‘Logistical issues’: Confessions of a production exec on how coronavirus safety has changed her job

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Since productions ramped back up this past summer, agencies and production companies have had to retool safety protocols on sets to reduce the possibility of the spreading coronavirus. Doing so has not only changed what happens on the ground, but the bidding process for production companies as costs associated with those new safety protocols have to be factored in. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from a producer who handles bids about how the coronavirus crisis has changed her job and why the increasing positivity rate could once again make doing her job difficult and time-consuming.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How a production functions has changed due to the virus. Has bidding for a job and estimating costs also changed?

Yeah, there are lots of additional things to figure out now that were not ever part of our shoots before. Everyone gets rapid tested for the most part, either when they get to set or on a tech scout day. There are Covid assistants to help make sure that during pre-production additional PPE is purchased and handwashing stations will show up on set. They’re basically an extra production person who’s responsible for making sure all of that happens so that it’s not just on the producer and production team to figure that out. And there’s obviously additional money that goes along with that. 

How much money?

It depends on the size of the crew. A safe estimate would be like 10-15% [of the budget] but it’s hard to say exactly because we present it as a separate cost. You’re paying for additional prep, hand cleaning stations and with the biggest costs of testing for all crew, agency, client and talent. Say a shoot was $250,000 for one-day — the Covid costs could be between $25,000 and $40,000 depending on how big the crew is and how much prep there would be, but most of that cost is testing. The cost of each [rapid] test is roughly $300 and a technician to come administer that and take it to a testing facility, so that’s another $200-$300 per day [on top of the cost of the test].

Have clients pushed back on the extra costs?

Like any budget, there are questions about how much things cost. For the most part it comes down to, “Do you want your agency, your client to have their name in [a publication] if something bad happens?” We typically pass the costs on as a costs plus so that there’s full transparency and that clients know they only pay for what we use. It’s not like there’s a super mark up happening. What it costs is what you pay. 

Aside from planning for the extra costs, how has your job changed?

Production teams are freelance. We give them a lot of trust. We’re asking them to come in on budget, but also make sure everyone is safe. But if they’re not being safe, it’s on the production company. So it’s a lot more hands-on approach, I would say, in a lot of the decisions to make sure the right decisions were being made. Now, I feel like we’ve done enough jobs that there’s a shorthand with producers and there is a little bit more trust in the people we’ve worked with. Everyone is aware of what the process is at this point. 

In August, an assistant director passed away after contracting the virus following being at a commercial shoot. What effect did that have on the industry?

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There was a time where the unions were requesting everyone get tested, but agencies and clients were not at the point where they wanted to pay for it because it is the most expensive part Covid costs. You could suggest that people pay for it, but it was still a suggestion. It wasn’t something production companies could pay for themselves. When that happened there was a change between suggesting it and saying, ‘Our crew has to be tested. Here are the costs. You’re going to have to pay this.’ It became more serious for everyone [when the assistant director died] and all the production companies aligned behind it.

With the numbers rising rapidly are you worried that production could be shut down again?

We play it as it happens. The main influence [on considering not shooting] is if there’s a city that shuts down and if there are regulations about how many people you can have indoors. Another factor is whether or not the shoot is indoors or outdoor. Early on, as places were opening up, we had to figure out if we could shoot there, how many people we could have, if we could travel directors there, if that director would have to quarantine and stay in a hotel for an extra two weeks. All of those logistical issues were the main brunt of figuring out a shoot. Now that things are more open, it’s a little easier to go back to the hubs of New York, L.A. and Chicago. But if things start to shut down more, I feel like it’s going to go back to the logistics of where we can [and can’t] shoot.

Do you think people realize that those logistical headaches could return if cities shut down again?

The hardest thing about the rising numbers is that productions [and production planning] are dependent on how things are in the future. People don’t seem to think about what the world could be in two weeks. That was more of an issue in May where certain places were opening up but there were different phases of opening. There was a lot of stress in planning shoots for areas in early phases where there was the possibility that rising numbers would have that area go back a phase, the shoot there would be off and we’d have to find a new place. I don’t think people have really thought that things are bad yet. The way that jobs are coming in right now [it doesn’t seem like] there’s a thought that things could be shut down again. Because we broke the seal [and opened up again] it seems very hard for people to come back to the realization that things are bad. 

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