For decades, films and TV series have served countless imaginary catastrophes that have brought the planet to its knees, from natural disasters to alien invasions and, yes, violent pandemics. But as the world deals with the growing coronavirus crisis, Hollywood is discovering that the reality is much more frightening.
In a matter of days, the industry, like virtually every other part of the global economy, was paralyzed. Faced with the prospect of a bloodbath at the box office while audiences crouch in their homes, studios are struggling to change the release dates for some of their biggest future films, including Universal's summer tent "F9", which was postponed for almost a year to April 2021, Disney's "Mulan", which was postponed indefinitely and the James Bond film, entitled "No Time to Die" by MGM, changed from April to November.
Meanwhile, industry events across the country are being canceled in a furious clip, including Austin, Texas & South by Southwest festival, Las Vegas & # 39; Theater owners' Confab CinemaCon and the New York Tribeca Film Festival, with many fearing that the Cannes Film Festival in May will be forthcoming.
As if all of that didn't cause enough anxiety, Tom Hanks – probably the most beloved figure in the industry and a man who was often called the Mayor of Hollywood – announced Wednesday that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had contracted the coronavirus in Australia , where Hanks is in pre-production in the biopic of Elvis Presley, by director Baz Luhrmann.
With public health officials and government leaders calling for drastic measures of social detachment to limit the spread of the virus, those working on films and television sets are feeling anxious and shocked. Most team members and actors down the line work from job to job, often without knowing where or when the next project will take place. Unlike many others in the economy, they generally cannot simply work from home to protect themselves and their loved ones. And if a single major cast or crew member becomes ill, millions of dollars could be at stake.
Working on sets for months is a very unnatural social experience. There is no quarantine-friendly version of making a movie.
“In films, our entire industry depends on people close to each other, day after day on the sets,” says director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who directed documentaries like “Blackfish” and also narratives. "You can't choose to observe a six-foot rule. My other films are in development, so no production has been delayed. But overall, working on sets for months is a very unnatural social experiment. There is no friendly version. to quarantine to make a movie. "
Several productions, both in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the world, have already been affected by the pandemic, with more being announced every day, if not every hour. Disney closed the filming in Prague, Czech Republic, of the Marvel Studios series “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” for Disney +, while Warner Bros., which is producing the film by Hanks & # 39; Presley, released a statement that “I was taking precautions to protect everyone who works on our productions around the world. "Apple TV + announced that its drama series" The Morning Show ", starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, would take a two-week hiatus from filming on Sony's lot while assessing the situation.
Since the outbreak began to intensify, many film and TV productions have stepped up preventive measures, encouraging frequent hand washing and providing disinfectant for cast and crew. Safety meetings now regularly include warnings to avoid shaking hands and to report any flu-like symptoms. Still, among the productive community in general, there remains unrestrained confusion about best practices and deep uncertainty about possible lost wages if production is suddenly stopped.
Faced with the double blow of the spread of the virus and the resulting economic risk to their members, unions are discussing how to protect their members.
"Our focus now is on the safety of our members working on sets and newsrooms across the country and in various locations around the world," said a spokesman for SAG-AFTRA – the largest union in Hollywood, representing 160,000 actors and performers – in an emailed statement. . "We are working with employers, sister unions and allies across the industry to respond to this rapidly changing situation." The trustees of the SAG-AFTRA health insurance plan announced on Thursday that all costs of coronavirus testing at the network's facilities would be waived from participants.
In this climate, even the screenwriters' lounge on a TV show can be seen as a potentially dangerous work environment. "Our representatives are in close contact with all the stores that our members are working in," said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America East, in an email. “So far, our writers' rooms continue to function (drama and comedy), but we'll see how long that goes on. We are encouraging our members to inform us if they have any concerns about their safety during this difficult period. "
Some showrunners are already getting into the work from home mode. As of Wednesday morning, the writers for Sony's "One Day at a Time" were already discussing story ideas for the fourth season remotely via Skype and Zoom.
Comedy co-showrunners, Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce, made the decision at noon on Tuesday. The pair phoned the top-level writers over the phone and emailed everyone else with tasks they could work from home on.
"With great caution, we thought we could carry out our rewrites at home via Skype or Zoom," Kellett told the Times at home. "It looked like it wouldn't be difficult for us to do our job. We are on hiatus, so we can really do everything we need at home.”
But some feel that the seriousness of the crisis calls for more drastic action. "I think we should close things down until we understand what this virus can do," said Richard Shepard, who is the producer and director of FX's next series, "American Crime Story: Impeachment". “They need to interrupt a month (in production). The film sets are crazy and intimate places, with hundreds of people very close. They are virus incubators. Makeups (artists) are touching people's faces, dressers are extra clothes, decorative objects are delivering objects or food to the actors. It is so intimate. "
At the same time, especially for those working on smaller projects, the financial consequences of closing projects, even if temporarily, can be severe, and it is still unclear who will pay the bills.
"I'm sorry for the independent filmmakers and independent producers who are making a difficult choice between what insurance will cover and what their team's health and safety can dictate," said a Los Angeles director and producer, who declined to be named. due to the subject's sensitivity. "You are looking at losses of $ 100,000 for a day of production if you make the call yourself, even if it is the right decision to make. This is rock and a difficult place that people face, especially in a small business. , where you only have a few films a year that are making the company work and you're not a big studio. "
With new travel restrictions and hot zones announced daily, those preparing for the next sessions are unsure whether their scheduled projects will – or should – continue as planned. "We are making a documentary that involves traveling to Africa and has been canceled because of what we could bring," says Cowperthwaite. “In the documentary, much of our work involves dispatching to remote places and shedding light on a problem. The thought that, without knowing it, we could be wreaking havoc in a remote and vulnerable area by doing so – that's the frustrating irony. "
In the future, these grazing projects, large and small, will face a daunting challenge, as they weigh on concerns about possible physical risks with some financial pain. But for many on the front lines, this is an easy call.
People are afraid of everyone who shows up in this work environment, but they are also concerned about people being paid and other things. I don't know what those answers are.
"Last week, I was on the set of a studio project saying, 'This is crazy'," says director Jesse Peretz, who works mainly on television. “The people on that set were concerned and there was disinfectant everywhere. I was honestly counting the days until I made it out. People are afraid of everyone who shows up in this work environment, but they are also concerned about people being paid and other things. I don't know what those answers are. But between Netflix, Amazon, Warner Bros., Fox – I'm sure they have the financial resources to pay people and are six weeks late in production. I think it is a moral imperative that they pay attention and are not responsible for increasing what is a very miserable health crisis. "
"I feel that no job is worth putting people who get sick at risk," says Shepard. "I'm not suggesting that we should do this blindly. But in times of crisis, leadership is important. If someone in a production is nervous about something, it should be taken seriously. If it happens in Italy, we won't be filming in a month. – we'll shoot in a year, if we're lucky. We better be proactive now. "
Times team writers Amy Kaufman, Anousha Sakoui, Yvonne Villarreal and Jen Yamato contributed to this report.