On March 16, Michael Bartholet was notified while on set in Massachusetts that Disney World would be shuttering the castle doors until further notice. He opened the message with the rest of his Boston-based crew and wondered when the shutdown would reach the Disney project they were working on.
“It was literally forty-five minutes later,” recounts Bartholet over the phone. Beginning with Ted 2 in 2014, Bartholet has worked on dozens of Bay State productions, including Equalizer 2, Patriots Day, and AMC’s NOS4A2.
After striking the set later that day, Bartholet was forced into an eight-month hiatus as the film and entertainment industry succumbed to an invisible foe. The industry continues to adapt as a second wave of coronavirus takes hold.
The eastward expansion of film and television production began in the early nineties, spurred by California’s rising housing market, strict zoning regulations, and other hurdles that increased the total cost of productions shooting in the Golden State. Massachusetts put together a highly competitive tax incentive package in 2005, seeking to host migrating filmmakers.
The legislation’s impressive credits and exemptions have no residency requirements or annual project caps, and any production spending over $50,000 in the state is eligible for the incentive. These motivators, along with the construction of New England Studios (NES) in 2013, turned the state into a desirable production location. NES has since hosted dozens of award-winning productions, including Knives Out, Free Guy, and Little Women.
Feature films pour money into local economies. Restaurants, hotels, car service—even dry cleaners benefit when Hollywood comes to town. Between 2018 and 2019, the motion picture and television industry generated $1.2 billion in wages in the state of Massachusetts and indirectly created almost 40,000 jobs through local vendors and other businesses.
“[These are] multimillion-dollar productions most of the time. They have the money to throw at the problems to [get them] out of the way,” says Bartholet. Wardrobe emergencies and lunch orders may be pennies on the dollar, but the risks posed by the coronavirus are another story.
Prior to COVID-19, productions had a limited amount of insurance days that could cover expenses caused by unforeseen complications, such as bad weather. One or two days are no longer reasonable margins for production companies. “That policy can’t apply to the COVID world. Those have to be in place for years to come,” says Bartholet. As it stands now, productions could be forced to shut down at a moment’s notice.
Shrine, a horror film starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead, Supernatural), started principal photography in Sudbury last November, and stopped shooting with the rest of the industry in the second week of March. Filming resumed earlier this fall, only to be shut down again after an actor tested positive.
Bay State insurance companies may be off the hook, as Massachusetts is set to reconsider the tax incentive plan in 2023. The generous package has already been opposed by local legislators calling for stricter regulations or eliminating the program altogether. The bill was intended to end in 2013, but was later ratified to extend its sunset to the end of 2022. While the package is still available for a few more years, the bill’s uncertain status could discourage television shows from shooting series in the state long beforehand.
“The argument on the state side is that we’ve already established the industry. If we take these incentives away, [they] won’t just go away,” explains Bartholet. “Except it has everywhere else they’ve done [it].”
This fall, boards of health and production companies have put procedures in place to get the camera rolling again. So, what do sets look like now? In addition to daily temperature checks and regular testing for cast and crew, the new rules have restrictions on how many people can be in one vehicle, limiting filming locations to being within walking distance. Even craft service is under new law.
“It’s up to whatever guidelines the production company in California deems safe,” says Bartholet. He places part of the blame for the malleable protocols on the government’s laissez-faire virus management. “There’s no blueprint for it. They’re all different. So, what is safe, really? I couldn’t tell you.”
Safety regulations pose further delays on production schedules; quarantining, personnel limitations, and sanitation efforts all add more time to the hiatus. While a backlog of entertainment content has trickled out steadily over the past few months, content creators will soon have to figure out how to stay relevant while new series and movies are being filmed.
Exhibitors could once rely on comic conventions and other events as mainstay branding opportunities. Staples like San Diego and New York Comic Con draw millions of dollars of revenue annually, but nearly all of them were cancelled this year. The intense media spotlight and subsequent influx of business they provide is another casualty of the coronavirus.
Now, the responsibility of promoting new entertainment has fallen on the shoulders of publications centered around pop culture. Tracy Gilchrist is the editor-in-chief at the Advocate, an LGBTQ-interest magazine that covers topics in news, politics, opinion, arts, and entertainment.
“I’ve had more shows [and] networks reach out to me for coverage. And I think it’s because they want to leverage what they do have. They’re really trying to get everything written about,” says Gilchrist. She acknowledges the rush of new materials will inevitably slow as companies use up the last of their available promotions. “There’s going to be a lull at some point, when we’re in that moment where people are going back to create new content.”
The national shutdown also canceled the GLAAD Media Awards and the Human Rights Campaign gala, two events that the magazine was invited to attend. “I don’t get to reap the benefits of being out in the community and interacting with the people who read our magazine. And that’s been hard for me.”
“… The film and entertainment industry succumbed to an invisible foe.
Gilchrist took over as editor-in-chief just before the start of the pandemic. She confesses she struggled at the beginning of quarantine, as she juggled the pressures of her new role and finding the creativity necessary to cover the influx of new material. Despite the challenges, both Bartholet and Gilchrist are still grateful to be working in the entertainment industry.
“I love to write and interview people,” says Gilchrist. Some of her favorite projects over quarantine include the site’s Inside the Advocate talk series, and pieces on Ratched and Wynonna Earp. “It’s what I love to do.”
Bartholet’s position as a second assistant director is significantly more challenging with productions tentatively resuming. As the person responsible for planning the logistics of each day of filming, the coronavirus demands more prescience than ever. He admits production companies will adapt to new restrictions to make the process as expedient as possible, believing “the film industry is all about efficiency. If they can somehow get away with being just as safe and more efficient, they will absolutely do that. All of us are really happy to get off the couch and start making money—but not just that. [Doing] what we love, you know?”
Megan Colleran is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
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