How COVID-19 Affects Production Budgets
In the COVID-19 era, the total at the bottom of our top sheets can be shocking. Pandemic filming is expensive, but it is important to account for all the additional safety procedures. Whether we are creating a preliminary budget to show to investors or finalizing a working production budget before filming, our budgets must reflect the reality of shooting during the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 has affected every aspect of production, but we want to highlight several categories that deserve special attention when writing your next budget:
- Additional personnel
- Quarantine pay
- Testing and sanitization
- Travel and lodging
- Length of shoot
This article is designed to help you understand some of the ways the pandemic has affected film and television production budgets and offer tips to help you budget your next project.
Unions, agents, talent, and insurance companies have all mandated that any production filming during the pandemic must have trained, designated, on-set COVID-19 Compliance Officers. It is the job of these professionals to ensure that proper coronavirus safety procedures are being followed. Their job is to keep everyone safe.
The film and television trade unions’ “The Safe Way Forward” report also calls for creating a Health and Safety Department (with a manager and a staff), a Hygiene Crew, and a Security Unit. This is a lot of additional personnel on set every single day of your shoot.
While these are giant steps in toward maintaining cast and crew health, we highly recommend that you take three additional steps to maximize safety:
- Hire a Risk Management Company: A professional, COVID-19-trained, risk management company will bring the additional benefit of decades of experience prioritizing production safety. COVID-19 Compliance Officers are, obviously, new positions. So, most of the people tasked to fill them will not have years of experience on the job. A risk management company has the expertise to spot potential risk factors long before they become on-set issues and can slot right in as the Health and Safety Department.
- On-Board Safety Officers During Pre-Production: Bring your health and safety officers into your preproduction process as soon as possible. This will help you incorporate safety into every aspect of the production and prepare for potential problems before they arise.
- Maintain Safety Officers Through Post-Production: The risk of an outbreak does not go away once you wrap principle photography. There is still ADR, re-shoots, pick-ups, VFX, music, and editing. We recommend keeping your safety officers on your team throughout the entire post-production process as well.
As we discussed in our article on cast management, we highly recommend that you quarantine as many of your above-the-line (ATL) personnel as possible before production begins. This will ensure that your team is entirely clear of the virus before entering the bubble of the set.
Quarantining your ATL talent is not free, however. You’ll need to check with union regulations, talent representatives, and all applicable contracts to ensure that you are compensating everyone appropriately.
This is a line item that may be quite expensive, but remember, it is far less expensive than dealing with the fallout from an outbreak. Money spent on safety now will be money saved by avoiding future issues.
To help ensure those issues are avoided, we must budget for testing and sanitization.
Testing and Sanitization
COVID-19 testing is best done using both the thorough PCR nasal test and the rapid-result saliva antigen test. Before production begins, PCR test every member of the cast and crew to ensure that infected personnel don’t puncture the bubble of the set. PCR tests must also be used at prescribed intervals throughout production.
The saliva antigen test is a great daily testing option because results are available far more quickly. Due to accuracy issues, however, the antigen test should not replace the PCR test.
Remember to check with union reps, agents, insurance policies, and all applicable regulations to ensure that you are using the required tests at the required intervals.
In addition to the costs associated with testing, we must budget for sanitizing material and equipment. Please refer to our article on Set Organization and The Safe Way Forward report to learn more about these sanitization procedures. Some additional items you may need to budget for include:
|Additional COVID-19 Sanitization Material and Equipment|
|Hand Sanitizers||Hand Washing Stations||Alcohol Wipes|
|Contactless Crafty||Safety Glasses||Tarps/Tents|
|Traffic Flow Signs||Contactless Thermometers||Clearance Badges|
Travel and Lodging
The pandemic mandates that we maintain social distancing, sanitization, and proper PPE during travel and lodging.
This means more vehicles with fewer passengers, one occupant per hotel room, motels over hotels, private over public transportation. These precautions add to the cost of our productions, but they also help prevent an outbreak.
Production insurance prices have skyrocketed in the pandemic, and some productions cannot secure insurance at all. Banks are not providing completion bonds without insurance. As this article in Variety notes, many traditional insurers are not willing to cover losses from COVID-19.
New insurance companies are entering the market to fill the void, but coverage limits are low, and premiums are high. Ensure that you have a valid quote from an insurance company that covers COVID-19 losses before finalizing your budget.
Length of Shoot
Schedules and budgets have always been linked to each other, and that is doubly true now. Shoots are all taking longer these days due to the necessary procedures associated with COVID-19 safety.
As production schedules grow, so to do production budgets. While this is true of the entire production— and our budgets should reflect that— we want to highlight three areas where the additional time is often overlooked during the budgeting process.
- Prep time
- Over Time (OT)
As we have outlined in our articles on Scheduling and Set Organization, prep-time will take longer than on pre-pandemic productions. To adhere to the union guidelines established in the Safe Way Forward report, we must establish a bubble around the set, a sanitation zone around that bubble, and a third interior tier. The report refers to these as Zones A, B, and C.
We must make sure that everything and everyone that enters the bubble of the set is sanitized. This means that the people, equipment, and even the contents of people’s pockets must be sanitized.
Setting up a set with zones like this takes time. Sanitizing everyone and everything takes time. Time is money, and safety is not cheap.
Over Time (OT)
No one wants to go into OT. It is a drain on every production budget, and it should be avoided at all costs. When we are creating a budget, however, we need to account for OT. In the COVID-19 era, OT is inevitable. We need to budget for this inevitability. We recommend doubling your usual OT allotment.
Productions are always in a constant state of flux, and we might not be able to shoot what we want to on a scheduled day. That’s why we have pick-up days.
Traditionally, the rule for pick-up days was to schedule approximately one for every ten days of shooting. That usually meant a little over an extra week of shooting for a studio feature.
With all the additional safety procedures and protocols, even the most realistic shooting schedules will get delayed. So, we highly recommend budgeting for at least double your normal amount of pick-up days.
Shooting during a pandemic is a tricky and dangerous endeavor. It is our job to mitigate the risks. We must budget for the early onboarding of trained safety personnel, appropriate levels of testing, quarantine pay, sanitization material, safe travel and lodging, additional insurance fees, and the OT and pick-up costs associated with longer shooting schedules.
By accounting for the costs of safety, we ensure that the production stays on budget and that our investors and executives are not blindsided by additional, last-minute costs. Most importantly, a well-written budget is the first step to keeping everyone healthy.
Remember: safety costs money, but carelessness costs lives.
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.