New York City gave movie and television crews the Phase 4 green light on July 20, the same day professional sports teams were cleared to play without cheering (or jeering) fans in the stands — just silent cardboard cutouts.
And while the Yankees and Mets are swinging for the fences and the Islanders and the Rangers hit the ice for an exhibition NHL game, the stars of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Blue Bloods” — popular New York TV shows — are still warming the bench.
Things are progressing, though. Production offices, closed since mid-March, are opening, stars’ schedules are getting untangled and scripts are being written and fine-tuned.
“We’ve tried to take a very measured response to the production rollout. September is when we’ll start to see some of the bigger shows come back,” said Anne del Castillo, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME). “That will include some locations throughout New York City.
“But even then, because of geographic limitation, it’s not like you’re going to see a hundred productions on the street,” continued del Castillo, whose office handles permits for on-location shoots. Widespread outdoor dining up-and-down New York City streets also poses a challenge for film crews, and will change the way productions are rolled out until the end of October, when the city’s street-eating initiative is due to end. As part of the rules for on-location shoots, they can’t come within 21 feet of eateries participating in the open-restaurants program without permission.
When it comes to people and businesses, “New York is so dense. We’re trying to share the streets. We can’t have shows filming on top of open restaurants,” she said.
As of July 27, a maximum of 50 cast and crew are allowed for shoots on public property, which is double the number in the previous protocols. “I know a group of filmmakers making music videos who haven’t taken their foot off the gas,” Mitchell-Brown said, adding that they observed Phase 3 maximums and social distancing and safety guidelines. “They were in the Lower East Side. They were in Queens.”
Currently, no more than two cameras, three lighting stands, and five vehicles may be used for shooting through Oct. 31. In addition al-fresco dining, on-location shoots can’t get in the way of hospitals and COVID-19 testing centers to ensure 24/7 access.
“Right now,” del Castillo said, “we’re all just trying to figure out what all the constraints are.”
They already know what the stakes are.
In January, in response to an article about New York-based productions, Flo Mitchell-Brown, Chair of New York Production Alliance, which promotes and supports various facets of production, noted that “New York state is now the nation’s second-leading location for TV and film, behind only California, home of Hollywood.”
In 2019, roughly 200 productions applied for the state’s film tax credit, created more than 250,000 jobs and generated $4.8 billion in new spending, Mitchell-Brown said.
Figures from MOME show that New York City TV and film production was at an all-time high pre-pandemic, generating more than $60 billion in annual direct economic activity for the city and $3 billion in tax revenue. There were 80 TV series and 300 films being shot in the city before COVID hit, putting more than 100,000 New Yorkers to work. More than 2,000 local small businesses are supported by film and TV production.
“I want to be a little bit careful,” del Castillo said, adding that state and local government agencies, unions, production offices and others are in the cast of characters mapping out a safe return. “It’s an ongoing conversation that we’re having. It’s safe to say that in the first bit of Phase 4, most production will be on soundstages.”
Around the boroughs, that includes the sprawling Steiner Studios in Brooklyn and Silvercup Studios in Long Island City and the Bronx, to name just a few. But studios dot the Empire State. “We’ve been having weekly calls with these various stages since the start of the pandemic,” Mitchell-Brown said.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “God Friended Me” and “Hunters” are a few series shot at Steiner Studios. Steven Spielberg’s movie remake of “West Side Story” was as well, said Doug Steiner, CEO of the large studio that bears his name. It reopened July 20.
However, Steiner Studios is still pretty quiet. Set construction there ahead of cameras rolling was already expected to begin, but that’s not happened yet. “We’re still working things out,” Steiner said, adding that there are “layers” of guidelines when it comes to masks, social distancing and other issues. “Productions have their own set of rules. We have our own protocols for entering the studio.”
Steiner optimistically expects shooting to begin “sometime in September. Worst case scenario,” he said, “in October.”
“Everyone has good intentions about starting back up,” Mitchell-Brown said. “But there’s still a level of divide between intention and reality. The government says you can have a certain number of people on the set that’s acceptable. Unions may require fewer people on the set when actors’ masks come off. What I’m hearing and seeing is that unions and guilds are going to do everything in their power to protect their members. There’s a lot to consider and iron out.”
Making sure that everyone’s on the same page isn’t just a hurdle for huge facilities, according to Matthew J. Pellowski, of Red Line Studios, a relatively compact Manhattan production and postproduction facility. Looking ahead to a “proper reopening” in September, he said that he anticipates that one major challenge will be ensuring the rules and regulations of outside production teams “coincide with their own.”
When shooting resumes full-gallop, or thereabouts — in studios large or small or on location — they will look different. There will be changes across the industry for safety and facilitation of contact tracing.
“Productions will be specced out by zones,” Mitchell-Brown said. “Essentially that’s so they can control the amount of people on a live set at a particular time. There will be zones for hair and makeup and costumes and so on. Some people refer to the areas as pods. It’s a way to have the set’s ebb and flow in a way that adheres to guidelines.”
The use of color-coded wrist wristbands to identify various members of the cast and crew and where they have access on a set is another strategy being discussed. “Like you wear at a nightclub, or, if you’re not old enough to drink, at an amusement park,” Mitchell-Brown said.
Meanwhile, up-for-grabs chow served communal-style, “is a thing of the past as previously presented,” Steiner said. “There will be no cafeteria tables. Catering for shoot days will be cooked on site and single served.”
As the movie and TV industry simmers in Phase 4, it’s been a time for reflection, according to Steiner. “There’s a sense of urgency. It’s important to get back on track as soon as possible. The pandemic has brought to the fore how important this industry is to New York City and New York state. It’s something New York does really well.”