Why movie and TV productions in Ontario are shooting during the third wave

With ICUs overwhelmed, industry professionals weigh in on whether the film shoots need to temporarily shut down

Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, movie and TV productions in Ontario and across Canada immediately shut down, regrouping months later after elaborate new safety measures and protocols were in place.

“That was a very expensive decision that everybody made across our entire industry,” says producer Miles Dale. “I think probably 40 shows shut down in Ontario within two or three days of each other.”

The Shape Of Water producer was in the midst of two major shoots in Toronto at the time. The shutdown interrupted Guillermo del Toro’s psychological thriller Nightmare Alley starring Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara, which was a third of the way through principal photography. It also disrupted Dale’s upcoming Netflix comedy series, Sex/Life, which was just two weeks into a shoot. Both productions picked up again in the fall, after studios, unions and doctors hashed out the rigorous guidelines in Section 21, the agreed-upon film and television safety guidelines filed with Ontario’s Ministry of Labour.

Dale is among the film and health professionals who NOW spoke to regarding the health and safety protocols on movie and TV sets in Ontario. The industry has been back up and running, employing thousands for nine months, while maintaining low COVID-19 numbers, minimal transmissions and zero reported outbreaks.

Epidemiologist David Fisman and internist Abdu Sharkawy are among those impressed with the rigorous studio protocols that involve regular testing and working in pods under the guidance of COVID safety teams. They don’t find it unreasonable for productions to continue – with caveats.

Ontario is in the throes of a third wave. The majority of the cases involve highly contagious variants. ICUs are overwhelmed. The military and the Red Cross have been brought in to help. The province has responded with a stay-at-home order, but manufacturers and construction sites that certainly don’t seem essential can still operate.

Meanwhile Ford’s government still refuses to put forward a substantial plan for paid sick days – a three-day top-up to the federal plan is the best the province could come up with.

With all that in mind, at least one doctor thinks Ontario needs to shut it all down, including movie and TV production.

“As important as the film industry is for the economy and for the people that are working in it, we do have to make a tough choice,” says Mayoorendra Ravichandiran, an ER doctor working in one of Toronto’s hot spots. “At one point we need to put a hold on things until we get this under control again. And right now, it’s not under control. It’s completely out of control for all of Ontario and a lot of Canada.”

“The fact that some people are dying at home is definitely the primary concern,” says Dale, who has faith that current protocols are working but doesn’t discount the possibility he may need to pivot before his next production. “If things get any worse, I may change my tune, or someone may change it for me.”

Dale is currently prepping his latest project with del Toro, 10 After Midnight. The horror anthology series is supposed to start shooting in June. That’s one of many major productions scheduled in Ontario this summer. There’s also Sarah Polley’s Women Talking starring Frances McDormand, Mila Kunis’s Luckiest Girl Alive, Daisy Ridley’s The Marsh King’s Daughter and several returning shows like Locke & Key.

“I’ve got a little bit of runway here before I have to start to congregate people,” says Dale. “I’ll make another decision in a month. We’ll have a month more of track record on the variants and we’ll be able to say, ‘you know what, too close for comfort…’ There’s always the possibility that we would take action before the government.”

Courtesy of CBC

Simu Liu and Paul Sun‑Hyung Lee on the set of the Kim’s Convenience.

Safety protocols on movie and TV sets in Ontario

The Nightmare Alley production went through 17,000 COVID-19 tests over the course of its four-month pandemic shoot from September to December. Dale estimates that they had four positive cases where the virus was contracted by production members off set.

“None of them ever made it to set,” says Dale.

“We are seeing cases,” says ACTRA Toronto Director of Film, Television & Digital Media Alistair Hepburn, while pointing out that the average for cases in the movie and television industry is about 140 times less than the provincial average. “We have had a couple of cases where it has spread from one individual to another on a set, but those are the exceptions and not the rule.”

Dale, Hepburn and Alex Kolodkin, president of Safe Sets International, explain to NOW how the movie and TV industry in Ontario has managed to police itself and keep on set transmissions down to near zero. Crews work in pods. If someone tests positive, their pod is quarantined. After the environment they worked in is sanitized and all contacts have been traced, the production can continue. Cast and crew are PCR tested at least every three days, often more, especially for actors. Productions also have access to rapid testing as well. COVID safety teams are on set at all times to provide guidance and keep people distant, wearing masks and shields, and sanitized at all times.

The film and television industry have been able to operate like this because major Hollywood studios are sparing no expense on the precautions.

“This is how you should be doing it,” says Fisman, when I walk him through production guidelines. He can’t help but feel down that other Ontario institutions aren’t following the movie and TV industry’s lead. “Look at the bullshit around teachers in schools [or employees at an Amazon fulfillment centre, or a meat-packing centre] where exactly the same stuff should apply, and none of these tools are on the table.”

“As the situation evolves, everyone is kind of reacting and they’re trying to be proactive,” adds Hepburn.

The new science

Fisman and I turn our attention to the way crew members are transported. At the moment, a lot of film and television productions are in the process of location scouting. Fifteen passenger Sprinter vehicles carry about four production members, each masked in their own row.

Fisman points out that a lot of these protocols are actually based on droplet transmission, the idea that splatter from people’s mouths is how COVID spreads.

“If it was entirely transmitted via splatter, having people sit with the front of their face, pointing at the back of someone else’s head would be effective,” says Fisman.

But the latest science says that COVID-19 transmits via aerosol, which means people spreading out inside of a vehicle doesn’t make a big difference. He compares the situation to having a smoker in a vehicle with 11-15 people. If you reduce the number of people to five but one of them is the smoker, the others will still be choking on second-hand smoke.

With COVID-19, Fisman says reducing the number of people and spacing them out in an enclosed environment is really just playing a numbers game. You’re minimizing how many people will get infected and how likely it is that you are inviting someone with the virus.

“You have 15 chances to put someone with COVID in the van and now you have only five chances.”

When the numbers game is combined with the regular PCR testing, masking and at-home precautions crew members are meant to live by, the chances are pretty great that the van or the set is safe. Fisman and Sharkawy add that keeping the windows open is crucial in this scenario. But they also agree that safety from COVID-19 is not guaranteed.

“All of our tests are imperfect,” says Fisman. “Our vaccines are imperfect. Anything we do to mitigate risk isn’t perfect. So all of it can fail. This is a game of inches.”

“It’s bound to fail at some point,” says Ravichandiran. “That’s bound to lead to some unfortunate outcomes.” He points out that the stakes are different this time, with 30- and- 40-year-olds ending up in the ICU because of the new variants.

In the absence of adequate information from Ontario’s government, Fisman helped Canadian media artist Gisele Gordon develop an easy-to-use fact sheet for the public explaining how the variants have changed the pandemic: the majority of COVID-19 cases in Ontario are variants that can be twice as contagious and 60 per cent deadlier; the highest risk individuals are now under the age of 40, and one in three individuals who survive are affected by brain disorders.

Courtesy of CBC/Cameron Pictures/NBCUniversal International Studios

Adrienne C. Moore gets a touch up on the set of the CBC series Pretty Hard Cases.

The gaps in the protocols

An actor came to set with COVID-19 in Toronto, Hepburn says. Without naming names, he explains how that can happen with such rigid protocols in place.

The actor takes a PCR test on Monday because he’s scheduled to work beginning Thursday. He tests again on Tuesday for work on Friday and on Wednesday for work on Saturday. But while he’s on set on Friday, the test he took on Wednesday comes back positive.

“You could test three days in a row and on that third test is when the positive appears,” says Hepburn, who adds that nobody else on set was infected in that scenario.

There are gaps in the strict protocols, but even Sharkawy is satisfied with the many stop-gaps along the way keeping sets safe.

“I don’t think the variants change the principles behind the protocols,” says Sharkawy. “It’s really a question of how likely a film crew will be to adhere strictly. If it seems like it would be a challenge due to issues with numbers on set or ventilation concerns, a production should be scrapped for now.”

Ravichandiran asks about how sick days work on productions, wondering whether, say, a make-up artist who begins to experience symptoms could feel the pressure to minimize them to avoid being replaced.

According to current protocols, anyone who needs to be quarantined takes their pod with them. During that time off, they are replaced so the production can continue. If a production is only days or weeks, that time off can be their entire gig.

“There are some people, and you can’t blame them for their circumstances, who can’t afford to miss a week,” says Dale.

The crew didn’t have to worry about that on well-funded productions like Nightmare Alley. Dale encouraged all the crew members to speak up and take paid sick days if they felt symptomatic. But Dale said that policy can differ from studio to studio. Productions that don’t have the blank checks a Disney or Netflix can write may not be able to accommodate workers in the same way.

Such inconsistencies between jobs – not just on movie and TV sets – is exactly why the Ontario government needs a robust paid sick days policy, says Ravichandiran, “so that is not is not up to the employers to decide if anyone can take time off or not.”

Hepburn points out that the greater threat to a production isn’t a crew member contracting COVID-19 but an actor. The talent in front of the camera isn’t so easily replaced, and productions have to figure out how to shoot around that person or decide whether to shut down for two weeks. That puts an incredible amount of pressure on actors to not only stay safe but also to do what they can to keep the production going for everybody else’s sake. You don’t want to be the reason hundreds of people have to stop working.

That’s the same mentality that kept so many people from speaking out about harassment issues on sets prior to the #MeToo movement. Producers who want to keep productions running and jobs secure have a history of overriding safety on sets. I wonder if a similar code of silence would be in effect in situations where COVID-19 protocols are not being followed. Sure, you have teams in charge of supervising COVID-19 protocols on set – but they too must answer to the production.

“There are times when nobody wants to speak out,” says Hepburn. “Nobody wants to be the person that points out something incorrect is happening. That’s not exclusive to this industry.”

Hepburn explains that there’s a hotline called Haven, set up by ACTRA and the Directors Guild of Canada for people to report any issues on set.

“We’re going to investigate the problem,” says Hepburn. “If the problem can’t be resolved and requires a pause on the production, that’s what’s going to happen.”

I ask whether ACTRA would step in and halt a production if they discover COVID-19 safety issues.

“We have intervened,” he says. “I can think of five or six instances off the top of my head where we have intervened and paused a production. The production itself will continue because we pause the production. A deep sanitization occurs wherever the positive case was. We do all of the contact tracing. We isolate those folks. And then they can continue.”

He adds that most producers like Dale have been diligent about policing themselves, if not to protect their projects and reputation, at least to protect the entire industry.

“Across Ontario, they are spending millions to protect the workers,” says Hepburn. “It will cost them even more money if they have to shut down.”

Protecting film and TV jobs in Ontario

Last summer, while the U.S. was on fire with COVID-19 cases, more movie and television studios were eyeballing Canadian locations for their productions. But now, the tide has turned.

Ontario’s third wave woes are regularly covered in the Washington Post because the way we screwed this up is baffling. Our inability to contain a virus while Hollywood can put on a live Oscars telecast doesn’t inspire confidence.

A potential shutdown in the summer could be all the reason studios need to relocate to where the local government knows what they’re doing. That would cost Ontario not just production, movie and TV jobs, but work in catering, hotels and equipment rentals.

“This is not necessarily the reason to make a decision or not make a decision,” says Dale, “because the sanctity of human life is the thing that drives that decision.”

“If they could just get this together with a well-coordinated paid sick leave program and encourage sick people to stay home, if they took the vaccines to the places where they need to go, it’s far more likely that businesses like ours would be able to stay open.”


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