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Film Production & COVID-19: The New Workflow

by Celtx

As this fraught and challenging year draws to a close, we’ve all become intimately acquainted with the many different ways in which the business of daily life has been upended. New protocols and considerations are required for even the most casual of activities, and in business these changes are even more pronounced.

For those who have ever spent time on a film set, the implications of the pandemic may cause one to shudder. How is it possible to operate safely in such a chaotic, crowded, and close-quarters environment? Even more chilling, if we’re all stuck at home indefinitely, are we going to run out of stuff to watch?

This notion of a “content desert” was floated for a time near the beginning of the lockdowns. The prediction was a combination of three factors: projects that were in production would have to stop, new productions would not be able to be greenlit for safety and insurance reasons, and the backlog of new content approaching release would either dry up or get trapped in distribution purgatory.

Thankfully, this did not come to pass. While governments scrambled to draft regulations for keeping essential services and businesses accessible, the production industry was doing the same. Broadcast and network television adapted quickly, while film, television, and commercial productions began going back to camera as early as June 2020. Unsurprisingly, demand for content has been amplified dramatically, and some localities are anticipating one of their busiest production seasons ever.

To gain some insight into this rapid turnaround, we reached out to clients and contacts within the industry to discuss how they managed to get back to business, as well as the far-reaching implications for how pandemic protocols could change the production industry for the better.

Here are our key takeaways:

This should come as no surprise. All productions are legally obliged to adopt basic COVID-19 precautions relative to the locality of the shoot.

This means the usual: PPE, regular sanitization,  physical distancing, occupancy limits, and so on. These aren’t earth-shattering changes in most businesses, but in the fast-paced “burning daylight” world of production, the effects are profound.

In addition to adhering to local COVID-19 regulations, professional productions are also hiring privatized COVID-19 testing firms. Weekly testing is required for all crew members, and depending on their role, they can be tested as many as three times per week

Enforcing these standards has created an entirely new crew department. Conducting and logging these tests, in addition the pace-breaking impact of sanitization protocols, is adding an average of three hours per shooting day. This results in professional productions adding an average of 20% to their budgets to eliminate any potential disease vectors. This represents a substantial amount of money that is not limited to masks and Purell – it’s being spent on technology as well.

Speaking of disease vectors…

Some elements of the industry are famously reluctant to embrace new workflows, particularly when it comes to the forest-leveling amounts of paper that get passed around on a shoot. This appears to be changing, and all it took was a global pandemic. All production documentation (both on-set and off) is now digital. Some exceptions are made (such as physical sides for actors), but generally speaking the days of the full-tilt copy room have ended.

This has led to a marked increase in the presence of phones, laptops, and tablets on set for personal use by general crew members – traditionally this was reserved for certain key positions. Moreover, it has eliminated the traditional methods of distribution while also making distribution more important.

Everyone needs access to their call sheets, DPRs, time sheets, and the usual daily production documentation, but they also now (by law) need ready access to health and safety documentation and COVID-19 test results. As we will touch on later, managing this increased level of distribution requires dedicated solutions.

But before that, what happens when nobody needs to swap paper anymore?

Sets are now zoned relative to level of PPE requirements. This means that the closer you get to the actors, the less people are present. Whereas before you might expect to find fifty to one hundred people in the same studio space, you may now only find twelve. 

Those whose immediate presence has now been defined as non-essential are working remotely; either in different parts of a secure shooting location or from home. Video Village has been replaced with live streaming of footage to people elsewhere within or outside of the shooting location. Broadstroke and departmental meetings are virtual. The production office is virtual. The writer’s room is virtual. 

Productions that stopped during the initial lockdown and have now resumed were forced to improvise solutions to accommodate this new reality, by adopting and integrating new technology like never before.

This goes beyond the expected Zoom calls. Document distribution, writing, live streaming, HR, production coordination, casting, and payroll are now being facilitated with a slew of interoperable and film-centric services. Celtx is among them.

When this crisis is over, crews around the world will be happily throwing away masks, gloves, and endless tiny bottles of hand sanitizer to celebrate the return of the traditional hands-on approach of day-to-day shoots. This will never change – when it comes to getting the scene in the can, you need close, rapid, and off-the-cuff cooperation with your fellow crew members. It’s the nature of the beast.

However, it’s in the complex bureaucratic network of off-set production departments where the advantages of collaborative digital workflows may finally take a permanent foothold. When the speed and efficiency of using tools like Celtx becomes seen as preferable as opposed to an emergency necessity, the days of the exhausted, toner-drenched PA making a midnight run to hand deliver hardcopies of the latest shooting draft will mercifully come to a close.

It seems that day is in sight, so there’s never been a more advantageous time to get your team ready for this new reality.

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