Lights, camera, hand sanitizer! Hollywood looks to reopen under a new normal

“This will change our industry,” the president of the Screen Actors Guild said. “This will launch a whole new set of creativity.”
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The Warner Bros. lot in North Hollywood, Calif., on April 2, 2020.Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images

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By Alicia Victoria Lozano

As California moves to gradually reopen parts of its once-booming economy, Hollywood remains firmly closed.

The industry — which directly employs about 927,000 people across the country, among 2.6 million total Hollywood-supporting jobs — was one of the first sectors to shut down when the coronavirus took hold in the United States. It will likely be one of the last to reopen as unions, studios and public health officials scramble to establish new protocols and safety measures amid a public health crisis that continues to roil much of the country.

Television, movie and sound production in Los Angeles is slated to reopen "with modifications" when the region moves into stage three of its recovery road map, according to the Los Angeles County Public Health Department. That is still several weeks away, said Los Angeles City Council member Mitch O'Farrell, who helped establish a task force to reopen Hollywood last month.

"There will have to be safety measures in place," he said. "We want to get people back to work, but we want to keep the environment safe."

In New York, the timeline is even longer. Productions there are scheduled to resume under phase four, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last week. The state remains locked down until Friday.

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"From Broadway to Hollywood, this virus has paused, postponed and canceled productions, performances and events. And the result? Most of our country's creative professionals are out of work," Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said on a call last week with other entertainment industry union leaders.

Hollywood has been at a standstill for nearly two months. Movie theaters were among the first businesses to shut down, forcing studios to either postpone new releases, as was the case with Disney's "Mulan," or debut them online, like Universal's "Trolls World Tour." The animated hit grossed $200 million in its first few weeks, casting doubt over the future of theatrical releases in a post-coronavirus world.

But it's the people behind the scene — assistants, caterers, wardrobe stylists, makeup artists and so on — who could be in the most danger of contracting COVID-19 when Hollywood reopens. Productions often take place in close settings with dozens, if not hundreds, of people working long hours for months at a time. They share food, bathrooms, golf carts, trailers, equipment and props. They frequently touch other people, getting close enough to apply makeup and style hair.

Keeping crews safe becomes even more complicated with actors who must film intimate scenes, in which wearing personal protective gear is not possible.

"We're going to need some new standards going forward," said Kate Shindle, president of the Actors' Equity Association. "It's one of the few workplaces in which it's not only legal but expected that you kiss your co-worker as a condition of your job."

Like the rest of the country, Hollywood is eager to get back to work. Doing so will depend entirely on the industry's ability to implement a uniform set of safety standards that are being developed among unions, studios and public health officials.

It will include enforcing standards already set in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. It could involve having hand sanitizer dispensers on set, allowing more breaks so workers can wash their hands, enforcing daily temperature checks and even offering rapid testing when that becomes available.

"The worst thing we can do is roll out a set of protocols and then we find there is an infection rate at various locations and studios, and then we have to shut down again," O'Farrell said. "It's really important that we can take thoughtful, judicious action in drafting these protocols."

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has already unveiled an initial set of recommendations for its 150,000 members. It suggests identifying a COVID-19 workplace coordinator, encouraging sick employees to remain home, practicing physical distancing when possible, routinely cleaning equipment and dressing rooms and wearing personal protective gear at all times behind the scenes.

"We are in uncharted territory," union President Matt Loeb said, adding that nearly 100 percent of the union's members are out of work. "The virus has locked us out. We are all in limbo."

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Work is already resuming in other parts of the world. Last week, the New Zealand government approved the local screen industry's COVID-19 health and safety protocols, paving the way for productions to resume, according to the New Zealand Film Commission. Gatherings of more than 500 people are still prohibited under the new guidelines.

"Avatar 2" and a "Lord of the Rings" TV series are among the Hollywood productions set to be filmed in New Zealand.

Progress remains slower in the U.S. as the coronavirus continues to spread. To avoid any differences in state-by-state enforcement, industry leaders are looking to develop national guidelines applicable to all productions in the U.S. and Canada.

"We're working with everyone in the industry to figure this out," said Gabrielle Carteris, president of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. "We have to do this together."

Rapid testing is the guild's biggest concern, Carteris said, adding that "it's going to be paramount" before allowing people back on set. But testing remains one of the country's weakest links in the response to COVID-19. More than 80,000 people in the U.S. have died from the coronavirus, according to NBC News counts, a number likely to be incomplete because of testing shortages, inconsistent death reporting practices and a high concentration of nursing home deaths.

For now, some productions are finding workarounds.

Cast members of NBC's "The Voice" filmed from home, something many broadcast journalists started doing in March when stay-at-home orders were issued around the country. Late-night shows — including "The Tonight Show," "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show" — also began shooting remotely from houses and apartments.

"This will change our industry," Carteris said. "This will launch a whole new set of creativity."