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Hollywood torn over production shutdown amid rising COVID cases

Hollywood’s biggest film and TV studios are temporarily halting production as the coronavirus pandemic continues to mushroom in Los Angeles county, leading to rising anxieties over the future of Tinseltown.

On Monday, Netflix joined a growing number of studios, including CBS TV Studios, Warner Bros. TV and Universal TV, to dim the lights until mid-January.

Some Hollywood insiders are lamenting that the shutdown could prove untenable if it extends beyond two weeks. Others, however, are worried for their safety even as productions have put in place COVID regulations.

“Southern California hospitals are facing a crisis the likes of which we have never seen before,” said Gabrielle Carteris, president of SAG-AFTRA, the union representing actors.

“Patients are dying in ambulances waiting for treatment because hospital emergency rooms are overwhelmed,” Carteris said, cautioning Tinseltown from resuming work. “This is not a safe environment for in-person production right now.”

But one TV producer, who asked to remain anonymous, told Variety that the situation is more complicated.

“The cupboards are bare and there is too much money at stake,” the producer said, referring to the dearth of new TV and movies.

Weighing the consequences, the producer added: “We’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we can do this safely. Are we doing it safely? We are being incentivized to believe that we are. So I think everyone is going to continue to take calculated risks.”

Even with 1 in 5 Los Angeles residents testing positive for the coronavirus, amounting to around 10,000 new cases daily in the county plagued by more than 800,000 cases, sources said there’s more concern over the day-to-day situation than a total shutdown similar to that of the spring of 2020.

That shutdown crushed film and TV industry in LA during the second quarter of 2020 with productions plummeting 98 percent versus the year-ago period, to just 194 shoot days, marking the “lowest filming levels on record,” a FilmLA study said.

In order to get back to work, studios put in place stringent safety measures on set last summer. They included routine cast and crew testing, COVID compliance officers, mandatory mask-wearing on set and assigned zones to regulate contact.

But even with such measures, production staffs have still contracted the virus. For example NBC’s “Mr. Mayor,” Warner Bros.’ “Lucifer,” and both “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” and “Young Sheldon,” which are produced at the CBS lot, logged positive COVID cases into the double digits.

Hollywood agents, who rely on getting their clients work to keep money flowing, brushed off the current state of the business, calling the halt in production more of a “blip” than a prelude to a larger shutdown.

Agents told Variety that studios are trying to “ease public concerns” with the pause, and that a temporary production hiatus won’t materially affect workflow on shows.

However, if things continue to deteriorate, various guild unions around town could intervene in a significant way by calling for a complete shutdown of physical production.

SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White said that while the on-set COVID measures are largely working, his union is “very concerned” about the situation and is “constantly monitoring” it.

“We want the industry to thrive,” said White. “We want members to be able to put food on the table for their families.”

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