As Hollywood heads back into production, some are finding prohibitive costs for ensuring Covid-19 safety. New service companies are stepping up to fill the need for reasonably priced, fast testing of crew and casts.
Nearly a year into the pandemic, the field is increasingly crowded as productions of all sizes look to comply with protocols, keep sets safe and contain risk.
“We learned working with some of our other clients that there is a tremendous amount of misinformation and confusion in the testing marketplace. Lots of companies are selling tests, but aren’t sure what their constituencies need,” said Josh Brammer, co-founder and CEO of TNG Dx, a young firm that is starting an entertainment division, looking to expand beyond an established niche in senior and assisted living where it serves over 1,000 facilities.
TNG launched in August, partnering with Premier Medical Laboratory Services in Greenville, SC. The lab understood SAG requirements, Brammer said, having already cut its teeth in entertainment on the set of Gerard Butler police thriller CopShop in Atlanta working with a local company, Personalized Health Solutions. TNG Dx, based in New York, has larger-scale, end-to-end national services in mind and recently banked its first showbiz project — Covid testing for an independent film in Los Angeles (that Brammer said preferred not to be named).
TNG charged $60 a test — well below the going rate that, according to him and others, is about $150 a pop.
“It was a six-week shoot. They had 23 crew members getting tested at least three time a week for about $150 per test. It was about 12% of the production budget. We came up with an offer of less than half of that,” he said.
TNG Dx ships collection material via UPS. It provides remote training, consulting, test strategy, pickup, results reporting, support and “documenting processes if someone does test positive,” Brammer said. Tests have a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time. The firm offers guidance from its chief science advisor Dr. Meghan Lockard and has been collaborating with the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to innovate on Covid-19 testing protocols to accelerate turnaround.
Brammer called the $60 a kind of pilot rate, TNG’s market price will be $70 a test. It hopes to eventually knock that below $50 with economy of scale and tech advances.
“The [high] price of testing provided an opportunity,” he said.
Albuquerque, NM-based VIP StarNetwork began offering Covid-19 services to film studios in July, working with streamers Netflix, Amazon and others. It already had industry relationships dating back several years from a business that offers boutique health care for cast members shooting out of state away from their usual providers.
The company has mobile labs that travel from set to set and process tests in a matter of hours — which can be a costlier proposition. VIP StarNetworks founding CEO Johonniuss Chemweno estimates its Covid services account for 5%-20% of a production’s budget depending on shooting time, production size and number of locations.
On the flip side — “If a whole group of people become sick, that is [also] very expensive,” said Demerie Danielson, a Covid compliance officer for the company in New Mexico.
She’s worked on productions including The Harder They Fall, Messiah, Army of the Dead and Outer Range. The firm’s four compliance officers are also serving productions in New York, Georgia and Arizona, and were working in California before much production stalled in the latest Covid surge.
Unscripted TV producer Franco Porporino (American Chopper) launched a company in October focused around a certification program for Covid-19 compliance officers, but rather quickly shifted strategy. “The business model changed, because despite needing officers, the biggest aspect was actually testing,” he said. He teamed with a local nursing company that provides on-site testing tailored to production budgets with same-day results. He works mostly with New York-area productions and said he now has about 20 clients.
“Everyone is trying to do it… There is a huge market, a huge demand,” he said.
No one sees it tapering off anytime soon. The vaccine rollout got off to a slow start. New Covid strains have emerged. While experts are hopeful normalcy will return in the summer or fall, the virus and safety measures surrounding it are likely to linger.
Meanwhile, traditional labs are backed up. “It’s impossible for them to keep up with the volume,” Porporino said. “Everyone is trying to jump into entertainment — because they know that entertainment companies have big Covid budgets.”