Will Hollywood ever be the same? Some things may never return | Features
In Los Angeles, Hollywoodâs awakening from the COVID-19 pandemic has been visible to anyone walking city streets in the last several months.
The usual signs of activity for the film and TV industry â production crews taking over parking lots, yellow signs telling workers where to go â are back. Movie theaters are open and actually starting to show big films. Prop houses and other local businesses dependent on the film and television industry are returning to life. Major studios have been issuing guidelines for eventually returning to offices.
With vaccinations rolling out across the country, thereâs a growing sense that things are finally on the mend. That should come as a big relief for the stateâs economy, of which entertainment jobs are a key driver.
Production stoppages and other COVID-19 impacts walloped employment in the sector.
Armando Santana, 56, a Teamsters Local 399 driver shuttling film trailers and actors, spent several months out of work last year after COVID-19 restrictions shut down production. The 20-year veteran Teamster has had to navigate the industryâs various starts and stops since getting back to work in July. Recently, however, jobs have been steady.
âIt seems like the business has been very, very busy,â Santana said. âIâm grateful for that. I probably would find it hard to go through a couple more shutdowns.â
In a business that spent the bulk of 2020 either in partial closure or inching toward recovery, thereâs a palpable, if cautious, sense of optimism.
Certain film and TV business dealings can be done remotely, including scriptwriting, dealmaking, pitching, animation, visual effects and casting, and some of the shifts in how people work together using technology may never go completely back to the way it was.
But this is still a business that depends on spontaneous, in-person interaction, said multiple filmmakers, executives and other insiders.
Thatâs definitely the case for Mike Larocca, cofounder and vice chairman of AGBO, the production company of âAvengers: Endgameâ directors Joe and Anthony Russo.
The company last month started shooting âThe Gray Man,â a big budget action film starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans, for Netflix onstage in Long Beach after being delayed from its previous January start date amid a COVID-19 surge. In another only-in-pandemic hurdle during pre-production, Anthony Russo had to quarantine for a week in Prague, Czech Republic, after his driver tested positive for COVID-19 while location scouting.
Despite being able to ramp up a massive project during the pandemic, Larocca is itching to get back to working more in person at the office.
âI think people like the sort of social aspects of the business,â he said. âItâs not the same as being in the editing room and ordering pizza and being there until midnight. Thatâs the kind of stuff where your project really gets done. You canât replicate that over Zoom.â
For director Jon M. Chu, the promise of a return to normalcy being somewhere on the horizon could hardly have come at a better time. The âCrazy Rich Asiansâ filmmakerâs latest movie, âIn the Heights,â based on the Tony-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara AlegrÃa Hudes, is set for release in June.
Like many filmmakers and crew, Chu saw the disruption of the pandemic first-hand. In March 2020, Chu â who lives in West Hollywood â was in New York just days into the sound mix for âIn the Heights,â when the fast-spreading virus sent Americans fleeing from offices. The team didnât start back up on the film until August, after the studio relocated post-production to Los Angeles.
âJust in the past few weeks, things are definitely starting to shift,â Chu said. âIâm able to have a meeting with my creative executive in my backyard, and weâre socially distanced and masked, but I donât feel as self-conscious or unsafe doing that. That edge is off a bit.â
Production in greater Los Angeles has rebounded to reach about 60% of the normal activity levels the industry could expect at this point of the year, according to movie-permitting group FilmLA. Thatâs way up from January, when the number of permits issued collapsed to about 20% of normal levels after health officials and unions pressured productions to hold back filming.
Thereâs still a long way to go. Pent-up demand and the arrival of spring â a peak season for TV show filming â have driven the boost, said FilmLA President Paul Audley. However, he cautioned that he doesnât expect further increases in on-location shooting until L.A. County lifts the health order under which the film industry operates. L.A. and Orange counties have been steadily advancing through the tiers of reopening, but that doesnât affect film protocols established to protect crews from the coronavirus.
âThe reality is thatâs probably where weâre going to be for a while until the vaccines in California get widespread,â Audley said. âI donât think they can move much past this point probably until the end of summer.â
A key hindrance to any increase in production is that, under the current protocols, crews need more space to allow for social distancing, requiring more equipment, more locations and larger soundstages, which means a longer time to do shoots. That maxing out of capacity has contributed to a race for space.
And as the pandemic continues to hinder international travel and onetime safe havens in Europe suffer from surges in infections, there is increased demand for already busy production locations like California.
âProduction is booming everywhere, and we are now already starting to find availability issues with crew, stages, not just in the U.K., but other places,â said Jeff LaPlante, Universal Picturesâ president of physical production. âItâs already busy out there, and I think itâs only going to increase. So thatâll be a challenge for all of us.â
Producers are having to factor in the strain of working with the constant reminders of safety protocols and reducing hours, said Val Cheung, senior director of production at Shonda Rhimesâ production company Shondaland. The L.A.-based shows for ABC that Cheung oversees were among the first to start back in production last year, she said. They had to come up with new ways to accommodate the new strains of working slower and with fewer hours available.
Now, Cheung finds herself on calls about Shondaland shows, incredulous that they have been able to get this far. Both âGreyâs Anatomyâ and âStation 19â are close to wrapping the number of episodes they had planned to make despite the pandemic-related restrictions of working during a pandemic, she said. One way the producers adapted to restrictions was by writing shows to minimize the amount of filming on location or the number of locations.
âI just canât emphasize enough how hard everybody is working,â Cheung said. âThis has been one of the most challenging seasons, if not the most challenging, for everyone. Every week we get on the phone on the different shows and weâre like, âCan you believe it? Weâre almost there.ââ
Pam Eylea, who operates the North Hollywood-based prop house History for Hire with her husband, Jim, has already noticed the increase in activity. Sales were down just 5% in the first quarter of 2021 versus the same period last year, a dramatic recovery from full-year 2020, when revenue plummeted 40%.
Still, sheâs anticipating that the increased cost of production under COVID-19 protocols will limit what studios are willing to spend on props. Depending on the size of the production, health and safety measures can increase movie budgets by 5% to 20%.
âI do feel like the business is building back up,â Eylea said. âI donât think weâre going to hit the same figures that we had pre-pandemic.â
A welcome change for producers is that insurance companies are willing to offer more affordable policies, said Mark Gill, chief executive of Hollywood-based Solstice Studios.
For indie filmmakers, who are creating movies on a limited budget, insurance companiesâ reluctance to provide coverage for shutdowns as a result of COVID-19 was a major blow. Bankers financing indie movies require insurance.
During the pandemic, the cost to insure a $70-million movie like the upcoming Ben Affleck thriller âHypnoticâ jumped more than tenfold to $7 million. âThatâs, of course, crazy,â Gill said. âWe certainly werenât going to do it. What weâre now hearing is with the prospect of the wide availability of vaccines, that number will go very far down, to maybe something more like a million.â
Once production is back to full speed, companies are expected to ramp up to satisfy the need for content in theaters and on new streaming services. Agencies have continued to sell intellectual property to studios through the pandemic in anticipation of a comeback.
âPeople want to refill the well, so there is an opportunity to put a movie together and tell it in an exciting way,â said Ida Ziniti, cohead of CAAâs motion picture literary department. âI think buyers are more open to original ideas and concepts, because theyâre seeing things perform well that may not have been obvious.â
As production recovers, big media companies are making plans to bring people back to physical offices.
ViacomCBS Chief Executive Bob Bakish, in a memo to staff last month, said U.S. employees will âhave the option of returning to our offices starting after the July 4th weekend, at the earliest,â with the initial phase lasting âat least a few months.â
Once they return, the vast majority of staff will operate under a hybrid schedule of in-office and remote work. Burbank-based Walt Disney Co. is also reportedly beginning its return after July Fourth.
WarnerMedia, owner of Warner Bros. and HBO, is planning a âsoftâ reopening starting in the summer, with Sept. 1 as the target for more normal operations (August for CNN), while trying to âaccommodate the desire for a flexible work schedule,â according to emails from executives. NBCUniversal is also aiming to broadly reopen in September.
Sony Pictures Entertainment recently told employees that it plans to bring more employees back to the Culver City lot starting June 1, âwith a tentative eye towards being fully up to speed on the lot by Labor Day.â
Tom Bernard, copresident of Sony Pictures Classics, which recently released âThe Father,â nominated for six Oscars including best picture, said studios benefit from the spontaneity of an office environment. Problem-solving tends to take longer over Zoom. If the studio gets a call from a big, late-night show trying to book talent to promote a movie, for example, itâs no longer so easy to coordinate with publicists and executives.
But some firms, such as visual effects and production company Luma Pictures, have yet to determine when theyâre going back. Based in Los Angeles and Australia with 285 employees, Luma â which recently did effects work on Disney+âs âWandaVisionâ â is taking a gradual approach.
âWeâre trying to take a step back and not rush into anything,â said Chief Operating Officer Grady Gamble. âItâs one of the most important things weâre thinking about right now.â
For efficiencies, post-production work â including visual effects, editing and digital touch-ups â will probably continue to be done remotely in some cases, said Eric Korsh, president of âQueer Eyeâ producer Scout Productions. Burbank-based Scout managed to film several series during the pandemic, including âThe Quest,â a Disney+ revival of the ABC unscripted fantasy show, in Calistoga, Calif.
âItâs always nice when youâre able to walk down the hall to talk to the editor, but the truth is that post is efficiently able to continue without gathering people in one building,â Korsh said. âI think thatâs probably going to stay with us.â