Written by on Mar 31, 2020. Posted in Contributors

How Covid - 19 wiped out London’s film business

Andrew pavord, FilmFixer

As Friday 13ths go, March 2020 had a particularly bad one. That Friday morning and over that weekend, one by one, every shoot on our calendar began to cancel. On Monday 16th March, there was almost nothing left.

Our company, FilmFixer, manages film services for local authorities. In more normal times we handle around 800 film shoots each month. We sort out the parking, road closures, permits and resident engagement, helping to source locations and secure them once they have been found.

It’s easy in hindsight to have seen this coming; of course we knew a pandemic was possible, even probable. The near miss of SARS in 2003 had prepared some Asian countries. Regrettably, western nations had ignored the threat, their health systems caught woefully short.

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Bulletproof 2 filming at Thamesmead (c) FilmFixer

I had read about the crisis in Wuhan while in Utah, attending the Sundance film festival in January. As I returned to the UK on a new 787, I watched Contagion - Steven Sonderberg’s 2011 film about a lethal pandemic and the ensuing worldwide panic. I saw many people wearing masks at LAX and Gatwick, but I was not alarmed. Surely the problem would simply go away, as it had done each time before. The idea of fact following the fiction I had just watched was unthinkable.

In the week after I got back to the UK, as the virus spread to Europe and Italy in particular, we thought that filming would not be all that affected. Perhaps the crew might be asked to wear masks, or productions might have difficulty filming abroad. We had an enquiry from a location manager working on a Netflix show which had scrapped its shoot in Italy and was looking for replacement locations in London. Similarly, commercials producers, locked into strict delivery schedules, scrapped their planned overseas shoots and were looking for replacement locations nearer home. Then I heard that owners of locations in London had turned away recce parties on the doorstep, unwilling to risk infection. Within days, as restrictions on travel and social interaction became tighter, hopeful producers realised that their plans to shoot in the UK were simply not going to happen.

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Belle filming on Bedford Square (c) FilmFixer

As our company’s work and income disappeared, our focus turned to our own staff and how we might continue to pay them. We were glad to hear about the government's grants to furloughed Pay As You Earn (PAYE) workers. Our staff will qualify, and should get 80% of their salary, which is a big help. However, we still have to find money for business rates, rent, phone and other bills. There may be help from business interruption loans, which will have to be paid back eventually.

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The Lady in the Van filming at Primrose Hill (c) FilmFixer

As we worked out the implications for ourselves, we recognised that our colleagues in the film industry would not qualify for these grants because of the peculiar way HMRC classifies film crews. It seems that the government wants film crews to pay tax as if they are permanent workers, but fails to ensure that they obtain the advantages permanent workers should get (such as employment protection and support in times of crisis like right now). Most film crews go from one short term contract to another. People allowed to work under Schedule D (self employment) must be heads of department, thereby almost certainly over the £50K threshold to obtain government assistance. BECTU and APA are gathering information, and making an official protest to the treasury committee (March 30th) about this failure. Check their websites for more information.

Copy of Mr Holmes on Bedford Row FilmFixer
Mr Holmes filming on Bedford Row (c) FilmFixer

FilmFixer’s task right now is to plan for a very uncertain future. It’s clear that production will not return until the conditions are right. No Insurance will cover a production that cannot guarantee the safety of its cast and crew. The solution is extensive, cheap and accessible testing, so people can certify that they can work without passing on an infection. I have no idea how long it will take to get to this point, but that’s where we have to be.

When productions finally return to our streets, it’s likely there will be a sudden glut of work. The world will have watched everything bearable currently on the streaming platforms, the pent up demand for fresh content will be huge. It would be nice to think that producers and writers will have used this time to hone their scripts. Perhaps the practice of launching into production without actually having written the show might cease (or perhaps not). Locations will definitely be required, so our job is to be ready to return to normal service as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Our Loved Boy filming on Silwood Estate (c) FilmFixer

In conclusion, the film industry should use this time to rethink its relationship with the workers at the sharp end of production. Freelancers should not have to work under PAYE; they don’t get the benefits, so why should they pay the same as regular employees? If the UK film industry is going to expand and flourish, it needs to attract the best workers. In practice this means employers must offer their employees a decent quality of life, reasonable hours and occasional days off.

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