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Top 10 tips for getting the film reel rolling again

13 May 2020

In light of the Government’s recent announcement of its staged plan to grind the gears of the country back to work, the Film and Television industries will no doubt be considering how to get the film reel rolling again and what this might look like in a ‘COVID-19 secure’ environment.

We consider 10 potential issues, opportunities and impacts to the landscape for UK independent producers.

1. Quarantining crew and cast?

Producers have been considering the viability of quarantining crew and cast, housing them in individual accommodation near set and requiring self-isolation for two weeks before shoot and after wrap. Whilst this may sound simple, it is unlikely to be cost-effective for all but the very core cast and crew, since many others will only be needed on set on an ad-hoc daily basis. In any event, some cast and crew may well not be exclusive to that film or TV project for the entire period so couldn’t commit to these restrictions.

2. Looking local?

Availability of talent is key. With international travel looking increasingly difficult, producers may look to engage local actors rather than risk casting stars from overseas who may not want to, or be able to travel internationally (and putting pressure on them to do so raises its own moral and legal issues, even if a contract is signed). Producers should also be wary of the escalating costs which could arise if an A-lister gets ‘stuck’ in the UK in the event of a second lockdown.

This could be good for the UK acting industry, as more roles ordinarily given to big US names may be given to lesser-known local emerging talent.

3. Focus on development?

Whilst the issues around shooting continue to play out, our clients are finding more time to revisit their development slates, focusing on writing and deep-diving into their development projects. This could mean some really interesting and fresh ideas coming to the table in the near future.

4. Making your set safe?

Hand sanitisers, cleaning staff, PPE equipment, break-out rooms, canteen facilities, shift-working. These are just some of the areas producers should be thinking about to make their working environment as safe as possible. Health & Safety policies and procedures will also obviously be a key focus and the Government’s ‘COVID-19 Secure’ guidelines will also be the benchmark for compliance.

5. Sets vs studios?

Producers are likely to be looking at shooting more outdoors and avoiding indoor studios, which may require re-writing of scripts. Will this in turn see a change in the nature of stories being created as people focus their writing on more remote outdoors locations to facilitate their films getting made?

The industry is hoping for more specific guidance from the the British Film Commission (BFC) on the use of studio space and, until this happens and the parameters are clearer, there may be little value in being too forensic about conducting risk-assessments of locations.

6. Cross-sector diversification?

With no clear indication of when theatres and live performance spaces will be back in action, writers in those sectors may find themselves available and actively re-skilling to write for screen, giving producers access to a new talent pool.

Cinemas are also a ‘no-go’ for the next few months, which has seen some writers and producers considering re-packaging their scripts from theatrical features to become suitable for the small-screen. With the SVODs ever-hungry for content, the temptation is obvious, though there is a clear desire within the film industry to preserve cinema, the collective experience of which cannot be replaced by watching at home, and there is a quiet confidence that this will return in strength when the time is right.

7. More cinema slots for indies?

When cinemas do eventually open, there may be an early opportunity for independent producers to take up gaps in cinema schedules usually reserved by the studios, whilst studios are finding their feet and working out how to get back to business as usual.

Having said that, distributors may fend this off and secure their space by allowing cinemas to show some archive films, possibly for free or at reduced rates to support the cinema industry.

8. Insurance

Insurers are unwilling to underwrite against COVID-19-related risks, and these are likely to remain uninsurable. The industry may have to learn to adapt to this in the same way that terrorism has now become a generally uninsured category of risk. The BFI has occasionally allowed films to go into production without a bond in place (in these situations the BFI acts as a de facto insurer) but that is pretty rare.

This may hit mid-budget, independent films the hardest, since big-budget films may be able to support themselves and those with a very low budget might be able to get away without bonding.

The key will be a willingness and cooperativeness from financiers and insurers, and it remains to be seen how this will unfold.

9. COVID-19 disclaimers?

Can producers ask individuals working on a shoot to sign a ‘disclaimer’ saying that the producer takes no responsibility for that individual contracting COVID-19 at work? Many producers have been asking this question and we await guidance from the industry bodies on whether this may become customary practice. From a legal standpoint, it is not possible to contractually limit liability for negligence causing personal injury, so if staff contract COVID-19 as a result of the producer’s carelessness and insufficient measures being implemented to ensure social distancing etc there won’t be an easy defence.

Producers should also be wary of making decisions about who can and can’t work based on vulnerability to contracting COVID-19. Selections based on age, economic background and health status could raise issues with discrimination, and using health tests may also give rise to data protection concerns around the handling of sensitive personal data.

10. A new way of working?

The Film and TV industries have historically been relatively unforgiving when it comes to the work/life balance. As people are forced to work from home and, in many cases, to juggle home-schooling of children with their professional lives, things could be forced to change. The pressures of family life, coupled with a new focus on mental health, could lead to a culture of increased understanding with a more flexible approach becoming the norm.

Some producers are now using online video calls to audition cast, host pitches and to round-table post-production ideas. The lockdown could have a positive long-term effect as the industry realises that it is not impossible to be a bit more agile.

However, one area which producers likely feel cannot be replaced are the film festivals, since nothing can beat that face-to-face contact for networking and showcasing.

Take-away point

The road ahead is challenging and uncertain but what is clear is that there is a collective willingness in the industry to find solutions and to innovate.

Along with the difficulties, there may be great opportunities for UK independent producers – who can often be more nimble than the studio producers using international cast and large crews – and this may stand the indies in good stead to get ahead of the game and back behind the camera.

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