The high cost of COVID safety measures is putting a big dent in television and film production budgets, but leading experts believe that innovations in testing could make shooting cheaper. Now, they need to convince the entertainment industry guilds and unions to sign on.
The industry’s unions have instituted a list of safety measures for productions that take place during the pandemic — these are enumerated in the publicly available COVID-19 Return to Work Agreement with DGA, IATSE, SAG-AFTRA and Teamsters / Basic Crafts. The document is dated Sept. 21, 2020, but so much scientific progress has been made in the last eight months, particularly regarding testing, that some experts believe money could be saved by revisiting the guidelines.
Josh Brammer is the co-founder and CEO of Wellstand Health, a company which analyzes COVID medical innovations and develops safety plans with organizations. Wellstand and its partners have worked on about 20 television and film productions, as well as advised national leadership at unions such as SAG-AFTRA and the Producers Guild of America about the new innovations. While Brammer is enthusiastic about organizations keeping members safe, he believes the requirements are more rigid than they need to be more than eight months after they were written.
“SAG loves their members and they are trying to protect them,” he said. “But the tech is improving, prices are dropping, and capabilities are expanding at warp speed. This causes massive, massive confusion — there is so much coming so quickly it’s hard to imagine unless you’re in this field, keeping current with updates each day. Productions were taken advantage of by exploitive pricing by some labs. We hope to change all of that.”
Brammer believes innovations in testing could help to alleviate the financial burden of COVID safety protocols on productions, which can be onerous. Variety has spoken with several filmmakers who cite that 10% to 15% of their budget goes to coronavirus-related expenses, and Brammer has worked on productions where it’s been cited to be as much as 22%.
“New innovations could cut the COVID budget in half,” Brammer said. “We’re seeing $200 a test, where we can now do these for $70-80 dollars as the technology falls in price and processing efficiency improves.”
Currently, SAG-AFTRA requires three polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests per week for talent. But with new handheld rapid PCR testing, 98% accuracy can be achieved with a cheaper, less complex system which uses a cartridge that can connect to an iPhone. Also, antigen tests are becoming easier to use, higher sensitivity, and lower cost, with results ready in 10 minutes instead of waiting 24-36 hours for a PCR test result. For example, a production team could provide one weekly PCR test ($80) and a daily antigen test ($15) for every cast/crew member for about the same cost as just a single traditional LA-based PCR test ($140).
Dr. Meghan A. Lockard, Chief Science Officer at Wellstand Health, said mainstream diagnostics companies are keeping test prices artificially high as Medicare reimburses for $100. Meanwhile, companies like Wellstand have forged a network of smaller clinical labs who can get the cheaper, more advanced tests to entertainment productions.
“I am upset about what mainstream diagnostic companies have been doing with test pricing for a very long time, but especially during this pandemic,” Lockard said. “The tests themselves are much cheaper to operate and a lot of these companies have not lowered the price because they don’t want to shrink the market permanently.”
More innovations are becoming more accessible, too, which can help to stabilize productions in progress. These include rapid point of care tests that prevent against false positives which can grind production to a halt, as well as next generation sequencing, where positive results can be sent to a lab and examined at the genome level to determine what strain or mutation is present. Having most information possible with diagnostic tests will inevitably maximize the return on investment of the process.
“You not only have to consider the cost of the test, but any collateral that comes with that,” Lockard said. “With any outbreak, you need to think about how a test result, whether positive or negative, is going to impact the organization. If you have a positive result and shut down production, that’s a hidden cost and collateral of a testing program like this. We’re hoping to not only give the best price to productions, but also to help them forge a strategy for different kinds of scenarios.”
Dr. Shawn G. Gibbs, the dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University and an expert in the field of highly infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, confirmed that the speed at which the global scientific community banded together to understand this virus was unprecedented.
“Globally, the scientific community has come together very quickly in order to share the information and data they have around how the virus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted,” he said. “We’ve not experienced a U.S. effort or a global effort like this in modern history. The sheer scope, the sheer size and the sheer pivot of pharmaceutical companies, biomedical researchers, public health — all the focus on one disease is just unprecedented.”
Additionally, Dr. Gibbs confirmed that any health guidelines written eight months ago would inevitably not include huge COVID advancements.
“Any guidelines that are written in September 2020 don’t account for vaccination,” he said. “Any guidelines that were written in September of 2020 don’t account for the leaps and bounds that have been made in regards to testing and how widely available the testing is now. We now know that outside of the healthcare environment, fomite transmission [via touching surfaces] is very, very unlikely. So all of the cleaning we’ve been doing, while cleaning’s not a bad idea, isn’t necessarily as helpful to stop the transmission of this disease.”
Wellstand Health has also been consulting, laying out COVID plans for and performing CDC-assisted validation studies with organizations that operate sporting events, cruise ships, banks and corporate institutions. Yet entertainment production is an area they’re excited to push forward.
“What film productions in particular, we’ve made COVID testing cost effective for independent film productions in particular,” Lockard said. “More vulnerable people in the industry are important artistic voices to have and maintain while we as a nation are going through this collective crisis.”
Variety reached out to the guilds for insight on internal discussions regarding updating guidelines as new medical technology is discovered. The DGA pointed to an extension on their Return to Work Safety Agreement, which reinforces the agreement until June 30, 2021. The IATSE didn’t comment on the most recent version of their return to work agreement. The Teamsters responded by saying, “The Return to Work Safety Protocols expired 4/30/21 and step month extension with modest changes was negotiated jointly by Film & Television Unions and Producers.” And SAG-AFTRA didn’t return comment for this story.
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