Life buoy overseas for US productions
While LADPH is urging film productions to “strongly consider” pausing their operations, studios are at their highest peak in Budapest. As a safe haven for US film companies, productions do not expect any changes in filming schedules. Major service companies share their secret, how they deal with the COVID restrictions and make productions finish safely in time.
As the coronavirus began spreading in early 2020, and states issued mandates to try to contain the pandemic, individual film and television productions have shut down across the globe. These shutdowns have had and will continue to have untold financial and cultural impact, and may reshape popular culture and its economic model for years to come.
In Budapest “The Nightingale“ – Sony’s Dakota and Elle Fanning pic has suspended its production, “Carnival Row“ – starring Orlando Bloom – revealed that production on season 2 of the Amazon series has been halted. Bloom noted in an Instagram video that he was being sent home to the United States as a result.
“At the time, the pandemic started rising, “Shadow&Bones“ was just finished, so they could wrap in time and leave by schedule. The “Banker’s Wife” just moved in 2 weeks earlier, on the day they stopped production, and the crew left the country. The running Netflix production “Barbarians“ was halted and “The Nightingale” did not move in despite the signed contracts.” – was told us by Origo Studios in Budapest, which with 8 large soundstages, 2 smaller TV sound stages, a green screen stage and additional post production facilities have been providing a strong infrastructure for many productions since its opening 10 years ago.
“At ORIGO Studios we immediately introduced a COVID-protocol. We had extensive negotiations with our clients, and had agreements with the production service companies to prepare for the reopening” – was explained by their head of marketing, Mihaly Toth.
The key is testing onsite and to maintain strict protocol
“We underwent a six-week audit to achieve the approval of UCLA’s research group. Our laboratory with the highest progressivity level and “our pandemic plans” met UCLA’s criterion. For film crew testing we developed an automated testing system to decrease risk factors. Working with large film crews we need to react extremely quickly in case of infection. If somebody becomes suspicious during filming, our testing teams are able to test hundreds of crew members on site within a few hours and in multiple locations we test hundreds of people daily. Basically, data-processing takes the most time, therefore each tested patient has their own QR-code that reduces the risk of data failures. The system is GDPR compatible and our own improvement. We built another pandemic protocol for extras, depending on how close they get to each other and to main actors.” – was told by Dr. Andras Tamasi, the CEO of Smart Covid Center, a microbiological laboratory in Budapest.
The Hungarian government’s film commissioner, Csaba Káel, told earlier: “Special exemption can be granted for non-EU residents to enter Hungary without mandatory quarantine, international projects are being prepared, making it possible to restart production at full capacity. The pandemic has not shut down Hungary’s film industry, he said, noting measures taken in recent months to ensure steady work for 20,000 Hungarian motion picture professionals. Film professionals from the United States need to produce two negative Covid-19 test results before entering Origo Studios“, Káel said. “Crew members are tested at least once a week, but sometimes as many as three times a week, he added.”
Hungary has been tested
To help make shooting happen “in conjunction with the National Film Institute, we are working on various new initiative to get the industry back up and running, including a new training program for health and safety supervisors with Covid-19 international guidelines,” Ildikó Kemény at Pioneer Pictures, the local production service providers for “The Serpent” and “The Witcher“ told. “Studios and rental houses are also investing into all necessary safety precautions.”
Hungary has proven hugely popular as a shooting location in recent times with Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi tome, “Dune“ one of the biggest productions to shoot there recently, taking over the Origo Studios in Budapest last year. Villeneuve is clearly a fan having already shot “Blade Runner 2049“ there.
Besides “Dune” two other productions were running simultaneously at ORIGO Studios: “Birds of Paradise” and “Mrs Harris Goes to Paris”. The main task was to separate the productions and the crews during the whole time. “We hermetically isolated all crews, which wasn’t easy as “Dune” was also shooting on our backlots, not just in the soundstages. “Dune” was a very “technical” production with big sets, lots of people, but the crews were very well organized and aware of the situation.”, said Mihály Tóth at ORIGO Studios.
Losses and gains
In 2019, the production of 319 films were registered in Hungary, 228 of which were Hungarian, eight were co-productions and 83 foreign productions.
The greatest amount, $48.2 million, was spent on TNT’s “The Alienist: Angel of Darkness”, the second season of the Emmy-winning show, starring Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans and Daniel Brühl. The Hungarian spend on Showtime’s “Halo”, to be released in 2021, exceeded $41.3 million, while around $24 million was spent each by the Netflix series “Shadow and Bones” and Barry Levinson’s feature biopic “Harry Haft” (Baltimore Pictures, Bron Media Corp.), starring Ben Foster.
Hungary offers a 30% tax rebate for film and TV productions, based on the expenditure in the country, and the rebate can reach 37.5% through the addition of qualifying non-Hungarian costs.
“Due to the pandemic, 5 months are missing from 2020. Compared to 2019, we lost 2/3 of our income this year, while we had to invest into an anti-infection and pandemic control system, which was completely unknown previously in film business.”, said Mr Tóth. “The system we have built is functional and will be functional in the future. Our partner, Smart Covid Center just installed its new testing base in one of our warehouses, where they can test isolated and simultaneously more productions at the same time, and get results in only 40 minutes. They also offer a medical background: their private testing laboratory, a contractual private COVID hospital, which takes care of any crew member infected with the virus, who is transported there by their private ambulance car. This is a top level solution to handle COVID or any similar case in the future”, added.
L.A. is facing a new lockdown – Hungary is running the mills
While Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is saying “although music, TV and film productions are allowed to operate, we ask you to strongly consider pausing work for a few weeks during this catastrophic surge in COVID cases. Identify and delay higher risk activities, and focus on lower-risk work for now, if at all possible” – Disney/Marvel‘s “Moon Knight“ series will start filming in Hungary in a few days along with several other projects.
Adam Goodman, owner of Mid Atlantic, the biggest film service company in the region said on the 31st of December 2020, while he “cannot comment on specific projects but any COVID restrictions or recommendations in LA are relevant to U.S. film production and not applicable to Hungary. Provided a cast or crew member is permitted to travel outside the U.S. we do not expect any changes to our filming schedules.”
“For 2021 we are booked till autumn, and all the big production companies showed up and are negotiating or already have a contract with us.” said Mr Tóth on behalf of ORIGO Studios “transparent operation, local crew’s work to ease the effect of the strict regulations, and an effective anti-COVID protocol with heavy investment in infrastructure and human resources make it possible, that every production can be finished safely and in time in Budapest.”