Inside or Out, Here or Elsewhere? Filming Locations in Pandemic Times

Producer Christopher Acebo on the set of 7th&Union in Pomona, California. NBC News, August 9, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/movies/hollywood-s-Covid-pandemic-disruption-storyline-desperately-needs-rewrite-n1235823

Covid-19 has made a fundamental impact on the way film and television production happens. By mid-March 2020, major studios closed down the production and delayed the release of blockbusters such as Mulan, The Batman, and the new James Bond movie No Time to Die, gearing their future plans to digital release. Despite Netflix’s declaration that production shutdown would not impact its release schedule until later in 2020, projects like Stranger Things 4 and The Witcher came to a halt. Yet, as audience movements and entertainments outside of the house have been unprecedentedly restricted worldwide—from which Netflix profited by adding 16 million new global subscribers in the first three months of 2020, doubling its predicted quarterly growth—the need for fresh screen productions grows. Despite the will to be cautious and safe, film and TV industry workers look for opportunities to go back to work and leave behind a period that Variety names “Hollywood’s Great Depression,” as large numbers of freelance entertainment personnel found themselves unemployed during the pandemic.

Media workers’ job precarity has emerged not only from production lockdowns but also from the shifting geography of production. The pandemic has impacted what gets shot where and how. As Michael Curtin explained in his groundbreaking 2003 essay, “global media capitals” such as Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, and London served as “meeting places where local specificity arises out of migration, interaction, and exchange,” creating transnational flows of media content, and complex production practices and cultures.1Curtin, Michael. “Media Capital: Towards the Study of Spatial Flows.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2003): 205. https://doi.org/10.1177/13678779030062004. But film and television production are no longer tethered to the global media capitals Curtin studied. Rather, the media industries have become increasingly mobile, with “producers continually tracking shifts in incentive structures and local infrastructure to determine the most efficient way to produce.”2McNutt, Myles. “Mobile Production: Spatialized Labor, Location Professionals, and the Expanding Geography of Television Production.” Media Industries 2, no. 1 (2015): 65. However, with many international borders closed and mobility severely restricted, even within individual countries, that freedom of movement—which to be fair, has always been a privilege of more financially resourced productions—is now limited. The current safety risks involved in production have thrown up a new complex spatiality and territorialization as it pertains to the locations of film production.

What will this mean for an industry that depends on these transnational flows, for reasons both financial (in order to minimize production costs by taking advantage of tax breaks and lax labor laws) and creative (in order to appropriately “place” content to drive storytelling and characterization)? It is too early to answer this question in any conclusive way, particularly when it comes to long-term effects. However, as we approach ten months since the start of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, the short-term effects of the virus on the spatiality of film and television industries and production are starting to become clearer. Perhaps most evident is the major effect that Covid has had on-location filming, especially when it comes to the mobility of productions.

Where to Produce during the Pandemic? Consequences on US Cities and States

At the beginning of the pandemic’s spread in US cities in March 2020, Hollywood was slow to react. Most companies were waiting for city officials and film offices to put a halt to production. Production centers like Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles continued to issue permits. Since the crews also did not know when their next project and paycheck would come in this increasingly precarious environment, they took the risk to continue. A New York City producer stated, “Studios are waiting for the Mayor’s Office to shut us down. Our only hope is if they stop issuing permits, or the mayor or governor taking far more radical steps to shut down the city.” A major reason behind production companies’ anticipation of city permit retractions or shutdowns was to get the opportunity to “invoke the concept of force majeure with insurers” and claim coverage for their losses and extra costs caused by delayed production.

Covid-19 Compliance Officers in Tyler Perry Studios, Atlanta. Variety, August 13, 2020. https://variety.com/2020/tv/features/Covid-compliance-officers-production-position-pandemic-1234729303/

Though eventually productions ground to a halt in March, a number of blockbuster films (Avatar 2, Jurassic World: Dominion, Mission Impossible 7, The Little Mermaid, The Batman) and television series (S.W.A.T., The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless) resumed production over the summer. Perhaps the hardest hit media capitals in the U.S. are Los Angeles and New York. Although New York had extremely high Covid infection rates early on in the pandemic, their numbers have recently dropped off. While the city declared in mid-July that 100 productions could resume in New York, even in mid-August companies and crews have been hesitant to start production. This was partly due to the extent of action scenes that take place in the city and require large numbers of extras as well as the crews’ reluctance in this political moment to glorify NYPD in police shows such as Law & Order and Blue Bloods. Furthermore, the devastating experience the city faced at the height of its pandemic spike has made residents cautious. Los Angeles initially seemed to be weathering the pandemic well when New York was spiking, but the summer months turned against California, which now, in addition to rising Covid numbers, is suffering its worst forest fires on record. Production in the city has since started and stopped several times. Especially for TV series with large crews, the fact that production resumes is never a guarantee that it will continue without interruption. CBS’s soap The Bold and the Beautiful resumed production in Television City Studios in LA in July, only to be shut down again in a week due to a Covid case alert.

The effect of Covid on less central production centers, such as Boston, Massachusetts or Tampa, Florida is even more brutal. Both cities had banner years for production in 2019, but are in dire straits this year, with no clear picture of when filming might ramp up again. Yet, some hope there is potential for more far-flung cities from the world’s production centers to become burgeoning filmmaking places amidst the pandemic. Ravenna, Nebraska, for example, is the site of a Covid-themed film called “#MyCarona.” Though the film was originally set in Los Angeles, the filmmaker Kirk Zeller opted for the safety and financial benefits of Ravenna, arguing “the New York’s and L.A.’s of the world are too expensive,” and he’s since lobbied state leaders to “seize the moment and create rebates to draw filmmaking.” Even worse than pre-Covid times, states engulfed in the pandemic are pitted against one another in a competition for fewer and fewer productions. As production in the US is still relatively slim and has only just started to gear up this fall, it is hard to tell which media cities will ultimately emerge victorious.

Although the return on investment of attracting major Hollywood productions to peripheral or regional production centers was already pretty poor, the pandemic makes those returns even murkier.3On economic impacts of film tax credits, see, for example, Button, Patrick. “Do Tax Incentives Affect Business Location and Economic Development? Evidence from State Film Incentives.” Regional Science and Urban Economics 77 (July 2019): 315–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.regsciurbeco.2019.06.002; Thom, Michael. “Lights, Camera, but No Action? Tax and Economic Development Lessons From State Motion Picture Incentive Programs.” The American Review of Public Administration 48, no. 1 (January 2018): 33–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0275074016651958. On the one hand, production promises to bring some jobs, which in a moment of almost unprecedented national unemployment is surely not to be overlooked. Those potential jobs are not only limited to working on the production, but also the other jobs and industries that supply the production. On the other hand, however, the harder to trace economic and immaterial gains that states claim from their generous tax incentives, such as crew spending money and interacting with the community,4Morgan Parmett, Helen. “Media as a Spatial Practice: Treme and the Production of the Media Neighbourhood.” Continuum 28, no. 3 (May 4, 2014): 286–99. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2014.900878. are extraordinarily limited under the restrictions on movement, gathering, and interacting. Even beyond the restrictions that states and municipalities themselves impose, most productions aim to create production “bubbles” and “pods” that severely limit the crew’s interactions with the wider community, not to mention the concerns that have been raised by residents over the presence of production in their neighborhoods. Ultimately, in light of the massive tax incentives that states pay out to big productions in hopes of economic gains, it is hard not to argue the states are better off using those funds to directly support their citizens, many of whom are seeing record unemployment and dwindling federal unemployment relief, major gaps in educational funding (particularly as schools require massive new spending to either reopen safely or support remote learning), lack of access to affordable child care as parents are forced to return to work, and numerous other gaps in the social welfare system.

The Move Towards International Locations

While both crew members and location residents are wary of the forced choices between money and safety, producers have added navigating Covid-related health and financial risks to their location decision calculus. This is especially the case when it comes to productions set to take place in the US, where access to testing is limited. Moreover, infection rates in the US are extremely high compared to most other countries in the world that can handle major productions. More and more US productions have started looking internationally, and productions that were set to film in the US have sought international locations instead. For example, Solstice Studios was set to begin production in Los Angeles in April on a new film starring Ben Affleck, but as production started to gear up again, they decided it was neither safe nor possible to produce in LA due to the rising numbers and lack of testing capability. After pursuing a possible shooting location in Austin, Texas, which subsequently had similar problems to LA, the producers ultimately decided to film in Vancouver, Canada.

Things have not been all rosy when it comes to productions moving to international locations with fewer cases and more access to testing, either. Canada, in particular, has been hesitant to green-light productions with a primarily US-based crew. Although there have been noted concerns on the risk of infection spread, Canada recently opened its borders to production, as film has been deemed an important financial asset (particularly for major production hubs like Vancouver). But the sticking point with US-based production is the twice-per-week testing mandate set forth by union and guild backed productions. For Vancouver, which has a small infection rate, officials believe the mandate creates an unnecessary burden on the testing system. Debates over testing halted what Hollywood hoped would be one of their earliest returns to production in Vancouver, when the production of the TV series, The Good Doctor, stalled over a failure to come to an agreement over these guidelines. Ultimately, Canadian authorities settled with the studios, unions, and trades to work out production-by-production guidelines and to allow the testing protocol to proceed with The Good Doctor after a spike in cases in British Columbia. However, it is notable that while production in Canada is revving up, restrictions on pandemic insurance favor existing productions, rather than new ones.

Producer Jon Landau’s Instagram post from Avatar 2’s set in Wellington, New Zealand. https://www.instagram.com/p/CDy8BIZJqzx/

In addition to Canada, other international sites starting up production again include Thailand, Iceland, China, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. But, like Canada, each of these countries also has its own unique impact from Covid, with countries like New Zealand, for example, having little effect at all, in part due to its strong border restrictions. And those strong restrictions have had an effect on the industry, limiting border exemptions only “to those involved with large-scale productions injecting significant money and jobs into the country.” China, on the other hand, is engaged in little to no co-production, focusing instead on national production, in part due to the contemporary political climate and its own national interests. The UK, on the other hand, was criticized for favoring the rebooting of US film and high-end TV productions over its domestic industry by creating a “Coronovirus support loophole” when their guidelines for production did not underwrite the insurance risk of Covid. This issue has been addressed by the French government, which promised to compensate pandemic-related delays in national productions as early as May and was finally resolved in the UK with new guidelines prepared mid-September.

Navigating through the Covid Production Guidelines

Either in international locations or in US cities, producers now have to work through a complex patchwork of national, state, city, film institution and/or union safety guidelines, leading to a complicated system to navigate to resume production. In the US, the unions and guilds that make up the bulk of Hollywood-based production, including the Directors Guild, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, released “The Safe Way Forward” in mid-June. These safety guidelines for productions include mandatory testing of people involved in production at least twice weekly, PPE, and department-specific procedures. On top of these guidelines, productions must navigate each state and city’s Covid mandates. Those mandates often come with state-specific guidelines for production as well, although, like those in Georgia and New York, the guidelines are often “recommended” rather than required.

The “non-binding” nature of some of these guidelines speaks to the careful line states are walking to mitigate risk and promote safety while maximizing economic potential. Of course, this is evident in all industries, but because a number of US states (as well as international sites) have long been working to lure Hollywood productions, they have a direct stake in restarting production, lest productions decide to pick up and go elsewhere with the promise of fewer cases and fewer guidelines. This is a kind of Catch-22 for the states, who must demonstrate to producers that there are few enough cases to make shooting safe and that they have enough testing capacity, while also not imposing too many restrictions on top of what “Safe Way Forward” already mandates.

The Move Towards Studios and Digitization

An additional challenge for media cities is the existence or lack of infrastructure—that is, large,  modern studios that allow distancing, air ventilation, and minimal interaction with the public. When it comes to the question of locations, Covid safety guidelines favor studio-based rather than on-location production. Primarily, this is because studios are controlled environments. As “Safe Way Forward” and other guidelines mandate minimal interaction with the public, outdoor on-location shoots that put the crew in contact with passers-by represent a greater risk. Indoor on-location shoots also pose the risk of being uncontrolled environments, where productions will struggle to meet air-ventilation requirements, as well as stringent cleaning requirements since those spaces will be harder to limit access to. As a result, cities with relatively well-built production infrastructure seem to be ahead, with numerous studios in Atlanta, including Tyler Perry Studios and Trilith Studios (formerly Pinewood Atlanta), restarting production.

Guidelines also underline that when the shooting needs to be done on-location, producers should make sure there is enough space for physical distancing, prioritize locations that can be locked off from public access, clean high-touch areas, and minimize crowd and street scenes. Location shooting will also suffer because of the recommendations that most location scouting take place virtually. The guidelines suggest location scouts use digital scouting or photographs rather than knocking on doors. Although most guidelines do not mandate this—since it is acknowledged location scouting is a tactile job that requires the scout to get a sense of “being in the space” to determine shooting capability—Safe Way Forward and state and municipal guidelines strongly recommend minimizing on-site scouting as much as possible. This will likely mean productions will prioritize filming in places they have already scouted, or shooting in studios rather than on-location. Location managers report they have trouble finding shooting locations, as people are either afraid of accommodating large crews or simply do not have the personnel for the upkeep of their facilities. As showrunner Michelle King notes, “Nobody wants us on the street…We’re having to write toward filming on our sets, but then every health provider can agree on only a few things, and that’s that you don’t want to be indoors with a lot of people for long periods of time — which is filming on a stage. It really is a conundrum.” Moreover, recommendations also call for limiting locations altogether, as well as limiting characters (even calling for using characters who are already related to each other and/or in a “pod”) to minimize the potential for contamination and spread.

LED stage production technology created by Industrial Light and Magic’s Stagecraft for Star Wars: The Mandalorian. CNBC, September 3, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/03/coronavirus-mandalorian-tech-key-to-jump-start-film-production.html

Another area of consideration is the use of technology and digitalization. A director of commercials based in London explains how he directs an advertisement filmed in South Korea while he is in Ukraine and his clients watch the work from the US. Undoubtedly, technology will play a major role in Covid media productions, as guidelines encourage crews to turn to digital technology whenever possible to minimize contact. This contact also means contact with the city itself, and productions are already turning to technology as a way to simulate cities they are not filming in. Although the practice of substituting one city for another is common in film and TV production—Vancouver being a prime example 5Coe, Neil M. “On Location: American Capital and the Local Labour Market in the Vancouver Film Industry.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 1 (March 2000): 79–94. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2427.00236. of a city that frequently stands in for every place and no place—sophisticated LED Screen technology increasingly makes it possible for productions to create realistic and compelling city images. Before Covid, Solstice Studios CEO Mark Gill suggests these technologies were used largely to simulate “locations that you can’t travel to without a rocket ship,” but, with Covid, they are likely to be “used a lot more for locations that you could travel to…you might be on a sound stage in Vancouver and recreate central London.” Although these technologies are expensive, the drive to restart production may make studios think they are increasingly worthwhile, particularly as they trade off with travel expenses in the long run.

What Gets Produced during the Pandemic

The costs of Covid safety measures make it extraordinarily difficult for all but big budget productions to resume production. This has meant that the crews that have restarted work tend not to be local to the place in which they are filming, but rather Hollywood transplants who take up residence during the shoot. The kind of productions first getting the go-ahead to restart are the least risky blockbusters—especially those with a dedicated fanbase. Franchise films like Jurassic World: Dominion, filming in London, and Avatar 2, in New Zealand, were some of the first to restart production. In terms of narrative, these films construct a kind of “other-worldliness,” bringing comfort in their familiarity, but also a distraction from our own pandemic reality, as they gesture toward outer space or a place in which dinosaurs roam. Speaking to our desire for an escape to locations untouched by the pandemic—undestroyed pre-historic or futuristic natures away from public spaces and crowded cities—Avatar’s producers themselves escape to the safety of New Zealand’s landscape while Jurassic World is created in the controlled environment of Pinewood Studios.

Beyond these “safe” blockbusters, limits on the number of crew and extras as well as travel restrictions may have the effect of reigniting local independent film production. Dan Mintz, CEO of DMG Entertainment, “foresees independent film blossoming during this time. Smaller crews, intimate stories and a ‘scrappiness’ that isn’t often seen from the bigger players in the industry could lead to an influx in new voices in the film industry.” Participants in the Women in Film & Video New England’s June webinar spoke of similar hopes for how the pandemic might create a cultural shift in the industry with regards to race and gender, as one participant claimed the “unparalleled unification around safety” made the industry “ripe for a ‘revolution of culture change’ within film,” although the participants were also wary the revolutionary change could just as well go in the opposite direction of racial and gender justice. While there is some hope Covid will foster the kinds of local, independent productions that foreground voices long excluded by Hollywood, other independent producers are warier. Santa Fe-based independent producers Carolyn and Steve Graham, for example, suggest the stringent Covid guidelines have made it too expensive to produce their independent film The Penny, arguing the safety measures alone would constitute 10% of their budget. 

Another practice that Covid filming guidelines portend is a potentially more intimate genre of storytelling, in which stories are enclosed and contained within a small number of particular spaces populated by fewer and familiar crew members (couples or longtime collaborators), much like our own, non-fictional Covid worlds. As sets are more likely to be “closed,” using the type of small crews that are often used when filming intimate scenes, and as guidelines encourage crews to divide time on set into distinct working “pods,” performance and production respond to these cultural shifts on set through embodying more intimacy. Such “intimate” narratives are often about the experience of living through pandemic times, reflecting the conflict between being “inside” and the desire for the “outwards.” For instance, Netflix initiated a collection of short films titled Homemade, featuring works that capture “the shared experience of quarantine” by 17 filmmakers from around the world—including Pablo Larraín, Paolo Sorrentino, Nadine Labaki and Ana Lily Amirpour. The directors were instructed to focus on their personal lives and experiences and only use equipment found at their homes. Ezra Hurwitz’s short film on the personal experiences of the pandemic, Inside & Outwards, was shot on a New York City apartment rooftop where home decor that represents the quarantine experience of each actor were constructed on a movable and open structure visible from multiple points of view. This location and decor represent our (and the crew members’) conflicting experience of being locked down and the desire to be outside, the need to be in a controlled studio environment and a well-ventilated outdoor space, and being in the safety of “inside” while experiencing the alienation of being “out of the loop” and unemployed.

Still from Ezra Hurwitz’s short film Inside& Outwards. Elle Decor, September 10, 2020. https://www.elledecor.com/life-culture/a33657381/ezra-hurwitz-short-film-pandemic/

In the future, will productions keep escaping to open outdoor spaces in the search for less contaminated locations, or will they be contained in studios? What will each of these alternatives mean for the wider social and cultural geography of film and television production and for screen narrative? Will Covid-19 ultimately make production less mobile, and increasingly tied back to big studios? Will Hollywood rise again as the production center it once was? These are questions for which, of course, definite answers are still too early to tell. What is clear, however, is that Covid-19, at least in the short term, is reshaping and shifting the social and cultural geography of film and television production, the stories that are being told and the decision calculus by which producers, creators, and studios determine what gets made, where, and how.  

Notes

↑ 1. Curtin, Michael. “Media Capital: Towards the Study of Spatial Flows.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2003): 205. https://doi.org/10.1177/13678779030062004.
↑ 2. McNutt, Myles. “Mobile Production: Spatialized Labor, Location Professionals, and the Expanding Geography of Television Production.” Media Industries 2, no. 1 (2015): 65.
↑ 3. On economic impacts of film tax credits, see, for example, Button, Patrick. “Do Tax Incentives Affect Business Location and Economic Development? Evidence from State Film Incentives.” Regional Science and Urban Economics 77 (July 2019): 315–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.regsciurbeco.2019.06.002; Thom, Michael. “Lights, Camera, but No Action? Tax and Economic Development Lessons From State Motion Picture Incentive Programs.” The American Review of Public Administration 48, no. 1 (January 2018): 33–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0275074016651958.
↑ 4. Morgan Parmett, Helen. “Media as a Spatial Practice: Treme and the Production of the Media Neighbourhood.” Continuum 28, no. 3 (May 4, 2014): 286–99. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2014.900878.
↑ 5. Coe, Neil M. “On Location: American Capital and the Local Labour Market in the Vancouver Film Industry.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 1 (March 2000): 79–94. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2427.00236.

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