Hollywood’s Covid Protocols, Which End Today, Cost Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars

Hollywood’s Covid protocols, which added hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of making movies and TV shows over the course of the pandemic, officially end today, concurrent with the date the federal government has identified as the expiration of the coronavirus public health emergency. 

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The final dollar cost of the protocols may never be known, but the latest annual reports from the California Film Commission offer a glimpse of the magnitude. In California alone, the 92 feature films and seven TV series that received the state’s tax incentives over the past two fiscal years are estimated to have racked up a whopping $223.5 million in Covid-related costs, which in turn were covered by the state’s tax credit program.

The California Film Commission’s 2021 annual report called the raw numbers “startling.”

And that’s just in California, and only for projects that received the state’s tax credits, which also cover Covid-related costs. The vast majority of films and TV shows shot in the state, however, don’t receive the tax credits, and they’re also bound by the Covid protocols.

SAG-AFTRA and the Joint Policy Committee of the advertising industry, meanwhile, will also end their Covid safety protocols for commercial productions effective today. There are no figures currently available about the overall cost of those protocols, but it’s substantial, and they are not eligible for tax California’s tax credits.

First enacted in September 2020 per a return-to-work agreement between Hollywood’s unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the protocols protected the lives and livelihoods of thousands of industry workers while allowing production to safely resume after a three-month shutdown in the early days of the pandemic, which officially began in March 2020.

Since then, Covid has killed more than a million Americans, and according to the Center for Disease Control, was the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S last year.

Hollywood’s unions showed remarkable solidarity in negotiating the protocols with management. Unions signing on to begin and end the protocols included the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Hollywood’s Teamsters Local 399, IBEW Local 40, Laborers Local 724, Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 755, and Plumbers Local 78. The WGA was the only guild not directly involved.

The unions have long maintained that safety is the first and foremost the responsibility of the employers, who along with taxpayers, footed the bill for the protocols.

The California Film Commission’s latest data, seen here exclusively, show that for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2022, producers of 42 feature films that received tax credits were expected to spend $91.5 million on Covid-related costs, while producers of seven incentivized TV series were expected to spend another $42 million. The year before, producers of 50 incentivized projects were expected to have spent $90 million on Covid-related costs, for a grand total of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars over two years.

The Film Commission estimated that in 2021, feature films with budgets greater than $20 million that had qualified for the state’s tax incentives program would spend between 5% and 6.5% of their total budgets on Covid-related costs, while low-budget films and television series would spend about 4.25% of their total budgets on Covid-related costs.

Last year, the percentage was slightly higher for mid-range budget movies (5.8% of the total budget) and slightly lower for low-budget independent movies (3.8% of the total budget). “In terms of raw numbers,” the Commission says, “films with budgets over $60 million planned to allocate an average of $5.6 million to Covid compliance. Films with budgets between $15 million and $60 million planned an average of $1.5 million. Low-budget independent films planned around $220,000. Estimated spending for the seven television series mirrored feature films, with an average of 5.35% of total budget.”

A company source said that on some productions, Covid-related costs ran up to 20% or even 30% of the budget, especially if traveling was involved, and in the early days, quarantining. 

Film and TV projects shot in New York, Georgia, New Mexico, Arizona, and elsewhere in the country were also subject to the industry’s return-to-work protocols, and their Covid-related costs could run to over a hundred million dollars as well.

So where did all that money go?

The California Film Commission, which allowed all Covid-related expenditures in the state to qualify for tax credits, says that “project budgets submitted for review in the tax credit program indicate that approximately 40% of Covid expenditures go to labor costs and 60% go to materials.

“Covid departments typically range from two or three people on lower budget projects and up to as many as 15 people on large crews with multiple units. Labor positions include Covid supervisor, Covid coordinator, Covid protocol compliance managers, set sanitation production assistants, Covid testers, Covid medical personnel, and additional drivers and locations assistants to help maintain social distancing.

“Materials include tests, sanitation stations, face shields, PPE masks, outside testing contractors and medical personnel, additional vehicles, and stipends paid to crew to quarantine or work remotely.”

The protocol’s vaccination mandates, which were added to the protocols in July 2021, were far and away the most controversial of the rules, giving producers “the option to implement mandatory vaccination policies for casts and crew in Zone A on a production-by-production basis.” Zone A, where unmasked actors work, was the most restrictive of the safe work zones on sets.

Opponents of the mandates, including SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, argued that they discriminated against those who refused to be vaccinated.

The mandates were “subject to reasonable accommodations as required by law for individuals who cannot be vaccinated due to disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.” But vaccination-mandate opponents argued that those exceptions were too rarely honored.

Those mandates are also ending except on projects in production as of today that had already established a mandatory vaccination policy in Zone A. In those cases, the mandate may continue for the duration of the production.

And beginning May 12 and effective through July 31, performers working in scenes that require close or intimate contact or extreme exertion can still request Covid antigen self-administered testing for themselves and other performers with whom they will be working in those scenes.

Covid testing also ends today, although SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP have reached an agreement on continued testing through July 31, during which time performers and background actors working in scenes involving close or intimate contact or extreme exertion will have the right to request Covid antigen self-administered testing of themselves and other performers and background actors with whom they will be working in close or intimate contact.

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