Before Covid-19 tore through New York City, the film industry was alive and thriving. In February, Law and Order SVU was shooting its 22nd season at Chelsea Piers while Billions filmed on the Upper West Side. Roberto Lopez, a stunt coordinator and gear-rigger, was working on the set of For Life with 50 Cent when everything came to a screeching halt. “We were shooting a lot of stuff in the prisons, particularly Kew Gardens, which the show is about,” he remembered.“Then everything just shut down overnight. We packed up the sets and no one came back.”
With the city’s transition into Phase Four of reopening on July 20, upwards of 100 TV series have received approval to begin or resume shooting. But if you’re imagining Governor Cuomo clapping the director’s slate shut and yelling “Action!”, think again. Much is bound to change on New York City sets– including action sequences– aren’t even able to reopen under current restrictions.
Initially, no film or television production was set to commence until Phase Four. Governor Andrew Cuomo, however, started allowing small sets with a total cast and crew of 10 people to film around the city at the start of Phase Two. On July 20, the state removed its cap on film crew numbers, placing the responsibility on specific districts to decide how to regulate their productions. In response, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment expanded the cap to 50 under the condition that filmmakers abide by a series of health and safety restrictions. In September the cap will further expand to 100, consequently accommodating high-budget network shows that require significant, on-the-ground staffing to produce.
“We wanted to do it in a measured way,” said Anna Del Castillo, commissioner of Mayor de Blasio’s Office of Media and Entertainment. “We want to make sure we’re not shocking anyone.”
A 50-person crew could perfectly support a smaller, indie production, while a crew of 100 could support the sort of episodic television that dominated New York City’s media landscape in the months and years prior to lockdown, before critically acclaimed shows like Succession and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel indefinitely postponed their upcoming seasons.
Despite the excitement that will inevitably accompany the resumption of large network shooting endeavors, the guidelines surrounding them may present new challenges for crewmembers. A film set is a traditionally intimate, boisterous place with many different actions being carried out simultaneously; engineers, stunt-riggers, set-designers and production assistants work in tandem while a scene plays out in front of the camera.
Now, said Del Castillo, crews “will have to have a health and safety plan.” This is a statewide mandate, necessary for productions outside of NYC as well. There are a number of ways sets have already decided to do this. “You can isolate a particular team, so grip, electric and scenic painters may not happen all at once. Production team members might start using remote video to observe rehearsal.”
Additionally, actors will be asked to wear a mask when cameras aren’t rolling. In June, the Screen Actors Guild issued a report outlining potential ways to prevent the contraction and spread of Covid-19 on set. Part of the proposal entails sectioning cast and crew members into different “zones.” As members of Zone A, cast and those who frequently interact with them will likely be expected to take a Covid-19 test every few days, and will be isolated as much as possible from other zones.
Nicholas McManus, who works as a freelance shooting grip on various New York-based productions, says set cultures that were already demanding will be made hypervigilant by the new measures.
“The department keys I work under have hardened attitudes after years in the movie business that are now combined with a work stoppage that they had no control over,” said McManus, who is also a Bedford + Bowery contributor. “They’re going to be constantly on their hires about social distancing and not wearing a mask will get you removed from a crew team.”
Other citywide restrictions include a ban on shooting in any location that could interfere with Covid-19 response (near hospitals or testing centers), a ban on full street closures,.
Most impactful to certain factions of the film industry, however, is the current ban on any dangerous activity on set. This means action sequences, stunts, and the use of fire or fake firearms are limited. Sets are only permitted to carry out stunts if members of the NYPD TV unit are present.
The local film industry’s reluctance to carry out action sequences is both a direct effort to minimize potential injuries and an indirect show of sensitivity toward the Black Lives Matter movement. The use of fake NYPD uniforms and firearms may not be appropriate for a cultural moment that calls for defunding police and mitigating violence. The change has led stunt workers like Lopez to seek out work elsewhere.
“At the beginning of the summer, there was [a] kind of mass exodus of stunt performers from New York to cities like Atlanta,” said Lopez. “This was already starting to happen before, but the pandemic really put the nail in the coffin.”
Lopez also predicts that limiting stunts within the city could wind the clock back to a time when the industry focused less on big-budget action sequences. “It could be like a return to the nineties. Back then New York wasn’t an action town. You only had a handful of full-time stunt people, everyone else was a part-timer.”
With streaming platforms like Netflix and the creation of Marvel TV, entertainment industry workers migrated to New York in droves. Some action-heavy shows like Jessica Jones or movies like Luke Cage and The Defenders had up to 40 stunt workers on set at a time. Additionally, long-running cop shows such as Law and Order SVU and Blue Bloods made New York a secure place for stunt workers to settle down.
Nowadays, most of Lopez’s work is likely to take place at sound stages upstate or in New Jersey. His sense that New York City-based content could radically change in the coming years is a sentiment shared by others in his subsection of the industry.
“I think places like Netflix are going to have to write smaller. You might have to write a bunch of extras out in order to maintain safety on set,” Lopez said.
Del Castillo, however, maintained confidence that, so long as cast and crew adhered to safety guidelines, New York City will still produce the genre content we know and love. “We have these long-running shows here like Law and Order SVU and Blue Bloods that I don’t think are going anywhere,” she said.
For viewers, it will be a matter of exercising patience. It’s unlikely that action shows will be given production priority right now, but they will eventually return– likely with less extras and some production changes. “I don’t necessarily think the pandemic is going to really impact the kind of content that comes out of New York,” said Del Castillo. “I do think it’s going to change how things are shot. We might not be seeing as many intimate scenes, for example.”
It’s also very likely that if content were to change, it would be in response to our current political moment and calls for industry reform. “I’m hoping that no matter what, there’s more diversity in what gets shot here.”
While police-focused tv shows that have a tendency to glorify NYPD activity may not be cancelled, they are likely to rework their scripts to be more timely and racially sensitive. Blue Bloods, for example, has already announced its effort to be more socially and politically conscious in its upcoming 11th season.
The future health of New York’s film industry can also be attributed to the city’s comparatively low Covid-19 numbers. When contrasted with an entertainment mecca like Los Angeles (where roughly 2,000 residents are now testing positive on the daily) New York City is a relatively safe place to commence film production.
According to McManus, it’s likely that we will see New York content back on our screens far sooner than anything California-based. “New York might be the only place in the country that can produce content right now. At the height of the pandemic there was a fear that shows would flee to other production hubs in L.A., Atlanta and the Carolinas but with our COVID cases down in NY and rising in those areas it looks like we might get a lot of work coming our way.”
Additionally, much of Del Castillo’s confidence in the industry’s recovery is rooted in its local pride and dedication. “We have so much home-grown talent. It’s a very local industry. So many of the actors and filmmakers have been here for the past several months and are rattled by what they have seen. They want to be as careful as possible when returning to work.”
Lopez is one such talent, whose loyalty to the city caused him to stay put when so many of his colleagues were fleeing. “I’ve been working here for 20-25 years,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere just yet.”
Update, August 20: This post was updated because there is no longer a restriction on certain types of cameras. Additional revisions were made to clarify state vs. New York City policy.