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The Impact of COVID-19 Protocols on Independent Filmmakers

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While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every industry, protocols implemented by the IATSE—the trade union representing 90% of individuals on a film set—have created unique challenges for independent filmmakers and production companies. 

Current COVID-19 Protocols 

In May 2020, the IATSE hired a trio of epidemiologists to consult with the union and create protocols of best practices for filmmakers and production companies to follow to ensure a safe return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the close proximity of workers on set and the interactive nature of the industry, the IATSE adopted standards that apply to union members in both the U.S. and Canada to ensure adequate protection against the virus. These protocols allowed production to continue during the pandemic to mitigate the financial impacts of COVID-19 on the film and television industry. 

The return-to-work protocols, developed through a joint effort between the IATSE, DGA, SAG-AFTRA, Teamsters – Basic Crafts, and The Association of Motion Picture Television Producers, were designed as an “organizing principle” and “overlay” of standards to be tailored to each production. Key aspects of the requirements include the following: 

  • The “Zone System” is the foundation of the policy. Production consists of three zones: Zone A, Zone B, and Zone C. 
    • Zone A consists of any area within which activity occurs without social distancing or the use of PPE. Typically, this consists of performers and crew who closely interact with no protection. 
    • Zone B consists of all the area where production has a footprint that is not in Zone A. The goal is that members of Zone B will only come into contact with individuals of Zone A when strict physical distancing can be maintained. 
    • Zone C consists of the outside world and all of the places the production crew goes when not on set (homes, hotels, etc.). 
  • No one is allowed in Zone A or Zone B without testing and clearance within 24 hours of entering either Zone. Zone A members must be tested three times a week, at minimum, and members of Zone B must be tested at least once a week. Additionally, members of Zone A must be in proper PPE, with the exception of talent and Zone B must be in proper PPE at all times.
  • Testing is the cornerstone of the protocols. Recent revisions to the policy allow for greater use of rapid antigen tests, which are far more efficient and less expensive than PCR tests. 
  • As of July 2021, vaccines can be mandated for workers in Zone A. As of March 15, 2022, the definition of “fully vaccinated” includes a requirement for a booster shot. 
  • Employees must complete a daily health assessment and temperature check upon arrival on set. 
  • Each employee shall receive 10 days of paid sick leave to be used if an employee misses work due to a positive COVID-19 test or precautionary measures. This sick leave bank was recently replenished for all cast and crew.
  • The most recent revision to the policy formalizes the update that pursuant to CDC guidelines, member studios must upgrade from cloth masks to N95, KN95, or KF94 masks on set. 
  • Absolutely no visitors are allowed on set. 

These elaborate protocols extend through at least July 15, 2022.

Who do the IATSE Protocols Apply to? 

These protocols apply to all workers, contractors, subcontractors, temporary workers, suppliers, and vendors on film sets or locations where members of an IATSE union are asked to work. 

Impact of the IATSE Protocols 

Though these protocols have minimized the spread of COVID-19 on film production sets, the measures have also been costly to implement. On average, independent filmmakers can expect to allocate 10% to 15% of their budget to coronavirus-related expenses in order to adhere to safety protocols. However, the most recent amendment to the protocols, which allows the use of rapid antigen COVID-19 testing, will help to cut some of these costs. Additionally, at the onset of the pandemic, insurance companies began excluding COVID-19 from their policies, which led to an unwillingness by banks to loan to independent filmmakers through completion guarantees or bonds. The combination of the loss of insurance coverage and a surge in production costs have created a heavy financial burden on the independent film industry. Ultimately, this has resulted in fewer productions.

Anticipating Future Changes to the IATSE Protocols

Current trends throughout the United States indicate a reduction COVID-19 safety measures, as cases continue to drop. The film industry will hopefully follow suit soon. In February, the CDC released updated guidance allowing for about 70 percent of Americans to stop wearing masks in public if they choose. New York City recently dropped their mask and vaccine mandates, though masks are still required at Broadway productions. Similarly, the cities of Atlanta and Savannah, GA rescinded their indoor mask requirements in February. Even Los Angeles County eased up on some COVID-19 restrictions, lifting the mask mandate unless the policy of the business or location requires it. As the cities with prominent filmmaking industries ease restrictions, the IATSE will likely become more lenient with their protocols, although the decision is ultimately up to the union. Nationwide public transportation mask mandates are set to expire April 18, and whether or not these are extended will be a big indicator of how the film industry proceeds with the current protocols. 

Bottom Line 

As stated, the protocols are guidelines to be tailored to each production. If you have questions regarding whether the protocols on your independent film set comply with the IATSE standards set forth above, you may want to get legal advice prior to filming. You may also find it helpful to employ a lawyer as part of the filming process. This is an ever-evolving area of the law and as with most COVID-19 pandemic guidelines, the IATSE protocols are subject to rapidly change. Therefore, an attorney’s guidance will help to ensure that you remain in compliance with the IATSE protocols throughout the entirety of the filmmaking and production process. 

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