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Production Back In Business; Slowly

After nearly six months on hiatus, the movie and television sets that drive the billion-dollar local filming industry are slowly returning to life— with new safety guidelines that are adding costs and uncertainty, especially for smaller projects.  Shows such as Amazon’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, CBS’ Law and Order: SVU and NBC’s Saturday Night Live either have returned or are close to restarting production. To keep Covid-19 from spreading on once-crowded shoots, both the state and the city have issued standards governing how many people can be on-site and how those workers interact. A separate set of guidelines agreed upon by Hollywood studios and industry unions include even stricter mandates. The rules fundamentally change the look of major TV and film sets. Crowd scenes are a no-go, catered meals are individually packaged, and trained compliance officers keep people away from one another. e union agreement requires that actors who are most at risk for Covid-19 be tested three times per week and other crew members tested weekly. “The biggest impact is going to be budgetary,” said Lisa Davis, an entertainment attorney with Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in Manhattan. “What’s required to comply with these protocols, including having the additional crew, tends to add about 10% to costs.” Other estimates provided to Crain’s by industry experts found budgets could rise by as much as 20%. The extra costs are driven by the additional time required to film within the rules, along with costs for providing protective equipment and Covid-19 testing for hundreds of cast and crew members.  “Everything takes a little longer now—that is our new reality with sanitizing equipment and waiting for testing,” said Jane Raab, a producer whose credits include Sex and the City and an upcoming Hulu series starring Steve Martin that is filming in the Bronx. “We are used to turning on a dime.” The extra time and costs influence what type of productions will come back first. “For the indie features, the expense of Covid rules them out,” said Charles Haine, a filmmaker and professor at Brooklyn College’s Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. “Everyone I know working this fall, it is all in TV.”  Television and film production were cleared to return in

July, but crew sizes were limited to 25 or fewer. The early activity was modest, with the city approving 53 daily street-filming permits that month and an additional 131 in August, compared with 677  and 755 for the same months in 2019. The city increased the maximum crew size on a set to 100 on Sept. 1, which Anne del Castillo, commissioner of the mayor’s office for media and entertainment, said has helped facilitate a return to action. “We are engaging constantly with producers to make sure they understand the protocols,” she said. City-specific rules require that productions avoid any location within 21 feet of an outdoor-dining area unless they receive the restaurant’s permission to film nearby. Film sets also must avoid interfering with any outdoor classes run by the Department of Education.  Producers have so far focused their work in studio settings, where they have better control of the atmosphere, said Flo Mitchell-Brown, who has spent 30 years in the industry as an accountant and producer based out of New York. Insurance issues A major question hanging over productions is the cost for insurance. Film and TV shoots typically buy plans that cover against injury or sickness among top talent, which could shut  down production. That becomes a complicated calculation for insurers in the pandemic age. “Insurance is driven by experience,” Mitchell-Brown said. “Just like you get rates based on how you drive, insurance is going to be a moving target until they see how many claims come up.” There have already been high-profile stoppages in the industry. A Batman film in London was forced to shut down in September after star Robert Pattinson reportedly tested positive for Covid-19. The ABC show For Life,  which films  in the city, temporarily shut down in mid-September over what producer Sony Pictures described as “testing inconsistencies.”  Insurance protecting against prolonged stoppages “would likely have to have a lot of exclusions,” Davis said. “That makes it dificult for producers to feel it is worthwhile. And for the carriers, they may have exposure to events capable of bankrupting them.”  Federal legislation to create a pandemic-related fund that backstops insurers across all industries from such losses could help, Davis said, but the bill has gained little traction since its introduction by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents parts of Manhattan and Queens.  The good news for the industry is that producers can still rely on a $420 million annual film tax credit, which has acted as rocket fuel for the business since its launch in 2003. The credit was extended through 2025 in the last state budget and pays back city filmmakers 25 cents for every dollar spent on “below the line” production costs, such as salaries and set construction. It is not clear yet whether additional costs from Covid-19, such as for testing or hiring a compliance officer, will be covered under that credit.  A spokesman for Empire State Development, the state agency that oversees the program, did not return a request for comment on the matter.  The stakes are high as the industry gets back to work. Film and TV generated over $8 billion in spending in the state, mostly focused within the city, between 2017 and 2018, an independent analysis of the state’s tax credit for films found. With filming shut down from March through June, jobs in film production and sound recording in the city dropped to 38,500 in May compared with 56,000 at the same point in 2019, according to state Labor Department data. The total represented the lowest employment for the category since January 2009.  Picking back up Raab, whose Hulu show is preparing to start filming by December, said there are already signs that things are picking back up. Crews and stages are becoming difficult to book as networks and streaming services race to get back online after months of inaction. The city has centered its most significant economic-development initiative since the start of the pandemic around the industry.

Steiner Studios, which operates a production facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, has agreed to invest $320 million to build a production hub at Bush Terminal, the city-owned waterfront property in Sunset Park (See ARTICLE HERE).  To Doug Steiner, the developer guiding the project, the industry is a good bet. The parking lots at his Brooklyn Navy Yard studios—which have grown from five stages in 2004 to more than 30 today—are slowly filling back up. The new stages in Sunset Park should break ground within 18 months. He said the expansion will offer a chance to launch stable jobs at a time many corporate offices are sitting empty. “This is work that simply can’t be done from home,” he said.

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