EXCLUSIVE: When Covid vaccines became widely available in the U.S. a few months ago, studios, talent agencies, management companies, law offices and publicity firms optimistically embraced the notion that the offices shuttered 16 months ago would be filled with employees again right after Labor Day. Now that the Delta variant has created alarming numbers of virus cases in Los Angeles and beyond, a sampling by Deadline indicates that nearly everyone has put the brakes on their plans.
Said a principal from a major management firm: “Three or four weeks ago we re-opened with a summer schedule of three day weeks in the office, in person. We went back to virtual a week later. As the old adage goes, we made plans and God laughed.”
As the surge in positive Covid cases rages across Los Angeles even among the vaccinated, major agencies, studios and other Hollywood service businesses are trying to figure new plans for office re-openings. Most have scrapped September and are hoping to reassemble their troops sometime the following month. At CAA, for instance, sources said the hope now is to reopen mid-October, at least for those employees who’ve been vaccinated. That is another thing Hollywood is struggling with — whether to abide the notion that vaccination should be a personal choice.
Too many TV shows that went back to work are seeing work stoppages due to Covid cases for anyone to be comfortable with treating vaccinations like elective surgery. Sean Penn still hasn’t returned to work on Gaslit, the UPC-produced Watergate series for Starz, after, as Deadline revealed, he insisted that everyone on the production be vaccinated, even though studios and unions agreed to only impose the vaccination rule on those in closest proximity to actors and directors. Such resistance by stars with clout — Penn is vaccinated but feels strongly on the issue after his CORE spent the better part of 16 months administering tests and vaccines to L.A. and other cities — might well grow and press the vaccination issue even more.
This leaves Hollywood to grapple with myriad dilemmas, including how long to keep dealmakers and support staff working remotely from home while continuing to pay big rents on posh and empty Hollywood headquarters. This past weekend saw another rise in cases as the county reported another 3,045 new positive cases on Sunday and five new deaths.
CAA said it hasn’t set a return date in stone, targeting mid-October instead of September. Similarly, LBI Management also informed its employees in an email today that there’s no longer a mandate to return to work in mid-September “out of an abundance of caution,” that the new date could easily be in October. LBI will provide another update to employees in mid-September.
This morning, Sony Pictures Entertainment was among the first of the major studios to push their staffers’ return from the week of September 7 to early-or mid-October as they continue to assess the Delta variant situation. in a note from SPE chairman Tony Vinciquerra, he reiterated that employees who return have the option to work a flexible work week (meaning three days in the office) until the end of the year.
WME did go through with an office opening on July 7. Following the surge, the agency closed on July 12. The agency has gone back to the drawing board to figure out when to reopen again. APA had a soft opening on July 6 for employees who were fully vaccinated and wanted to return to in-person work voluntarily, but it hasn’t decided on a mandatory return date. ICM Partners and Paradigm have also not figured out definitive return dates.
On June 15, UTA was the first major agency to open its Los Angeles office. Now they are still allowing staff to make the choice of coming in, offering an opt-in or opt-out prior to the beginning of the month and also asking how many days they believe they will be in. If you opt in, the agency is requiring all staff to be fully vaccinated or stay home. About 50% have opted in so far, choosing to come back. That doesn’t necessarily reflect the number of vaccinated employees, which is likely higher, just the number of returnees. No visitors are allowed at this time. Since opening, the only big change following the surge is all staff must wear a mask indoors aligning with the city mask mandate.
Besides mandatory returns, vaccine requirements are also being worked out. Most want their staffs jabbed, with the exception being those who cite religious reasons or health risks as reason to steer clear of the Covid shots. For those working in the office voluntarily, CAA requires a mask and proof of vaccination, something that will remain in place if the October re-opening date sticks. WME is also in alignment with California Gov. Newsom’s guidance, asking those that come to the office be vaccinated barring religious/personal exemptions. The vaccination requirement isn’t new by any means: studios are already asking for proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test within 24 hours for entrance to mass events like The Suicide Squad premiere in Westwood tonight. They want positive word of mouth, not a super spreader event.
Employees at Management 360, we hear, are almost 100% vaccinated and the firm has been allowing staff to work from the office electively, with strict protocols. Like many talent rep firms, Management 360 has adapted well to working from home and via digital gatherings. Brillstein Entertainment Partners is also mandating a vaccination requirement, not a tall order because all employees have been vaccinated. BEP is still figuring out when to return as is 3 Arts, which is still mulling vaccinations but will likely insist upon them and, at the least, will require the unvaccinated to wear masks. Range Media Partners has not figured out a return-to-work plan but its challenge is different from the rest: the upstart company formed during the pandemic, and they are still figuring out what office space dealmakers will occupy.
A majority of the studios Deadline reached out to today remain in a wait-and-see mode in regards to pushing their return-to-work for staffers later in the year.
Not all have a hard-and-fast rule on mandating vaccinations. Disney announced Friday it has made such a requirement moving forward for all salaried and non-union hourly employees. Some Disney employees have returned to the Burbank, CA lot, which was part of their gradual plan. It has yet to be determined when the remainder will do so. Sony will not — at least at this point — enforce mandatory vaccinations upon its returning staff.
Similar to Disney, Universal is continuing with a voluntary summer soft return for staffers as the studio follows local and industry protocols. NBCUniversal saw a small number of hands-on production and operations staff come back to work on June 15, as Deadline first reported.
Warner Bros continues to eye an early September return at the time of this article, and has not disclosed what its Covid vaccination policy will be. Dune and Godzilla studio-financier Legendary is also looking to return in September, but it all depends on where the science stands and employee safety. Netflix hasn’t publicly announced return-to-work plans, though it has been buzzed that it’s September. Last week, Netflix announced a vaccine requirement for cast and crew members on its productions.
Just as post-Labor Day re-openings were dashed, all of these plans will be altered if the pandemic continues to rage because there are so many new Covid cases, attributed to many choosing not to get the shots. The number of new Covid-related cases reported in Los Angeles County rose 80% last week. There were 1,996 reported in the county last Monday, July 26. By Friday, that number had hit 3,606.
The rise was driven by a more than fivefold rise in case rates among white residents of L.A., from 18 per 100,000 on June 19 to 83 per 100,000 on July 17. That’s compared with a fourfold increase among the county’s Black and Asian populations and a nearly threefold increase among Latino residents.
What’s more, the increases, according to Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, have been in more affluent, industry-heavy communities on the West Side including Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Beverly Crest and Venice, as well as studio-adjacent neighborhoods such as Studio City, Sherman Oaks and Encino. The winter surge was driven by higher case rates in Central L.A. Not so this time around.
The current rise is alarmingly similar to the spike last spring in L.A. County, which topped out at 3,254 cases on July 20, 2020. But this spike began at a higher level, has already surpassed last spring’s peak and shows no signs of slowing down soon.
Tom Tapp contributed to this report.