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A crew work a film set on a Toronto street as a police officer looks on, April 17, 2019.Doug Ives/The Canadian Press

If you were to go strictly by the recent headlines about B.C. and Western Canada officials giving film and TV productions the green light to roll cameras, you might assume that Canada’s multibillion-dollar entertainment industry is already back in business. But no matter how badly the sector needs to get running again – March’s countrywide shutdown put about 172,000 film and TV jobs in deep freeze – almost no movie or series is going to be made until one large, unsexy issue is solved: insurance.

“Our understanding is that the insurance companies that service our industry are going to write COVID-19 exclusions into their policies. Producers take out insurance to help mitigate certain risks, and COVID would count as a big one,” says Reynolds Mastin, president and CEO of the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), the trade body that represents hundreds of domestic film and TV production companies. “If they’re not able to obtain COVID insurance, that effectively prevents production from even starting up. The potential liability is simply too great.”

Most Hollywood productions are able to self-insure, and productions that started filming before the pandemic are covered off by pre-existing policies – which is how megabudget movies such as Jurassic World: Dominion and the Robert Pattinson-led The Batman are able to inch toward restarts this summer. But for Canada’s domestic industry – that is, productions that are created by, starring and funded by homegrown talent, as opposed to foreign content that shoots here with the help of local crews – there is no single entity even one-fifth as large as Netflix or Disney.

A COVID-19-sparked shutdown “could bankrupt a company in a heartbeat,” says producer Tom Cox, managing director of Alberta’s Seven24 Films (CBC’s Heartland, films such as Brokeback Mountain). “We need an industry-wide solution."

The insurance issue appears to be specific to the film and television sector.

“We’re trying to figure out right now if we’re the only industry that needs a special form of insurance before we can begin work, and I think we might be,” says Christina Jennings, chairwoman and CEO of Toronto’s Shaftesbury (CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries). “If you don’t have the protection for COVID, and in some cases companies are now not insuring for any other kind of communicable disease, too, then you could be facing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars of risk associated with a temporary shutdown.”

Which is why the CMPA is urging the federal government to support a “market-based” solution: Insurance companies would provide COVID-19 protection, so long as producers paid premiums for the additional coverage and the government fronted a $100-million “backstop” reserve for claims. Producers’ premiums would go into “a dedicated pot to pay for potential claims,” according to the association, and Ottawa would only contribute if the cash generated through "the sale of the policies was insufficient to cover the claims made.”

The proposal is not as radical as it might appear: France recently adopted a similar measure for its film and TV sector, and U.K. producers are also asking their government for assistance.

“I’ve had to become an insurance expert overnight, but what I can tell you is there are precedents where the federal government has stepped in when insurance companies have stepped out,” says Mastin, noting the U.K.'s 2013 decision to backstop insurance claims in the case of floods, and the U.S. Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, signed into law in 2002.

The CMPA’s draft proposal is in front of the Department of Canadian Heritage – and will likely undergo analysis by the Department of Finance and other ministries, according to Mastin. But time is of the essence. There will be almost zero movement in the sector until a solution is reached.

“If you spoke to my producer members, the deadline was a month ago, because they can’t meaningfully move forward unless they know that they can secure this insurance,” Mastin says. "But rather than give a deadline, I’d say from our perspective that this is the most urgent issue on our plate. And that’s saying something, because there are a lot of big issues that we’re grappling with right now.”

The longer a decision takes, the more things are exponentially delayed, says Alex Raffe, the Vancouver-based producer of CBC’s Kim’s Convenience and several feature films including the iconic Canadian drama I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. “Production is planned a long time in advance and we need to have some lead time. If a signal that this was going to come through can come now, we could be back in full-blown production by the winter.”

Producers stress that any government assistance would be a short-term, not indefinite, measure.

“We’re not expecting or asking for help in the long term – only for a bridge to ensure that there is an industry this year, because that means there’s a sustainable industry in the long term,” Cox says. “It would only be until other solutions come along – primarily a vaccine but also any other health and safety measures. But if there’s no industry this year, that means we’re not supplying to broadcasters and distributors next year, we’re not meeting our own overheads, and we’re not sustaining hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

The situation is especially pressing for independent films and series. While they have worked without the safety net of insurance long before COVID-19, the risk might now be insurmountable for even the scrappiest producer.

“If you’re a documentary producer, you work with small crews, so there may be steps you can take to greatly mitigate the COVID-19 risk,” Mastin says. “But the more bodies you deal with, the greater the risk. At a certain point, that risk becomes too great.”

Even if the CMPA’s proposal becomes a reality, insurance premiums will swell already tight production budgets – which must now also factor in costs to accommodate additional on-set health and safety measures. And Mastin notes that insurance is always needed for the mundane day-to-day realities a production faces, pandemic or no, such as equipment rentals and location permits.

It could all be enough to quash a production.

“I imagine these policies are going to be cost-prohibitive to small productions. What’s going to happen to the little guy?” asks Matt Miller of Toronto’s Zapruder Films (Operation Avalanche, CBC Gem’s upcoming Late Night in the Studio). “Everybody I talk to thinks that the CMPA plan is the path forward, and it seems like the solution. But what happens if there is a second wave? Then the $100-million pot that producers put in goes pretty quickly if it has to service 40 to 60 production stoppages at a single time.”

Still, there is boundless optimism that the CMPA will come to an arrangement with Ottawa. Mostly because there is no other solution on the table.

“I’m an eternal optimist, or I wouldn’t be a producer,” Cox says. “But I can only point to what the federal government has done thus far with [the Canada Emergency Response Benefit], which has been fast and positive. Hopefully they understand that this is a huge sector, and that not only jobs but cultural creation are at stake. I’m hopeful until I’m proven otherwise. And even then … I find a way to create hope.”

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