Industries across the board have been hit hard by the pandemic over the past 18 months, but few have been so affected as the film and television production sectors.
While some outliers have bucked the trend, such as Rob Savage's 2020 feature hit Host, shot using Zoom, film sets across the globe have been mothballed and production halted as the virus spread across continents.
As vaccination rates rise and global lockdowns begin to lift, particularly in major markets such as the US and the UK, we're finally seeing an uptick in production, but can we really expect to see anything like pre-pandemic levels of shooting taking place in the near future? And how have conditions on set changed since the virus became something we must live with every day?
Figures on filming in Los Angeles County from FilmLA, which handles shooting permits in the county, home to the major Hollywood studios, suggest filming has now surpassed pre-pandemic levels. The office recorded 9,791 shoot days from April to June 2021 – the highest total since the last quarter of 2019, and higher than the average level for all of 2019.
Given that FilmLA's own figures show production dropped year-on-year by a massive 97 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, the resurgence is impressive.
However, a “handful” of productions have shut down since the Delta variant began to spread through LA in July, according to FilmLA, but it remains optimistic nonetheless.
“By almost any available measure, the second quarter was good for filming in LA,” president Paul Audley said. “With local Covid-19 cases rising it’s not clear whether that will be sustainable, but the industry’s commitment to community, cast and crew safety remains firmly in place.”
FilmLA's figures only account for location shoots in Los Angeles County, however, and do not include studio-based production. Since location shoots are likely to be outdoors, and thus less of a Covid-19 risk, are studios still languishing at mid-2020 rates of output?
Not according to Michael Flanagan, former Abu Dhabi Film Commissioner and now executive vice president at Louisiana's Deep South Studios, home to shows such as NCIS New Orleans. Flanagan admits he was fortunate to be working on set in Bulgaria, where things were “less locked down”, during the worst of 2020, but says the studio is now recovering nicely.
“It's absolutely cracking in New Orleans right now,” he tells The National. “There are tonnes of shows shooting and people are always looking for something. Primarily they want stage space, but they're also looking for construction mill space, prop storage, stunt rehearsal, the full range.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, London's Pinewood Studios is one of the best known and busiest in the world, and home to franchises such as Star Wars and the James Bond films. Its corporate affairs director Andrew Smith seems to share Flanagan's optimism.
“If you look at the British Film Institute production figures, which were just published, you will see that for Q4 2020, and the first two quarters of 2021, levels of spend on film and television production are the highest since records began. Certainly in the case of the UK, those figures speak for themselves,” he says.
It's worth noting that spend is not an entirely reliable measure of how production rates compare to pre-pandemic levels. With social distancing, on-site testing and other protective measures still in place globally, a typical production now requires a larger space and extra team members compared to pre-Covid-19. Smith, however, seems unperturbed.
“I don't have figures to hand for exactly how many productions are taking place compared to 2019, but what I can tell you is that Pinewood is fully booked, and many of our competitors can say the same thing.”
Both studio chiefs agree we may see a slightly more restricted type of production taking place while Covid-19 measures remain in place.
“There are significant costs involved [with shooting during the pandemic]," says Flanagan. "Some of that may be passed on to insurance companies, and if you're a big studio you can kind of absorb it into your profit and loss, but if you're a smaller company, it's got to be murder."
“Obviously, it does cost," says Smith. "Your need more space, testing centres all over the studios, they take up space, too. When you're spending hundreds of billions of pounds on investment, you can put it into context, but where it has a big impact is the small independent films where they simply don't have the budget.”
Closer to home, Abu Dhabi Film Commissioner Hans Fraikin says he has already observed an increase in the amount of smaller productions looking to shoot in the emirate, which was something of a Covid-19 success story, having facilitated the continued shooting of Mission: Impossible 7 through the creation of a “Covid bubble” during the height of the pandemic last year.
“With the larger international productions as a leading example, filming has begun to resume for the smaller-sized projects with protocols now in place, and an increased number of territories are now allowing productions to resume,” Fraikin says.
“Some international projects were halted due to Covid-19, however, producers are now looking towards locations where there is a greater sense of normality, hence our recent successes in Abu Dhabi. Our slate for the later part of the year is looking very busy, and I would say the future for the global industry is looking positive due to the increased viewing figures that the pandemic has brought on.”
Despite the challenges that remain, the future appears bright. While the increased costs of shooting during the Covid-19 pandemic make it hard to carry out a like-for-like comparison of 2019 production rates, it seems probable that the shortages of new content that threatened the industry during the pandemic's peak can be forgotten.
What the longer term effects of the new normal may be remains to be seen. Will we see fewer smaller-scale productions? More Host-inspired Zoom movies? Higher-priced cinema tickets to match the higher shooting costs?
Much will depend on how long Covid-19 continues to affect every aspect of our daily lives, and unfortunately neither film producers nor scientists know the answer to that just yet.