Production sector turns its focus to vaccination

Producer Ben Allan and director/writer Clara Chong on the set of 'Dark Noise'.

As Australia begins to face the reality of ‘living with COVID’, there is discussion among the screen sector about how safety protocols may evolve in the new climate to include measures such as vaccine mandates for cast and crew.

Last month, production on Russell Crowe’s Poker Face had to be temporarily shut down due to a confirmed case among the crew, a scenario not seen in Australia since Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic was halted during pre-production after Tom Hanks contracted the virus.

Back then, the New York Times described Hanks as the “public face of a pandemic’s widening reach”.

The case on Crowe’s set may not have had the same global impact, but it served as a potent reminder for the local production sector about the growing possibility of direct contact with the virus.

Sydney-based production company Goalpost Pictures produced SBS series New Gold Mountain and Benjamin Millepied’s upcoming film Carmen since the start of the pandemic in March last year, with the former taking place in Victoria and the latter in NSW.

The company’s work has continued relatively unscathed throughout the current lockdown, which has encompassed the final stages of post-production on the film and early pre-production on another TV project.

Ben Grant.

Managing director Ben Grant told IF they were in the process of examining what production would look like going forward.

“When considering our COVID-19 Safety Plans we take into account a variety of important issues; the current health directions, the prevailing community spread of the virus and now in 2021 the rate of community vaccination,” he said.

“Most importantly we consider factors specific to our productions; where we are based, the filming locations and the cast, crew and other participants involved in making the production.

“It is a little early to say definitively if we have a view on mandatory vaccinations. We are gathering the input from insurers, investors, industry representatives and, of course, our prospective cast and crew whose safety and welfare is paramount to our considerations.”

The Sydney-based Main Course Films is also in the midst of post-production during lockdown, working on Clara Chong’s thriller Dark Noise, which was shot across 12 weeks during the pandemic’s first wave last year.

Having filmed prior to the introduction of COVID-Safe guidelines, the production relied on the medical advice available and was able to navigate a suspected case through pre-determined processes.

Producer Ben Allan told IF there needed to be greater clarity from governments given the new challenges facing producers and the move towards the post-vaccination, ‘living with COVID’ phase.

“There are still some big questions that need to be answered around whether we can require that cast and crew be vaccinated and what our options are if they don’t want to be,” he said.

“We also need to have clear answers on what will be required when there is a COVID case in a fully vaccinated workplace next year.

“Will it be 48 hours isolation and a negative test result… or will we still be dealing with two-week shutdowns before getting back to work?”

Allan predicted that issues that had become associated with the production boom, such as skills shortages among crew, would remain in NSW post-lockdown.

“The other big challenge of 2021 for production companies has been getting cast and crew because, despite the lockdown, the boom in NSW has been barrelling ahead pretty much full steam.”

Screen NSW head Grainne Brunsdon told IF that while there had been a “reset of things”, the agency was still fielding interest from international studios, adding that recent developments had served to “open up the conversation” regarding vaccine measures on set.

“We’ve been talking to production companies about what they might do and we certainly ask with the international ones coming in whether people are vaccinated,” she said.

“When you look at the controls around the construction industry, especially in those LGAs of concern, where you must not enter or remain at a site unless you have had two doses or one dose 21 days ago, it would seem reasonable for there to be something similar for the screen sector if something was going to happen as well.

“Given people are working in large teams, I think people would understand it is for their own safety, as well as that of their families and everybody else.

“I don’t know whether the government would mandate vaccines on set but I think it is an active conversation that the industry bodies will be having and the production companies are having.”

It’s a conversation that is already well underway in the US, where Netflix became the first Hollywood studio to implement a blanket policy mandating vaccinations for the casts of all of its US production.

According to Deadline, Amazon is in discussions about introducing a similar requirement,

Locally, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) published information about COVID vaccines in the workplace on its website earlier this month, outlining its position on vaccines for work purposes.

The MEAA said its “clear view” was workers in the industries it represented should be vaccinated where it is reasonable and safe to do so, but also warned against employers rushing the process, stating that “consultation was critical”.

It comes after the organisation worked with Screen Producers Australia to deliver the National Guidelines for Screen Safety in June, the first major update to screen industry safety guidelines in nearly 20 years.

SPA CEO Matthew Deaner told IF the industry body was talking to its members about best strategies for keeping everyone safe on set all the time.

“If the plan is to open the economy and live with COVID, SPA would prefer to see everyone on a screen set fully vaccinated for everyone’s protection, which is something we will keep discussing with our colleagues at the MEAA,” he said.

“It’s another important tool to keep people safe, in addition to all the other safety measures that productions have in place like testing, isolation bubbles, COVID marshals and rigorous cleaning.

“At the moment there are still problems with vaccination supply and access. We hope these issues will be resolved soon.”