Around a year ago, in March 2020, COVID-19 began to spike throughout the US. Businesses closed up shops, venues pulled down their shutters and Hollywood went on a five-month hiatus, halting pretty much all of its productions.
As Hollywood supports over 400,000 American businesses and over a whopping 2 million jobs, this, of course, was no small lockdown — it was an earthshattering change for both the industry and all those who worked within it. Not only did it knock people’s immediate futures, both financially and artistically, into the unknown, but it made the entire prospect of funding films far more risky as the domestic box-office draw in 2020 plummeted to a 40 year low.
Despite what felt like unending uncertainty, production permits slowly began to be reissued between March and June before the eventual reopening of production in August. But what awaited Hollywood production teams was a challenge far more complex than cancellation — keeping cast and crew safe from the heavily contagious Coronavirus.
Safety on Set
As staff started to flock back to set it’d be unfair to say Hollywood wasn’t prepared, but the logistical nightmare clearly proved to be a bigger beast than was originally conceived.
The obvious complexities reared their heads: keeping creatives at a healthy distance during the collaborative process, minimising physical contact, taking temperature checks, testing, and managing large-scale sets and production equipment while remaining two metres apart. While this is, in many ways, conceivable to do the issues lay not so much in the ability to execute it, but who the responsibility lay with to uphold such standards.
Frankly, many of the on-the-ground team given the task for managing work under COVID were severely underqualified. But, backing up for a moment, there are plenty of reasons for this.
First of all, we can ask who applied for these roles? The answer is not so hard to imagine. After almost half a year of layoffs, delays and no pay, many Hollywood cast and crew leapt at the opportunity of the new roles on offer. Put yourself in the shoes of an out-or-work Hollywood production assistant finally coming across stable income; chances are you’d take it too.
But hiring a mishmash of skill sets into the role of COVID-19 safety liaisons led to further issues. Lack of adequate training and resources, conflicting messages from executives and no across-the-board industry standards pushed many of those in charge of keeping sets safe to breaking point. And that’s not to mention other, more established, problems inherent on film sets — such as their overwhelming size and the built-in power dynamics which have long been part of how sets operate.
In an enlightening set of interviews with Buzzfeed News, a number of such COVID safety crew members spoke up. Some revealed their unsuitability for the role they had been given, explaining “I have no formal training. I have no medical training. I don’t know anything more or less about coronavirus than the next person”. While others shone a light on the unfair pressure placed on them by elucidating that “we’re the ones who take the brunt of it. The executives at Warner Bros. sit in their at-home offices and issue these mandates, but we have to deal with the crew’s fears and complaints.”
With these concerns being flagged up in January of this year (2021), it’s clear that many of the issues that plagued Hollywood’s reopening continue to be at the forefront of the COVID concerns in Hollywood. However, it may be unrealistic to expect standard for COVID safety to become unified across film and television in Hollywood (or worldwide for that matter) due to the fact that each set and production is inherently very different. But that is not to say that some fundamental rules shouldn’t be upheld, with the responsibility falling higher up the chain of command.
Despite these manifold concerns, we shouldn’t downplay the profound effect all of Hollywood’s COVID infrastructure has had on keeping the pandemic, relatively, in check within the workplace. The number of breakouts have, generally speaking, been few and far between with sets quickly being closed upon the discovery of local cases—something that is undoubtedly helped by the presence, and enforcement, of daily testing.
For many the difference between “few and far between” and none, the ideal number, is far too large. And with the state of California (as of March 5, 2021) still getting daily rates of over 2,000 cases, off the back of their recent surge which peaked at an average of 20,000 daily cases, many will consider working in such close quarters during the pandemic as simply unviable. Such number have also leaked into Hollywood at times, with the sets of “Lucifer”, “Young Sheldon”, “The Kominsky Method” and “Mr. Major” (among many, many others) all reporting cases breaching double digits in the last few months.
Such numbers have even been commented upon by healthcare specialists, such as UCLA Professor of Epidemiology Dr. Timothy Brewer who stated “I can think of no infectious disease or epidemiological reasons for why you prohibit people from going to playgrounds or outdoor restaurants if people were distanced and wearing masks, but allow film production to continue”.
At the end of the day, the lessons Hollywood has been learning over the last seven months are ones every industry has needed to learn. As COVID continues to spread, change shape and our world adapts more to its wrath. And the stark fact that the reopening of Hollywood productions hasn’t resulted in widespread outbreaks in California is testament to the efforts of the on-set COVID officers and everyone working on the side-lines who is testing cast and crew and keeping them at safe distances.
Of course, the relative safety of the sets doesn’t excuse the occasional outbreaks, nor the remarkable amount of pressure placed on those who bear the load of preventing the virus spreading. But it does show that over the past year Hollywood has learned many lessons, allowing it to slowly crank back up the gears. The next question is, will it ever be able to fully recover in the face of a virus which is very much still ravaging the US, and much of the world?
Sources: WeForum, Hollywood Reporter, Bloomberg, Buzzfeed News, The Daily Beast