The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the film and television industries in Ireland. A number of film and television drama producers were forced to suspend production in March 2020, which in turn led to layoffs of many crew members and other personnel across various projects. While production continued in some sectors of the industry during the lockdown period, particularly in the animation sector, the production of film and television was greatly impacted by the implementation of governmental protocols in relation to the closure of all but essential workplaces and social distancing in the wider community.
The road to the recommencement of production poses a number of significant challenges to the Irish film and television industries in Ireland, from accessing funding to securing adequate insurance policies and completion bonds to ensuring that health and safety protocols can be adhered to on set to filming crowds in the new era of social distancing.
FUNDING SUPPORTS IN IRELAND
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (the "DCHG") is continuing to process applications for certification under Section 481 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 (as amended) and to accept materials relating to completion.
It is a requirement of Section 481 that producers keep the DCHG notified of any change of substance to a certified project. In this regard, any substantial change which has arisen for a production as a result of COVID-19 should be notified to the DCHG. This includes any production which has been suspended or which may be materially delayed or otherwise changed from what was anticipated at the time the application for certification was made. Details of what information the DCHG require and where such notifications should be sent are available here.
Screen Ireland announced new support measures which are designed to ease the impact of COVID-19 on the industry and aim to develop a "strong slate of quality projects, so that the industry can emerge in a position to scale up production activity".
These measures include an increase in the Strategic Slate Development Fund from ?1million to ?3million; an additional ?1million in enhanced development support across feature film, television and animation which will be available to Irish production companies working with writers on a project by project basis; a new scheme, worth up to ?150,000 per company, to help production companies hire a financial consultant, with companies able to apply for a maximum of ?5,000 and an enhanced investment of an additional ?100,000 allocated evenly between the Screenplay Development Scheme and Spotlight Development Scheme funds.
Screen Skills Ireland, the skills development unit within Screen Ireland, has also introduced the new Screen Stakeholders Funding Scheme worth ?200,000. The scheme is available to those supporting the screen sector in Ireland to help deliver a series of online events and other activities across a 12-month period.
In tandem with Screen Producers Ireland's COVID-19 Return to Production Guidelines for live action film and TV drama, Screen Ireland has launched a new COVID-19 Production Fund worth ?1 million (capped at ?75,000 per production), which is designed to partially offset additional production costs associated with implementing the new guidelines.
Screen Ireland's funding measures, which also include a range of skills development schemes and new supports aimed directly at screenwriters, directors and actors build on a number of initial moves to help alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on the industry.
Detailed guidance on the COVID-19 measures and eligibility requirements introduced by Screen Ireland are available here.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (the "BAI") announced details of a special funding round to support the independent commercial radio sector in its provision of public awareness and understanding of COVID-19, following additional requests from the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
The BAI has indicated details of a special round of the Sound & Vision 4 scheme as a means of continuing to provide support to independent producers, commercial and community television and public service broadcasters, following the implementation of governmental protocols in relation to the closure of all non-essential workplaces.
The BAI will operate the open funding round later in 2020, as soon as sufficient funding becomes available, albeit that the BAI has acknowledged that the overall fund is likely to be less this year due to reduced television licence fee receipts for 2020.
Details of these rounds will be announced in due course.
As a general rule, motion picture and television production insurance policies cover every risk unless a risk is specifically excluded. For producers who purchased production insurance before COVID-19 became global news earlier this year, those policies may well cover the economic damages and costs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. We are aware that insurance companies began issuing COVID-19 exclusions to new policies earlier this year and insurers are likely to include such exclusions to any new policies being issued in 2020 and beyond. This will mean that commercial insurance for COVID-19 will almost certainly be absent for the foreseeable future. Along with the cost for producers which will be involved in putting new safety protocols in place for productions, it is likely that insurance costs will also rise, significantly inflating a production's total budget and increasing financial pressure on producers.
In France, the government has set up a temporary indemnity fund for films and television productions where filming has to be paused or rescheduled due to the COVID-19 crisis. The purpose of the fund is to provide producers with some relief in circumstances where insurers are refusing to cover pandemic risks. The ?50 million fund will cover up to 20% of a project's budget and will work on a case-by-case basis. However, as the fund became effective on 1 June 2020, it will only be accessible for upcoming shoots and will not serve to cover delays or cancellations on shoots that were suspended during the lockdown period.
Insurers in the US and in the UK have also been looking to government to step in to act as insurer of last resort. Such a move would serve to give buyers confidence to buy, banks and financiers confidence to lend and producers confidence to get their productions up and running again. A UK taskforce on insurance protection recently submitted a proposal to the UK government for a guarantee around coverage for suspension or abandonment costs relating to COVID-19. It is hoped that this may result in the implementation of a government-backed fund which could be relied upon in cases where an outbreak of COVID-19 halts production on feature films or television productions.
In Ireland, it is our understanding that certain insurance companies are, for a limited period, offering policies to cover COVID-19-related losses which are excluded under the main production insurance policy. These policies cover named individuals and losses arising from an individual contracting COVID-19 and the knock-on costs of interrupting production (capped at ?1 million). However, such policies are expensive and may not be adequate for a large-scale production. Also, the policies we have seen are limited to circumstances where a specified individual engaged on the production is diagnosed with COVID-19; it is not clear yet whether any such policy will provide cover against the consequences of a general lockdown, such as that introduced at the end of March 2020.
Andrew Lowe (of Element Pictures and chairperson of Audiovisual Ireland) has warned that the film and television industry in Ireland will not be able to restart unless the Government steps in as the insurer of last resort. We understand that discussions have been taking place between Screen Ireland and the DCHG in relation to insurance for Irish productions.
While it is difficult to predict how the requirements of completion bonds may change as a result of COVID-19, it is clear from recent comments from Dan Read (CEO of Film Finances Australasia) that bond companies are turning to government to seek assistance with regard to insurance of the COVID-19 risk: "With COVID-19 excluded, the wheels of production grind to a halt. We urgently need the government to step up as insurer of last resort until insurers start to price in the Covid risk, which will likely take a while and may be closer to the time a vaccine is discovered." We can only assume at this stage that it is likely that completion bond companies with a market in Ireland will take a similar stance.
PRACTICALITIES OF RETURNING TO PRODUCTION
It has become clear in recent weeks that the way we live and work day-to-day is going to change significantly in a COVID-19 world, at least in the short to medium term, and the film and television industry is no exception. For producers, this means changing and adapting usual working practices, to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for cast and crew. While these changes throw up many challenges, they will be an essential reality of future productions.
Production around the world has been opening up, slowly, from as early as mid-April and a number of major productions have resumed or are shortly to resume production, including the Avatar sequels in New Zealand and Universal's Jurassic World: Dominion, which is reported to be re-starting filming in the UK, from early July. While production could resume in Ireland from June 29th, this will depend on productions being in a position to adhere to all public health and health and safety requirements as outlined by the Government, and so it remains to be seen how quickly production will get up and running. We understand that at least one major production is targeting 31 August for the start of shooting.
From a practical perspective, what do producers need to do? In the first instance, producers need to analyse and identify the restrictions and the risks that may affect their production and then plan how best they can manage or mitigate those restrictions and risks.
On 9 May 2020 the Government published a Return to Work Safely Protocol outlining a series of measures that employers should take in order to adapt their workplace procedures and practices to comply fully with the COVID-19 related public health advice. While not specific to the film industry this document outlines general guidance, much of which will be relevant to how productions will need to operate in the future. Among other things the Return to Work Safely Protocol deals with carrying out risk assessments in the context of COVID-19; preparing a COVID-19 response plan; providing information to staff; social distancing in the context of the workplace, managing workplace facilities, COVID-19 training, and preparing how to deal with cases of COVID-19 in the workplace.
From an industry specific perspective, there are numerous elements to be considered to get back to production safely, these include, reducing numbers on set/location; assessing what creative or editorial changes can be made to reduce risk; protocols for safe use of facilities and equipment; carefully considering and assessing all shoot locations, whether interior or exterior, managing travel restrictions and introducing staggered call times, meal times and rest periods.
A number of useful guidelines have been produced by parties within the industry, including, Commercial Producer's Ireland's Filming Protocol and in the UK, the British Film Commission have produced guidance on Working Safely During COVID-19 in Film and High-end TV Drama Production, while the BBC, Sky, Pact, and ITN, among others, have collaborated to publish a TV production guidance document designed to assist independent productions to re-enter production.
Screen Producers Ireland, in collaboration with a number of Irish industry stakeholders, has published guidelines for the Irish industry designed to be used by those productions carrying out film and TV drama (live action) and factual and entertainment production activity from prep stages through to post-production. The DCHG has confirmed that these guidelines adhere to Government COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. The Film and TV Drama (Live Action) guidance document is available here and the Factual and Entertainment guidance document is available here. These documents offer detailed guidance on the kinds of considerations that need to be made and the changes that will need to be implemented for Irish production to resume safely.
It is widely accepted that COVID-19 will be a fact of life for some time, so in addition to getting back on set safely, producers will need to consider protecting themselves against potential further disruption or shutdown of production. In addition to insurance considerations, as discussed above, producers may need to have an additional contingency plan to help protect against future suspension or interruption of production.
Travel raises another set of issues. Film and television production is a global transient business and with most countries and indeed states, imposing quarantine restrictions and/or various travel bans, international travel has been hugely disrupted. It looks likely that travel, in the short term at least, may necessitate periods of isolation on arrival at certain destinations, adding cost and logistical considerations to any production schedule. Added to the logistics of travelling is the consideration that cast and crew will need to be willing to travel and depending on location in question and the situation at that location at the time of travel, this will not necessarily be straightforward.
In order to protect themselves to the greatest extent possible, producers will also need to consider the underlying agreements they are entering into in relation to production. It would be prudent to ensure that additional protections are built into production and financing documentation, as well as cast and crew contracts, and other agreements, to deal with the new realities of filming and to mitigate, where possible, the risks arising from further COVID-19 related disruption. In addition, company policies, for example those relating to health and safety and data protection may well need to be reviewed and updated with COVID -19 in mind.
This article outlines just some of the issues and challenges facing Irish film and television productions at this time. The situation continues to change and evolve day-to-day, but what is certain is that the coming weeks and months will see great changes in how production operates.
Originally published July 13, 2020
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