TV Production Adapted to Weather the Pandemic. Now What?
The unions representing actors and crews are in talks with the studios about extending — and possibly changing — the safety protocols they agreed on in September.,
When it became clear early in the pandemic that it was safer to be outdoors than in, the creators of “Big Shot,” a new Disney+ series being made with John Stamos, started rewriting scenes so they could be shot outside. Then new guidance emerged, which underscored that loading a cast and crew into buses and dispatching them to sites all over Los Angeles posed its own risks. So they rewrote their scripts again so scenes could be shot on sets.
As the surging virus made in-person work risky, many actors sought jobs on animated shows they could voice from home. But work-from-home acting posed challenges, even for seasoned veterans: Members of “The Simpsons” cast recorded episodes from inside closets, under blankets and makeshift studios fashioned from pillow forts and dog beds.
And when the long-running police procedural “Law & Order: SVU” resumed shooting in New York this fall, it too changed with the times. Air filters would blast on set up until the moment someone yelled “Action!” There were fewer scenes shot on location, fewer costume changes, and fewer extras, since each one had to be tested for the coronavirus.
It has been a year of struggle and experimentation for the television industry, which has had to learn on the fly while trying to create new diversions for an unusually captive home audience. The work has not been without risk: After TV production restarted over the summer, it had to be halted at times when stars fell ill or the virus ran rampant; in Los Angeles there have been 23 outbreaks at television and film production sites since July, leading to 187 cases, according to county health data provided to The New York Times.
Now the unions representing cast and crew members have been in negotiations with the major studios to extend the return-to-work agreement they reached in September establishing safety protocols. Industry insiders said that they believe the current agreement, which expires as the end of the month, would simply be extended — with changes on the margins — in the short-term. But they also said that as the share of vaccinated Americans increases, studios could eventually require workers to get vaccinated, and seek to significantly lower the amount of required testing for some workers who are currently tested at least three times a week. Other aspects of the agreement could be overhauled as well.
But some changes could outlast the pandemic. Just as the nature of schooling and office work has been transformed as millions have learned to function remotely, television has adapted as well, with showrunners, actors and crews all forced to innovate, tweak and change.
“The pandemic accelerated our use of technology in a productive way and made things more efficient,” said Jaime Davila, the president of Campanario Entertainment in Los Angeles, which produced the Netflix show, “Selena: The Series.” Rather than visiting the set in person, Mr. Davila said that he ended up watching much of the production live through an online video setup — something that he realized will now let him more easily oversee multiple projects. “Technology allows me not to have to be there,” he said.
For much of the year, when theaters were closed and live performances banned, television was the only game in town for actors struggling to find work.
“Law & Order: SVU” has been appearing as a credit in stage actors’ Playbill biographies for many years, but once Broadway shut down it became an even more integral part of their work diet — in part because flying in stars was complicated by quarantine rules, and in part out of a conscious effort to help the New York theater community.
“When everything shut down, we were all like, ‘What are we going to do?'” said Adriane Lenox, a Tony Award winner who played a judge on “SVU” just months after testing positive for the virus early in the pandemic. Ms. Lenox, like many other actors, said she had to go on unemployment at one point and that she had tried to make ends meet by looking for jobs such as dog walking on websites like ZipRecruiter.
She was one of more than 100 local stage actors who were featured on the show this year, according to Warren Leight, its showrunner.
“I just made the call early on: ‘Let’s make this the year where the first pool of actors we go to is the Broadway actors, the off-Broadway actors,” he said. “It really does seem like the right thing to do. Logistically, it’s easier to hire locally.”
The effects of the pandemic have been felt most acutely in the cities like Los Angeles and New York, where, at least in prepandemic times, roughly two thirds of the country’s film, television and theatrical jobs were located. In New York City, for instance, officials have estimated that employment in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector fell by 66 percent from December 2019 to December 2020.
But there are signs of a rebound. By the end of last year, television shoot days in Los Angeles had recovered to roughly 62 percent of what they had been in 2019, according to FilmLA, the official film office for the city and county of Los Angeles. After taking a hiatus during the winter as an outbreak hobbled California, TV production in the city is approaching normal, prepandemic levels, FilmLA reported last week, even as other sectors of the entertainment industry lag behind.
In New York, officials said that about 40 television shows were either in production or about to begin shooting again — similar to where things stood before the March 2020 shutdown.
And in Georgia, which has become the nation’s third largest production hub, officials have said that the industry appears to be bouncing back from a pandemic decline that saw spending on film and television projects in the state drop from roughly $2.9 billion in the 2019 fiscal year to $2.2 billion in the 2020 fiscal year.
Still, production in the pandemic has come with higher costs. Television producers said that they have had to test several times each week, hire orange-vested “Covid officers” and bring on extra cleaning companies — all of which have ballooned budgets by as much as 15 percent. Eric Tomosunas, the head of Swirl Film, based in Atlanta, estimated that his company has administered close to 20,000 PCR tests since July.
Even with the safety protocols, there have been outbreaks at properties owned by CBS, NBC, Paramount, Warner Bros., Netflix and various other companies. (Los Angeles County defines an outbreak at a nonresidential setting as three or more laboratory-confirmed cases; the biggest outbreak it reported at a studio involved 26 cases on a Lionsgate production that was being shot at CBS Studio Center last December.)
But spokespeople for many of the networks and production companies say that they have taken extraordinary steps to keep their workers safe. Data from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers obtained by The New York Times showed that from September 2020 to the end of February, studios identified 1,884 cases after conducting more than 930,000 tests. There have not been any coronavirus outbreaks at a set or studio in Los Angeles County since February, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health said.
SAG-AFTRA, the television and film actors’ union, has worked with the Directors Guild, the Teamsters, other groups, and employers to establish safety protocols. The agreement, which could soon be extended, paved the way for many members to get back to work, with some pauses, as when SAG-AFTRA called for a “temporary hold on in-person production” in Southern California this winter when a surge threatened to overwhelm Los Angeles hospitals. (Unions have sometimes struggled to find a balance between keeping workers safe and helping them earn a living: some members of Actors’ Equity, which represents theater actors and stage managers, have complained that the union’s safety rules have made it too hard to find work.)
David White, the national executive director and chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA, said he believed they had found a safe way forward. “I feel like it was the right thing to do to press ahead, and I feel like this is a dramatic success story,” he said.
Much like companies grappling with questions about what the return to the office should look like, television executives are now having to decide which innovations of the pandemic are worth holding onto. Should they allow voice actors to keep working from home? Does a pitch meeting or even an audition absolutely have to be in person?
“American Idol” is now it its 19th season, and for 18 of them, ecstatic young singers have burst out of a studio’s swinging doors and melted into the arms of their loved ones after being told the magic words: “You’re going to Hollywood!”
But for this socially-distant era, the show’s engineers developed a new wrinkle: an enormous screen where contestants can see their parents, their friends, or their co-workers reacting to their shifting fortunes.
“I find that we have more tears and emotion from that screen than ever we did with people standing outside the door,” said Trish Kinane, the show’s executive producer. “So we’re going to keep that.”
Alain Delaqueriere contributed research.