It’s lights, camera and some action for New Mexico’s film business.
While no film projects are shooting in the state as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose risks, state officials have given the OK for crews to prepare for production — a sign the industry soon could return to business almost as usual.
“You’re going to start to see some activity” at studios statewide, said Liz Pecos, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 480, a film workers union.
Pecos said each company must come up with a plan to ensure worker safety during the pandemic.
State officials and any union with members working on a film will have to approve the company’s plan, Pecos added.
Film companies will have to follow specific guidelines created by a New Mexico industry task force and also must adhere to the governor’s public health rules for all businesses in the state, which include a face mask mandate, social distancing and frequent hand-washing.
According to the state Economic Development Department, about 80 film productions were shot in New Mexico in fiscal year 2020, funneling nearly $400 million directly into the state’s economy.
That’s a drop from the $525 million the state saw in direct spending from film productions in fiscal year 2019 — indicating a significant loss during the industry’s pandemic-related shutdown in New Mexico.
It’s no wonder film businesses are eagerly awaiting the green light to return to full operations.
Bruce Krasnow, a spokesman for the Economic Development Department, said in an email, “Aspects of the film and television industry are already back to work, including pre-production work, set construction, location scouting, etc., with required COVID-safe practices in place.
“Just as we hope to be able to see additional reopenings across the state as we continue to make progress in the fight against COVID-19,” Krasnow added, “we anticipate the film and television industry to be able to resume additional production work in the future if public health conditions continue to trend positively.”
Pecos said “several hundred” of IATSE 480’s 1,500 crew members have returned to work. Two projects put on hold by the pandemic — Netflix’s Western The Harder They Fall and Sony’s horror film The Covenant — will be among the first to start up again.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not yet announced when public health restrictions will be eased to allow filmmaking to resume fully.
“It may be a matter of weeks. It may be a matter of months,” Pecos said.
The union supports the governor’s health mandates, she added.
The film industry shut down in New Mexico at the end of March, when the first cases of the virus arrived.
Industry insiders, including film union representatives, launched a task force during the shutdown that drafted a 22-page white paper on how to safely restart productions when the state reopened the industry.
The New Mexico Film Office now requires film production companies and workers to follow the guidelines, some of which could cause challenges.
All members of the cast and crew on a production are expected to wear masks as often as possible, including when makeup is being applied to an actor’s face.
The safety measures also call for “regular, periodic testing of cast and crew” and require a COVID-19 compliance officer to be on hand to “address issues as they arise.” This could lead to increases in production budgets.
“We’ll learn pretty fast once we get back to production if there are going to be extended costs,” Pecos said.
Film production companies, like other industries in the state, must report any positive result for a COVID-19 test.
This could prompt worker quarantines and contact tracing to see if an infected person was in contact with anyone else on a set, which is likely to delay production activity at times.
“If a crew member is infected with COVID, it is obviously going to impact production,” Pecos said.
Eric Witt, former executive director of the Santa Fe Film Office, recommends U.S. companies look to foreign productions already underway for guidance on safety measures.
He noted similarities between precautions planned in New Mexico and those he encountered during a 10-week stint in Croatia as a line producer for Bravo’s reality television show Below Deck.
A safety plan and repeated testing are vital, said Witt, who underwent 14 COVID-19 tests. Not one crew or cast member on the Bravo show tested positive, he said, crediting the safety precautions.
He and others on the show had to quickly take on new duties — such as sanitizing equipment between shifts and calming crew members’ fears of contracting the virus.
“You plan and plan and plan,” he said, but the reality is, “you have to adjust to the particulars on the ground as you encounter them.”
Maintaining compliance required constant vigilance, Witt said.
Producers need to connect with testing labs to ensure repeated testing and quick results, he said.
In Croatia, producers arranged at least 1,000 test cycles in advance with a turnaround time of no more than eight hours for results.
Waiting three days for a test result in the movie business is “pretty much useless,” Witt said.
Witt said he believes New Mexico, with its vast spaces and relatively low number of COVID-19 cases, can “make it work.”