September. Indie studios, like Sony TV and Lionsgate TV, have been in the lead of the pack with more concrete plans.
Sony TV is coming off a successful first week back for The Young and the Restless, which was completed with no incidents. I hear some actors from its ABC medical drama The Good Doctor are already in Vancouver ahead of a potential Aug. 4 Season 4 start. (British Columbia, where Vancouver is located, requires two-week self-quarantine for anyone arriving there for essential work, including film and TV production.)
For S.W.A.T., which films in Los Angeles, and just moved from midseason to CBS’ fall schedule, I hear cast and crew would get tested July 22 for a potential Aug. 4 start; ABC comedy series The Goldbergs, which films on the Sony lot, is currently eying Aug 17 start. Additionally, the studio’s veteran drama The Blacklist, which shoots in New York, is looking at an August start. NYC on Monday starts Phase 4 of reopening, allowing film and TV production to ramp up. All four Sony TV shows are on the fall broadcast schedule, giving their production more urgency.
Also on the fall schedule is the final chapter of the CW/WBTV’s Supernatural, which is three episodes short. I hear some Supernatural cast members also are already in Vancouver, with the main stars expected to head there next week to self-isolate ahead of a potential August shoot.
If a union agreement on safety protocols is reached in the next couple of weeks, a handful of other Vancouver-based broadcast series, including ABC’s A Million Little Things, could start production in August joined by a bigger contingent in September. The Hawaii-based Magnum P.I. also continues to look promising given the current conditions in the 50th state.