Lights, camera, COVID-19 compliance officer, action.
It’s anything but quiet on the set these days in Canada. Diligent (and expensive) adherence to health and safety protocol has film and television production surging during the virus’s persistent third wave and with low reports of COVID-19 incidents.
Since it reopened last summer, the industry has operated full tilt. “I can tell you we’ve rebounded since we reopened last summer and we are hitting historic highs in terms of productions,” said John Lewis, international vice-president and director of Canadian affairs with International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
The numbers back up Lewis’s declaration. Gross wages for film technicians in British Columbia, for example, have jumped nearly $4-million during the first quarter of 2021, compared with the corresponding prepandemic figure from 2019.
In Ontario, according to the Directors Guild of Canada, there are 87 major productions happening in the province at the moment – a big number that doesn’t take into account documentaries, unscripted series and commercials.
And in Toronto? Film star Jason Momoa has been a one-man industry.
The reason for Momoa’s heavy workload is that he’s cast in the Netflix fantasy-adventure feature Slumberland and the Apple TV series See, both filmed in Toronto. The explanation as to why filming in Canada is booming and allowed to flourish by governments while other sectors of the economy are locked down and desperately struggling is more complicated.
Factors are myriad, but industry stakeholders who spoke to The Globe and Mail unanimously honed in on what they see as a social contract. What they’re talking about is the collaborative efforts of producers, guilds and unions in keeping things safe on set and the industry’s relationship with Canadians who wonder why the Hollywood hotshot such as Momoa can work here when so many bartenders, barbers, musicians and theatre companies can’t.
“We have to deliver by ensuring we have safe workers and not contributing to COVID-19 case counts, and we’ve been able to live up to our side of the bargain,” said Reynolds Mastin, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA). “If we hadn’t, there would be no basis for exempting us compared to other industries.”
The numbers verify the industry’s success in keeping its sets safe. In a sample survey of productions in Ontario from the last half of 2020, Film Ontario found that the positivity rate for COVID-19 was less than 0.1 per cent among on-set personal. Since last fall, Toronto Public Health has investigated 15 productions and found a total of 34 COVID-19 cases and declared just two outbreaks. No closings of film and television sets were ordered.
The commitment to COVID-19-related protocol is nothing less than existential. “Everybody wants this industry to continue to survive,” said Alistair Hepburn, with the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA). “No one wants to be the producer who has an outbreak on their set.”
The safest place to be is on a film set
Reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments last year developed new health and safety protocols for the workplace. In Ontario, the Ministry of Labour produced a COVID-19 Guidance Document for best workplace practices. Using the guidelines, producers worked with unions to tailor protocols appropriate to the industry and their own productions.
“The protocol is essentially hospital grade,” CMPA’s Mastin said.
Daily health screening and a robust testing regimen is standard. When an actor takes off their mask to perform, everybody else is required to wear both masks and face shields. “Protecting them is paramount,” said Aren Prupas, chief operating officer and senior vice-president of business and legal affairs at Muse Entertainment, which produces the CBC show Coroner. “If the actors can’t work, no one works.”
The system works
Last August, a crew member on the Citytv police procedural Hudson & Rex tested positive for COVID-19. She had received a travel exemption to fly to St. John’s, where the series about a cop and his canine sidekick is shot. The crew member was isolated after arrival and, because she “never came into contact with any other crew member,” according to show producer Paul Pope, production was shut down for just a few hours.
The positive test involved an out-of-province worker and it marked the first new case in Newfoundland and Labrador in more than a week at that time. Not surprisingly, Pope and his team received public backlash.
“It was short-lived, though, because these are all decent jobs and I think people understand that the show is worth doing,” Pope said. “It was an example of the system working and things have only been refined and improved since then.”
Although the safety-first commitment is strict, one exception to protocol has been allowed on the set of Hudson & Rex, where workers can briefly lower their masks when approaching the co-star pooch. “Just so he recognizes them,” Pope said.
The industry is thriving not just in the traditional production centres in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, but also in Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
“The numbers anticipated this year in Alberta are unprecedented,” said IATSE’s Lewis, who cites the provincial government’s enhancement of tax credits, as well as the elimination of funding caps, which had traditionally been an obstacle to large-budgeted productions shooting there.
Last fall, the federal government stepped in with a $50-million Short-Term Compensation Fund (STCF) to help film and TV productions insure against COVID-19-related shutdowns after private insurers began inserting COVID-specific exclusion clauses into their policies. “The people who finance shows would not have been willing to do so without that coverage,” CMPA’s Mastin said. “The fund has been essential to getting Canadian productions back up and running.”
As of May 17, the fund administered by Telefilm Canada had received 369 applications for the policy since its introduction last November. Seven claims submitted because of production interruptions caused by COVID-19 are currently under review. No payouts have been made thus far.
Even though Ottawa doubled the STCF coverage to $100-million for this year, there was initial concern the fund would be oversubscribed heading into the industry’s high season. Last week, however, the Ministry of Canadian Heritage announced an additional $49-million in coverage.
An influx of infrastructure spending has resulted in new sound stages opening in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Winnipeg, allowing for an expansion in production capacity. A mammoth motion-picture facility with three new sound stages is currently being built in Winnipeg. Big Sky Studios is expected to be operational in the fourth quarter of this year.
Money talks, small budgets walk
On-set health and safety protocols involve everything from personal protective equipment, to regular testing, to the hiring of third-party medical service providers, to extra security staff and cleaners, to more food servers because communal eating is no longer allowed. According to a 2020 report put together by Film Ontario, the costs for the new measures and extra staff can take up as much as 15 per cent of a production budget.
The COVID-19 team with Hudson & Rex is led by a doctor contracted by the producer. “He’s not on set, but he’s available on a moment’s notice,” Pope said. COVID-19 costs were an estimated $1-million for the season’s shooting in St. John’s. Coroner producer Prupas, who hired a nurse as an on-set COVID-19 supervisor, says the additional expense for his Toronto-shot show approached $2-million.
“The producers would rather spend money on ensuring compliance and ensuring the protocols, because it’s cheaper than shutting down for two weeks,” ACTRA’s Hepburn said.
Although a domestic network television show such as Coroner or a big American studio filming in Canada can absorb the additional costs, many smaller productions have been shelved for the time being.
Audiences want the product
The film and television industry has not been declared an essential industry, but try telling that to stuck-at-home audiences who crave screen-based entertainment. Add to that the seemingly endless number of networks around today, all needing fresh content to justify their existence and subscription fees. It all amounts to a deep demand – one that is being met.
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Editor’s note: (May 27) An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the value of the Short-Term Compensation Fund (STCF). It is now worth $149-million. This version has been updated.