As more TV and film productions resume in Phase 3 of the B.C. government’s restart plan, one thing is for sure: It is going to be a totally different reality for those in the business of make-believe.
“Twenty-five people standing shoulder to shoulder watching the cast rehearse won’t happen anymore,” said Shawn Williamson, CEO of Vancouver-based Brightlight Pictures, who expects his marquee series — ABC’s The Good Doctor — to be up and running in early August.
Earlier this month, major Hollywood studios and unions managed to iron out a white paper (The Safe Way Forward) on enhanced safety protocols that included protective face masks for all off-camera people, limited mobility on set, frequent testing, and the creation of new health and safety monitoring jobs.
In B.C., close to 50 productions were closed down in early March due to the COVID-19 crisis. Now, though, there seems to be a spotlight at the end of the shutdown tunnel as productions are cautiously beginning to set return dates.
Some, like the prolific Hallmark, are already rolling and are adding productions all the time.
“We are excited to resume production in Canada. On June 22 we started principal photography in Vancouver on a new Hallmark Channel original movie, Wedding Every Weekend,” said Michelle Vicary, executive vice-president of programming and network program publicity for Crown Media Family Networks.
“This marks our first new Canadian production since the industry-wide pause in mid-March. We look forward to kicking off production on several additional projects in the coming weeks.”
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Hollywood North: The latest from the B.C. TV and film industry
“I think the pace at which they (film and TV production companies) will return is entirely up to them. We certainly green-lit the industry,” said Premier John Horgan on June 24.
“The production teams will be looking at how quickly they can move and what’s the availability of the front-of-camera personnel that are required to get these productions up and running.”
Horgan went on to joke that he has a personal desire for the industry to bounce back quickly.
“I know I am running out of things to watch on Netflix; some new content would be good,” said Horgan, a sci-fi fan.
“I also know that the jobs that are connected to the industry are critically important to British Columbia, not just in the Lower Mainland and the south Island, but indeed across the province, so we certainly want to get those jobs back as quickly as possible, but we’re only going to do it if it is safe to do so.”
For major productions with American talent that needs to cross the border and then quarantine, the best-case restart scenario right now seems to be a mid- to late July and August return to work.
Of course, that all depends on the COVID-19 cases staying, in the words of B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, “low and slow.”
“There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes to get it to a place where we can start prepping and start shooting. I have to say the collaboration is incredible on both sides of the border,” said veteran Vancouver-based producer Grace Gilroy, who has two major U.S. TV network dramas waiting to get started.
On-set safety aside, a big part of the equation for the $3-billion-plus per year industry is pending reopening of the U.S.-Canada border, now closed until July 21 and likely longer if U.S. continues to be a COVID hotbed. That means people coming here to work will have to quarantine for 14 days.
Williamson said he was encouraged by the government’s approval of the NHL’s cohort-quarantine plan, where the Canucks and essential staff are allowed to return to Vancouver for training camp. Under that plan they wold be housed together, travel to the rink together, and fulfil training needs in a group of 50 or less.
“We’re really hopeful based on the NHL stuff,” said Williamson.
“That message was great. That they created a unique protocol that is still safe that does alter the current rules. We are hopeful we can find a similar thing to work with government to maybe mitigate the quarantine, but until such time as that we are quarantining people.”
Horgan said during his briefing this week that he was not aware of any requests from the film industry “to compare themselves to any other sector.”
Henry added that her office would “look at everything as it comes across, but the overriding importance is the safety factor.”
Gilroy would like to see a cohort option, but regardless she said during talks with agents and managers about logistics, family and the new world reality of crossing the border, it was clear that people wanted to come back to B.C.
“The bottom line is the actors feel safer coming to Canada right now than they do, I think, than being anywhere else in the United States,” said Gilroy, who added many producers and directors feel the same.
“I think everybody wants some normalcy, and we’re in a position in B.C. right now to be able to provide some of that normalcy.”
Quarantine is an obvious extra hurdle for some, but it could mean more work for Canadian talent — something the UBCP/ACTRA union sees as a real possibility.
“We understand that the quarantine requirement may delay the resumption of many returning U.S. productions, but we see the silver lining in that. We have such a deep, diverse pool of professional talent in this province.
“Productions that can cast their projects with B.C. performers will be able to shoot sooner, and we see this as an opportunity for the performers in this province to show us what they can do,” said union representative Jason Cameron.
While producers and industry work out the lay of the new, much safer land, crew are eager — and at the same time cautious — about returning to work.
Dan Morrison a veteran first assistant camera (focus puller) expects the restart will be fast and furious.
“As soon as we get to go back to work, it’s going to be a madhouse. It’s going to be so busy. Everyone is going to be working. Anyone that wants to work will be able to work as soon as they let us go back to work,” said Morrison recently from his home in Gibsons.
“I think the biggest thing is, it is a matter of doing things safely and properly. Hopefully, the low-hanging fruit as it were doesn’t encourage people to come back to work faster and quicker and incorrectly, and then ruins it for the rest of us.”
When the shutdown happened back in March, Morrison (Sonic the Hedgehog, The Art of Racing in the Rain) was working on a pilot for NBC. Just over a week ago, he found out the major feature (he can’t say what it is) has set a return date for Sept. 7. But he knows that could change at any time.
“It all depends on (Dr.) Bonnie (Henry). It’s all relative on what the government tells us what we can do,” said Morrison, who added it is going to be a big adjustment when everyone does return.
“You create a little film family when you do these projects, when you are surrounded by all these people for two, three months in usually tighter quarters than I think most people work, and you sometimes go on the road with them and relationships form.
“Bonds of friendship is part of why most of us do it, and the fact that we are all going to have to go back and stand six feet apart and conform to the new safety regulations is just going to take a bit of that community and humour and those things we all cherish out of it.”
One of the departments that will undergo big changes on set is hair and makeup. No longer will trailers be cheek-to-coiffure with talent, stylists and makeup artists.
“The movement of what we will do on set will change dramatically. I think from what I’m hearing is that you do your processing and you maybe have one cast member where before we would do six or 10,” said longtime hair stylist Jim Dreichel, who is slated to work on The Good Doctor when it starts up again.
Dreichel admitted that throughout the three months of shutdown he grew more and more concerned about returning to work. But his other job as co-owner of Vancouver’s Union Salon helped alleviate some safety anxiety.
“Because I wrote the plan for the salon and did all the COVID-19 protocols, I actually calmed down considerably,” said Dreichel, who has also taken numerous online safety and health review courses.
Now he is breathing easier and is really looking forward to getting back on set.
“The thing about our industry is we are incredibly social people. So it’s been rough,” said Dreichel.
“I miss that connection. I miss my people. I do miss the work. I really kind of lucked into this crazy career that I really love and I miss it. So, I’m happy to get back to work.”
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