On March 13, 2020, Lauren Colbert arrived at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, where she was working as an assistant costume designer for a CBS television series. It was nine in the morning and she had just started her day in the costume shop when she got the news: Steiner Studios had closed. Shut down. Production on the final episode of the season had stopped and everyone was told to go home immediately due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, more than 305,000 jobs are supported by the city’s creative industries, which generate $104 billion each year. New York City often plays a leading role in popular movies and television series, such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the long-running crime series “Law & Order,” and the soon-to-be rebooted “Sex and the City.” City skylines and attractive practical settings are not the city’s only draws: The state also allocates $420 million annually to its film production tax credit program.
Since the onset of the pandemic, however, city film and television production has dropped by nearly 50%. The Media and Entertainment Office keeps a tally on its website of prime time television and online episodic shows and mini-series. As of February 9, 34 shows were in production, only two of them movies. That compares with 81 productions in the works back in December 2019, including 17 movies, just three months before the shutdown. And while things have improved since sound stage doors shuttered across the city, it is not quite business as usual.
Colbert’s production wasn’t the only one that shut down abruptly. Kevin Moogan, a producer’s assistant from Bed-Stuy, was also on set in early March. “We started to hear more and more rumors around the office and people saying ‘we’re probably going to get shut down,’” he said. “And then, ‘we are definitely getting shut down.’” In fact, Moogan’s production ceased mid-episode with only two days of shooting left. Stopping mid-production forced many studios to find creative ways to end the season. “I’m sure people notice a lot of TV shows had a weird number of episodes” this year, he said.
Soundstages remained dark and city streets that once welcomed film and television crews stood silent, as not only New York City’s film industry but also Broadway theaters, museums, and other cultural institutions ground to a halt.
For Moogan, the entire industry was dead until a few preliminary planning conversations began in July. During that time, he collected unemployment and adopted a dog—a 54 pound, high-energy mutt named Jo, with big brown eyes punctuated by tan eyebrows. Colbert, meanwhile, who is an assistant costume designer, discovered a passion for making hand-tufted rugs and blankets. She took advantage of the shutdown and set up a studio in her Brooklyn apartment, selling her designs, inspired by nineties neon art deco, via Instagram.
Jon Read, a Brooklyn-based producer, found himself sitting at home talking to his business partner, saying ‘what do we do now?’ He was on set in Los Angeles when the pandemic hit and everyone bailed pretty quickly. He booked a flight to New York and was back home in Brooklyn the next morning. “We just started following along, waiting for the industry people to meet, and read all the news we could read,” said Read. “It became clear early on that testing was going to be the thing to have some semblance of safety on set.”
In June, the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and The Teamsters released a joint report called the Safe Way Forward. The 37-page document included advice from epidemiologists, experts, and industry professionals and outlined “safety guidelines to provide safe workplaces in a pre-vaccine world.” Soon after, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers adopted similar guidelines as did many of the studios. Cameras slowly started rolling once again with new safety standards.
Life on set under a COVID cloud is much different than it was on March 13, 2020. Colbert’s boyfriend, Michael Dondero (they met working on the set of The Big Sick), is a production coordinator and has worked on television shows such as “Mr. Robot” and “Ray Donovan.” Dondero returned to work in August, to strike down a set for a show that was being shelved after the pandemic interrupted pre-production. It wasn’t until October 5th that his next show was a go, and by then the production office looked very different.
In a pre-pandemic world, the production office crew sat close together in what was commonly described as the “bullpen” and remained in constant communication throughout the day. “Now, we’re all spaced far apart,” said Dondero. “We had the construction department build dividers and everyone wears masks all the time.” And it’s almost impossible to hear what others are saying over the air filtration system. In Moogan’s production office, tape on the floor delineates a six-foot perimeter around each desk. “The desks are very far away, you wear a mask, you’re yelling across the room and having to repeat yourself,” he said. “But it feels like we’re doing the right things.”
On set, safety measures create just as many challenges. Crew members use walkie-talkies to communicate across the room. A COVID compliance officer heads up a small health and safety team, which is tasked with managing testing, PPE, and hand-washing stations, and enforcing social distancing. But the added safety measures are accompanied by increased costs.
“The general practice is to take what you think your movie is going to cost and add 20-25% and that will be your COVID cost if you follow the union guidelines,” said Read. But that’s not the only added expense: if anyone on set ends up in close contact—within six feet for 15 minutes—of anyone in Zone A, you have to shut down for two weeks. Zone A applies to actors and anyone with close contact with talent, such as the director or director of photography. On a union production, “you lose two weeks and you still have to pay everyone. All the same costs except for food; it’s a pretty big hit,” said Read. “The bigger the project, the bigger the hit would be.”
“It does not feel like business as usual,” said Olivia West Lloyd, a commercial producer who organized her first COVID shoot in January. The increased safety measures and skeleton crew due to reduced sound stage capacity were just the start of a new pandemic producing experience on Lloyd’s set. “Our director was on an iPad mounted to a rolling stand on video chat the whole time.”
For Moogan, the biggest challenge is that being on set is lonelier these days. “Crafty” or craft services as the catering set up is known, used to be one of his favorite aspects of the job. But now, instead of bonding over a buffet-style lunch or casually grazing on a large bowl of M&Ms, each meal is individually wrapped and crew members have to sit alone while they eat.
“One of the big things that has changed is you’re working long days and it is unsafe to have any camaraderie on set,” said Moogan. “You can’t chat and you have to sit off all by yourself. It makes the days drag a little.”
The loneliness extends to life at home as well. “I feel safe at work, but it obviously affects what I can do outside of work,” said Dondero. “Anybody that I might interact with, even if it’s just for a walk in the park, I have to be like, ‘I take the subway to work and I’m around all these people every day.’” Physically working on site limits Dondero’s ability to quarantine, which means he also won’t visit his parents in New Jersey while reporting to the production office.
The changes on set, meanwhile, seem endless: shorter days in an attempt to keep cast and crew healthy, scripts amended to include fewer background actors, longer prep schedules. The pandemic’s tentacles curl their way into every decision. “Previously, the risk factor in a project was it may rain today but we’ll still do it—now the risk factor is someone could get sick and die,” said Read. “It’s a different weight as a producer, it’s morally tough to swallow.”
Although New York film and television production face a challenging return, there is a positive outlook for a return to normalcy, but with all aspects of the industry impacted by the pandemic, “normal” may still be months away.
Work in the costume department picked up for Colbert in October. In some ways, she’s used to the routine. She continues to pull pieces from vintage stores across the city in preparation for a period piece in Philadelphia. “It definitely feels like things are starting up more and more,” she said. “And I’m hopeful for the spring.”