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What you need to know about COVID-19: August 13, 2020
There's plenty of creative tinkering by those involved in productions such as St. John's-based 'Hudson &Rex'
With its second season airing on Citytv and an order in for the third, writers and producers for the police procedural “Hudson & Rex” set to work in January on new scripts to film later in the year.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March, it quickly became apparent their storylines would need some tinkering. The timing ultimately worked out well for the Newfoundland-based production, which directly employs 200 people and is set to begin filming for season three later this month.
"We've simplified our season quite a bit. It started for us in the script stage," said Paul Pope, a producer on the series through his St. John's production company, Pope Productions. "We're doing different stories until we get this COVID thing straightened out. We're reaching into the outdoors more ... None of the episodes are set on George Street — we did three there last season. So, there's no big bar scenes. We're avoiding all that.
“We think the audience won't notice. We'll just do it in the writing. That's where we're starting. Do really interesting shows that are showing off our real estate and not putting us in contained spaces and keeping us away from the general public."
The move towards different ways of working under the microscope of a global health pandemic is a challenge facing the entertainment industry in all corners of the globe, delaying the release of many projects and even threatening the future of some.
Laura Mackenzie, executive director of Screen Nova Scotia, knows the future cannot be predicted and admits it is possible the province could lose productions because of the pandemic. She believes the number of productions for the year will likely be cut in half. At the moment, some are taking steps to get back to filming.
Productions get pushed
"We were poised to have production all year long," she said, adding approximately 500-to-600 full-time equivalent jobs were impacted by the recent industry shutdown. "What this does is, if you have a certain amount of productions planned for the year, it's based on a certain amount of crew that you have. You can't just automatically double your crews. At some point, production is going to become compounded. Some are going to get pushed.
"First and foremost, I'm hopeful we can get to a place where our locally-created Nova Scotia films can get off the ground. They're going to be a bit more nimble, I should think ... Ultimately, it's really going to come down to supply and demand."
In recent weeks, Screen Nova Scotia released a 14-page guidelines document for film crews that received approval from the province's chief medical officer and the Department of Labour and Advanced Education.
"Realistically, you do have to have a health and safety plan in place in order for a production to go forward," Mackenzie said. "That's really why every single production in Nova Scotia came to a complete halt."
Groups of 10 will be allowed to work together closely without the need for physical distancing or personal protective equipment. The general rules apply for people coming from outside the province when it comes to self-quarantining.
According to Mackenzie, these guidelines were informed by conversations with other industry groups across Canada. Screen Nova Scotia also set up a back-to-work committee in late April that included representatives from various industry stakeholders, including unions, guilds and suppliers.
"The back-to-work committee identified what the barriers would be and then we started to really dig into it through our subcommittees and working with our national trade organizations, such as the Canadian Media Producers Association, to find solutions and work through these," Mackenzie said.
"It became really clear very quickly that the challenges and obstacles that Nova Scotians were going to have to getting back to work were a global concern. Everybody's dealing with the same issues."
Work on the guidelines remains an ongoing task, with Mackenzie noting her organization is preparing some appendices to support productions preparing their own individualized health and safety production plans.
Closed sets help
When the pandemic hit Newfoundland and Labrador, the "Hudson & Rex" team had four scripts completed. Those stories were revamped, and now eight scripts are ready to shoot, with production work expected to continue until the end of next January. According to Pope, working with a closed set bodes well for ensuring the health and safety of all.
"We're not open to the public. It's our third year doing it. We're kind of like a family. We have pretty professional staff and a good occupational health and safety department that runs this COVID mitigation program."
He said the production is working with three guiding principles from a safety perspective. The first is to be safe and avoid selfish behaviour, and the second is to do it safely or not at all.
"Last season, we could start the morning up in Signal Hill and finish the afternoon in Bowring Park. While the crew were going to lunch, there'd be another team moving. But we don't see a path to doing that this season. Moving 100 people and 50 vehicles during a pandemic is probably too high a risk ... To start with, there won't be any unit moves."
The third guiding principle — one the show has the backing of its broadcasting partners on — is that the show, contrary to the old showbiz saying, does not have to go on.
"We can stop," Pope said. "Our broadcaster, Citytv, is fully behind us. Rogers and our German partners — there's no pressure on us to say, 'Oh, you've got to get it done, or all this money will be lost and you'll be bankrupt.' They're fully aware that we're hoping it's a 16-episode season. But let's say if something goes south and there's a second wave — it will be an eight-episode season or a 10-episode season."
Pope recognizes the fact this cloud of COVID-19 will continue to hover overproduction for the foreseeable future.
"We could be in this state for quite a long time, and we're in a position where we can do it safely and we're fortunate we have the resources to be able to afford to pay the costs of the COVID-19 mitigation, which is not cheap."
The production has also dealt with the challenge of bringing in workers involved in the production who are based outside the province. Pope said the production has worked closely with the provincial government to ensure all protocols are followed.
"It would be an understatement to say there are no conditions," he said. "The province has been granting permits and travel exemptions on varying levels for the three months, and they run a really good system."
Mark O'Neill, a producer for Panoramic Pictures in St. John's, was involved in post-production work on actor Mark O'Brien's feature-length directorial debut "The Righteous" when the pandemic struck. A board member with the Newfoundland Independent Film Makers Co-Operative, he's been involved in a lot of COVID-19 return-to-work conversations.
"We've been talking on the national, the provincial and even the international front, trying to figure out best practices, and what's been really great in this case is everybody is helping everybody," O'Neill said. "What they've been learning in England and Los Angeles, for example, they've been sharing with us."
O'Neill said it is important for the industry to work with unions to ensure plans are in place to create a safe work environment that withstands any pressures the virus could create.
"There's many, many, many elements to making a film — many departments," he said. "There's been a ton of conversation, because you get into the minutia ... that's what you need to (do). How productions and sets operate on a day-to-day basis during a pandemic ... or another wave, we have to change our ways, just like everyone else."