Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists

How COVID-19 Affects Production Travel

Travel is the single most dangerous aspect of a production in a pandemic. If someone in your cast or on your crew is going to contract COVID-19, the chances are best that they will get it while traveling.

For this reason, we want to help you to cut down on travel as much as possible. This article is designed to help you understand what effects the pandemic has had on travel and to offer tips to help you keep your cast and crew safe during the three most common types of travel in a production:

  • Travel to and from locations
  • Travel to and from set
  • Company moves

Travel To & From Locations

Before the pandemic, it was common to find the best location possible for your shoot and then fly as many of your talented cast and crew as possible to that location. This would mean all above-the-line talent and most, if not all, of your department heads. In the COVID-19 era, this is not the best way to do things.

To keep your team safe, we recommend the following:

  • Maximize location control
  • Shoot in a production hub
  • Shoot locally
  • Hire locally
  • Minimize long-distance travel

Maximize Location Control

For starters, the definition of an ideal location has changed. Control of the location must be a much higher priority now than it was before.

The best location is the safest location. This means a site that is yours (and only yours) for the entire time you need it. This means a place that you can sanitize before your crew’s arrival each day and then keep on lockdown until the shoot is over. If you can, you should avoid locations that are used for other activities during non-shooting hours.

Does it sound like the best location is a studio sound stage and back lot? Yes it does. It sounds like it because it is. We know, that’s expensive. In recent years many filmmakers have fled studio space for cheaper locations in the wilds of America. But during the pandemic the security, safety, and control a studio sound stage with proper ventilation gives you is second to none.  

The best location is also the one that is closest to where your cast and crew are staying. This will mean much more production taking place in areas that are already well equipped with talent and crews.

Shoot in Production Hubs

I have shot in the Florida swamps, Colorado mountains, and Nevada deserts. I wouldn’t shoot in any of those places during COVID-19 if I could avoid it, though. Sure, they are far from other people so you might think that they will cut down on your exposure to COVID-19. But each of those shoots required flying in the entire cast and crew from out of state. In the pandemic age, this is not recommended.

If I were shooting any of those projects now, I would stick close to production hubs and look for locations that could double for those places. Atlanta for Florida, for instance. California for Colorado. A desert outside of LA for one in Nevada.

Production Hubs include (but are not limited to):

  • Los Angeles
  • New York
  • Atlanta
  • New Orleans
  • Austin
  • Chicago
  • San Francisco
  • Charlotte
  • Boston 

Remember, an outbreak on your set will shut you down. Safety and control must be paramount. If you can afford to do it, shoot on a studio sound stage or back lot.

Shoot Locally

Let’s be serious; studios are expensive and space is limited, so many of us will have to venture outside the control of a studio lot. In these cases, it is doubly important to shoot in production hubs so you can afford to shoot locally with the same cast and crew.

This means cutting down on company moves (more on that below). This will reduce the amount of travel between locations as well as to and from set.

Hire Locally

The fewer cast and crew members that have to fly to a location, the better. To this end, we must stress the importance of local hires right now. This reemphasizes the importance of shooting in and around production hubs because of the availability of good crews.  

If, for production-specific reasons, you must move your shoot outside of a production hub, it is best to rely on local hires to perform the non-department head jobs. In the past twenty years, states across America have built up their ability to support film production. Now is the time to take advantage of those improvements and pick a place that has enough crew and facilities to support your production.

Minimize Long-Distance Travel

The bottom line here is to cut to an absolute minimum the long-distance travel associated with your production. You can do this by following the steps above: shoot in production hubs, shoot locally, and hire locally.

Keep in mind that crossing international borders right now is extremely difficult. In some places, it is impossible.

Once you have cut down on your long-distance travel, it is time to look at your everyday travel.

Travel To & From Set

The fight against COVID-19 exposure does not end once everyone is on location. Every single day your cast and crew will need to get from their homes and hotels to the set.

When it comes to daily travel, we recommend the following:

  • Private over public transportation
  • Hotels over houses
  • Open-air over indoor hallways

Private Over Public

As a proponent of public transportation, it pains me to say this, but in the COVID-19 era public transit is too risky. Whenever possible, have your cast and crew come to set via private vehicles. Ideally, their own vehicles, with no other passengers.

Be sure to check with the union reps and take an extra look at your talents’ contracts. You might have to pay certain people extra if you require them to use their own vehicles to travel to and from set each day.

When single-occupant, private vehicles are not available— and there is a good chance that they will not be for everyone— we will have to rely on more van fleets to accommodate social distancing. This means far fewer passengers per vehicle. It means keeping the windows down when possible. And it means wearing masks for the entire travel time to and from set.

Hotels Over Houses

Vacation Rentals had become an affordable option for many productions. They were far less expensive than hotels and they could often foster crew cohesiveness. In the new reality, this is just not safe.  

In a pandemic, it is best to accommodate cast and crew in individual hotel rooms. This will allow for minimal exposure to the virus and maximum social distancing. Be sure to check with the hotels to ensure that they have proper pandemic protocols in place before booking.

Open Air Over Indoor Hallways

Relax, we are not talking about that flea-ridden meth-lab motel off the interstate (though their rates would seriously save some money!). We are simply highlighting the fact that one of the most dangerous places during this pandemic is indoors, in close quarters. So it makes sense to avoid lodging that has indoor hallways if you can.

Company Moves

By now, it probably goes without saying, but we must say it anyways: Cut company moves to an absolute minimum. It is bad enough that you will need to travel at all for your production, but you should not move the entire company unless you have to.

Good producers know that company moves are expensive, so they keep them to a minimum already. But it is worth emphasizing the point during the pandemic. If you can stay in one place, you should. Not just for the money. For everyone’s safety too.

Bottom Line

Traveling may be the most dangerous aspect of your production in a pandemic. But you can minimize that danger by taking simple steps. In addition to wearing a mask and washing your hands —which are vital — you can mitigate the potential spread of the virus by shooting in production hubs, shooting locally, hiring locally, taking private vehicles, picking the safest lodging possible, and minimizing company moves.

These are uncertain times but if you take the right precautions you can still travel safely.

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.