For decades, the sound stages of Hollywood have built alternate universes in the middle of Los Angeles – fictional courtrooms, hospitals, homes and offices. Today, they all resemble the set of Contagion.
Make-up artists walk around in astronaut helmets. Actors take breaks inside plastic bubbles. And healthcare professionals swab everyone’s nose to test for a deadly infection before they’re allowed inside.
Like much of the rest of the world, Hollywood in 2020 grappled with Covid-19, a virus that has created unprecedented challenges for producing film and television at a time when people are stuck at home and desperate to escape into fictional stories.
The LA film industry completely shut down when California became the first state to issue a strict stay-at-home order in March and plunged on-location filming in LA to its lowest level ever.
Nine months later, actors have slowly returned to set. Some major studio features resumed operations in Los Angeles this fall, and FilmLA, a not-for-profit that issues permits for the region, received 880 applications in October – an increase of 24% from September. Long-running TV shows including Shameless, NCIS: Los Angeles and American Idol are also back in business in LA. The Bold and the Beautiful returned with a wide array of unusual precautions, including using dolls or actors’ actual partners for kissing shots.
But by multiple measures, the challenges facing the center of the entertainment industry in southern California remain enormous. Across LA, working actors and others employed behind the camera have been unable to make ends meet during this year’s shutdowns, some fleeing California or abandoning their careers altogether. Massive and prolonged unemployment combined with changes to actors’ insurance plans have left some battling to access basic healthcare coverage. And there aregrowing concerns about the kinds of projects that could get shut down for good.
“We will never know how many people gave up on their dreams because of this pandemic,” said Shaan Sharma, a TV actor who has advocated for better healthcare protections for actors this year. “We will never know what films or shows would’ve been shot. We’ve had a lost year … It has absolutely decimated our community.”
The set of Jurassic World: Dominion. Photograph: John Wilson/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment
‘Reinventing our industry’
“We’ve had to reinvent our industry,” said Steve Dayan, secretary-treasurer for the Teamsters Local 399 union, which represents more than 5,000 drivers, location managers and others in Hollywood.
Sets have been transformed. Covid is changing behind-the-scenes protocols. Even the stories are different. Some TV shows are setting their new seasons in contemporary Covid times, allowing actors to wear masks on camera. Others have rewritten scenes for outdoor locations or removed storylines that require crowd shots or many extras.
Mike Menapace, a transportation manager on a new Universal sitcom, said he kept everyone on set physically separate or isolated in “pod” groups. Production did regular testing and actors only took off their masks when the camera was rolling.
“It’s like relearning what you know,” he said, noting that one positive Covid test could shut a whole production down. “It is absolutely stressful day to day and minute to minute. There is a lot of extra labor and limited bodies.”
Marie Fink, a longtime stunt performer, said it was strange to navigate physical fight scenes in Covid times when people are trying to stay apart at all costs. During a recent night scene that involved being submerged in water, she had eventually had to remove her face shield because she couldn’t see. She had kept her mask on, though: “It’s hard, we always try to have fun on the job.”
Levi Tinker of TCL Chinese Theatre places flags on stars’ hand- and footprints on Veterans’ Day. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
On the set of The Rookie, an ABC police show, one of the actors had brought protective individual bubbles that they could sit in during breaks, said Frances Fisher, a veteran film actor who appeared in the HBO series Watchmen. Rehearsing while wearing a mask and shield was bizarre: “You can never see the facial expressions of your scene partner.” But she felt the protocols were at least safe and that productions were taking every precaution.
Tensions on set can escalate. In recently leaked audio from the filming of Mission: Impossible 7, Tom Cruise was heard shouting obscenities at the crew for apparently violating social distancing protocols.
Hollywood goes dark
Working actors are accustomed to long periods between jobs, but the total lack of opportunities in the first months of the pandemic was terrifying to those who live paycheck to paycheck.
Although California health officials authorized shoots to restart in June, protracted negotiations with unions over Covid safety protocols prevented Hollywood’s sound stages from resuming operations over the summer. While a handful of major films began cautiously restarting in England, New Zealand and Berlin, LA remained quiet.
Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell film Mission: Impossible 7 in Rome last month. Photograph: MEGA/GC Images
“Many have suffered. It’s just a massive economic effect,” said Paul Audley, president of FilmLA. In addition to those directly employed by productions, there are over 6,000 small businesses that entirely depend on Hollywood, from local trash collection to specialists who manufacture props. “I don’t think there is any way to recover what’s lost.”
In addition to hundreds of thousands of people out of work, the industry has sustained billions of dollars in losses, with an economic toll that is likely to stunt Hollywood’s growth for years to come.
“People are leaving LA,” said Fink, the stunt performer. “It’s heartbreaking. We all love what we do. So it’s emotional if you’re not doing your craft.”
For the many laborers who keep sets running behind the scenes, “the shutdown was devastating”, said Dayan, the union leader for location managers and drivers. The union was forced to set up a relief fund to assist its members.
Losing healthcare during Covid: ‘The stress can kill you’
Exacerbating the crisis this year were controversial changes to the healthcare plan of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (Sag-Aftra), the US union for film and TV actors.
Citing big financial deficits, Sag-Aftra health plan officials announced in August that it would be increasing the amount that actors would have to earn to qualify for healthcare – from $18,040 to $25,950 each year, leaving many fearful they would no longer get coverage during a pandemic. The new plan, which starts in January, also increases premiums, makes it harder for some senior citizens to qualify and makes some spouses ineligible.
“People were angry and scared and upset,” said Fisher, the veteran film actor, who is also a vice-president of the LA local of Sag-Aftra. “The panic was palpable.”
Officials said the changes were necessary amid increased healthcare costs and the lack of live entertainment, but given the extraordinary job shortages and the tighter restrictions, more than 11,000 people could lose Sag insurance, according to some advocates’ estimates and a class-action lawsuit recently filed by some actors.
Extras are seen on the Jurassic World: Dominion film set at Oxford University. Photograph: Charles Latham/REX/Shutterstock
“I haven’t worked since March,” said Sandra Gimpel, an 81-year-old stunt performer who has been in the business for decades and was still working regular gigs before Covid. “The stress level this year is enough to kill you.”
Under the new health plan, people 65 and older who are taking a pension can no longer use their residual payments to qualify for the $25,950 eligibility threshold. Gimpel was left scrambling to figure out if she earned enough before Covid to continue accessing coverage.
Gimpel thinks she’ll be able to stay on her health plan in 2021 but is not sure about the following year: “This is not the time to take away people’s health insurance.”
Sharma, who is currently on the show The Chosen, said he would be losing his Sag-Aftra insurance for the first time in his career, and that many union members have gone without work since the start of the crisis: “You’re just fighting for scraps at the table.”
A Sag spokesperson said advocates’ estimates of lost coverage were overblown, and that roughly 10% of participants would lose coverage next year due to the changes, though more were likely to suffer as a result of shutdowns.
Meanwhile, actors are holding out hope that 2021 will bring revival, with vaccines on the way.
“As much as I wished we didn’t go back to work until this was all over, that was not a possibility,” said Dayan. “The reality is we can’t afford to sit at home for six months. People have to put food on their table.”