COVID-19 and the Future of Television Production

By: Jordan Gary

The ongoing global pandemic has adversely impacted the television and film industries in numerous ways. Between reviewing agreements and force majeure clauses, incorporating government regulations and new industry standards into production plans, and reassessing what television and film production will look like in the near and distant future, the entertainment industry must resolve many problems to reduce the severity of losses.

One of the first things companies may do is review the force majeure clauses in their agreements to see whether coverage exists for increased costs or losses in revenue or staffing as a result of COVID-19. If coverage exists, they may have opportunity to get out of agreements, reduce losses, or find remedies such as postponing production.

In order to generate revenue, many companies and projects are moving towards reopening sets and continuing production. Those that do will have to incorporate a growing number of government regulations from both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as state and local governments. Additionally, task forces, trade associations, and guilds have released COVID-19 industry-specific safety guidelines. While companies are legally obligated to follow government regulations, many will also implement other guidelines released by these associations and guilds as they are created by industry experts who consider industry practices while aiming to reduce the risk of both disease and liability.

As an example, filmmaker and studio owner Tyler Perry recently announced his plan for reopening Tyler Perry Studios for production in July. The plan requires that all cast and crew: (1) be tested in their hometown and fully quarantine themselves for 16 days prior to traveling; (2) travel to the studio on private flights and using private car services; (3) be tested upon arrival at the studio and sequester until test results are available; (4) remain inside the studio “quarantine bubble” for the 14-day filming period; (5) fill out health survey questionnaires and do temperature checks every day; (6) wear face masks at all times except during hair and make-up or when on camera; (7) undergo continued testing after arrival; and (8) be tested prior to studio exit upon completion of the shoot. Though the plan is likely to prove costly once it is implemented, Perry is taking significant precautions beyond the government regulations to protect his cast and crew, reduce liability, and still provide a steady flow of entertainment to his brand’s faithful consumers.

Perry noted that part of his reasoning in providing such a comprehensive plan for returning to production is because of how Black people are disproportionately affected by coronavirus. Because Perry’s studio is Black owned and has a predominately Black cast and crew that makes media for Black audiences, this is a vital consideration to highlight. It is one that should be seriously considered across any industry that relies heavily on one group of people to continue business, especially as awareness to the ways in which Black people are disproportionately and negatively affected by systemic racism grows in the nation.

However, not every project will be able to take the many precautions that Perry’s team is taking. Perry’s studio compound is built on 330 acres of a former army base in Georgia, which is becoming a “Southern Hollywood” in television and film production, due to tax incentives given to filmmakers in the state. His compound has many of its own outdoor filming spaces, making it one of the largest production facilities in the United States. But not every studio or production company has access to such expansive facilities to create their own quarantine bubble. Thus, many companies are implementing alternatives to some of Perry’s more costly measures.

One example is NBCUniversal. The company is incorporating mandatory face masks, social distancing, sanitizer stations, reconfigured floor plans, and other measures to reduce the possibility of contamination. Additionally, they are limiting on-site access to people who need to be physically involved in production set up—everyone else is scheduled to work from home until and unless their physical presence is necessary on set. It also ran a production drill to work out logistics for every part of the day, including check-in, temperature checks, catering, and shooting scenes. It incorporated both government regulations as well as industry suggested measures in the drill and in plans for resuming production. The noticeable difference between NBCUniversal and Tyler Perry Studios is that NBCUniversal is not planning to have a quarantine bubble for most of its productions.

In addition to these measures, many companies are starting to think about how COVID-19 precautions will shape the future of television and film production. Ryan Millsap, CEO of Blackhall Studios, points to new technologies that he believes will be used on sets beyond the pandemic, such as air filtration systems. He also suggests that more studios will acquire their own space for outdoor scenes like streets or small towns to create more controlled sets rather than filming on location, which increases travel costs and disease exposure.

Changes to production itself are also being implemented, such as virtual meetings on Zoom. These changes eliminate the need to travel between cities and countries to plan and budget in pre-production and edit in post-production. Many foresee these changes extending into a post-Covid world, as they would reduce travel costs, increase flexibility in scheduling, and allow for late changes to editing that otherwise would not be feasible.

Ultimately, as COVID-19 alters the landscape of film and television production for the foreseeable future, companies will continue to institute many of these changes and more to get back on track with production schedules.

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