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LI's TV, film industry looks to post-shutdown future

Gold Coast Studios Stage 3 in Bethpage, seen

Gold Coast Studios Stage 3 in Bethpage, seen in 2013. Credit: Barry Sloan

A bit of 19th Century New York City was rising on 6.5 acre of land at Old Bethpage Restoration before COVID-19 forced film and television productions to shut down in March.

The producers of the HBO series "The Gilded Age," set in late-1800s New York City,had planned to spend at least 18 months shooting the new drama from  "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes starring Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski. Construction on the film set recreating a city street from old New York was halted.

“We are looking forward to starting production on' The Gilded Age' when it is safe to do so,” HBO said in a statement.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order to stop all non-essential work shut down at least a dozen shoots or productions in Nassau County ranging from student and independent films to big-budget productions with marquee Hollywood stars, according to government officials and people involved in the film industry. As lockdowns ease and New York begins to reopen,  the question of when and how productions resume in the new era of social distancing has the industry scrambling to create protocols to keep cast and crew safe on sets where hundreds of people would usually jostle side by side 

Industry professionals said Long Island could benefit from the new normal as projects look to resume away from the pandemic’s epicenter in New York City.

“What some of the productions are looking at doing is as opposed to shooting in the New York City area where it's more congested is to go somewhere like upstate or Long Island,” Flo Mitchell-Brown, chair of the industry group New York Production Alliance, said. “They would take over a hotel for a crew and quarantine their crews so they can't go home.”

Mitchell-Brown said this approach, one of many being considered, would mean crews would work on set and return to hotel rooms for the duration of the shoot.

Long Island could be one place to try out new safety practices, said Lori Douglas, a line producer who has worked on dozens of projects including HBO’s “The Sopranos” and more recently the Fox series “Almost Family.”

“That may be a way to sort of wade back in …  and try to test some of these things of how do we keep people safe and working before we put our work back into a densely populated city like New York," Douglas said.

While overshadowed by New York City’s entertainment industry, Long Island has long served as both a backlot and location for productions big and small. The film and television industry generated $169 million in direct and indirect economic activity in Nassau County in 2018, according to a study by Saratoga Springs-based Camoin Associates. The Nassau Industrial Development Agency commissioned the study which that the 179 productions shot that year created the equivalent of 346 direct jobs and 394 indirect jobs. The county’s two soundstage facilities in Bethpage—Gold Coast Studios and Grumman Studios—are close enough to New York City for productions to access the city’s talent pool, the report said.

New York State Dept. of Labor reports that there were 1,349 people working in the motion picture and video industry on Long Island in 2018, the most year stats are available.

Lyndsey Laverty, principal of Gold Coast Studios, said the shutdown halted two productions, “The Crew,” a new Netflix, NASACR-related comedy starring Long Island native Kevin James that was being shot before a studio audience, and another production that hasn’t been made public.

“People are still calling for the fall. People are still planning ahead,” Laverty said. “We're just kind of in a holding pattern until the state opens back up.”

Laverty said the two productions at the studios are expected to resume but she doesn’t know when. Still under discussion is how “to make the studio as safe and comfortable as possible for everybody there.”

Filmakers and television producers are scouring information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization for ideas how to work safely once business resumes. Masks, gloves and hand sanitizer on set and frequent sanitization of equipment and sets will likely become the norm, industry professionals said. Testing cast and crew for the virus and having medical staff on set could also become standard.

“Producers and productions crews are used to trouble shooting so I think they’re going to come up with various workarounds which is kind of how they’re wired,” said New York University professor Paul Hardart, director of the entertainment, media and technology program at the university’s Stern business school.

Douglas said film crews could be split into “pods” that perform separate functions and wouldn’t interact with each other on set while working staggered shifts.

“Perhaps there's a world where one set of crew members get the set ready and then there's another set of crew members that are shooting the scene,” Douglas said. “There will be a lot more remote meetings in the pre-production and post-production world.”

Productions will do a lot more pre-planning and less improvisation on set, Douglas said. More green screen work, in which actors are shot and the background is put in during post-production, is also a way to reduce crew size, she said.

“Everyone kind of feels like we can't go back until there's a vaccine, but they're going to have to figure something out because that's not going to be for a while,” said Alexis Weiss, prop master on the Showtime network series “Billions” which has frequently shot in Long Island’s Gold Coast mansions. Weiss said for much of a crew there's "pretty much no way for people to stay six feet apart."

"There's no way for a hair person to touch up the hair without touching the actor," Weiss said, adding, "the actors can't wear gloves and masks on camera."

In a media call earlier this month, David White, national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, said productions won't go back to "normal" until there's a vaccine but in the meantime the unions are working on protocols and standards to insure safety on sets.

"Broad and reliable testing and tracing is the rule of thumb standard as to when we will have some organized, sustained production returning in stages," White said on the call. "If you don't know who is a super-carrier and they're on a set with folks, even with social distancing, you've got a problem. So you've got to be able to test."

Some minimizing of contact and potential exposure on set may also be accomplished through changes in the scripts. Scenes of parties, restaurants, crowds, busy offices where actors and extras are shot close together as well as stunt scenes that require large production crews may be out for while, industry professionals said. 

“Love scenes where people are kissing … that we may not see that for bit,” Douglas said.

Beth Horn, executive director of the Sands Point Preserve Conservancy, a nonprofit that operates the sprawling North Shore estates that are frequent locations for film and television shoots, said productions should consider the larger spaces on Long Island, such as theirs.

“The spaces that we have are so large that it would help the productions keep the social distancing that they need,” Horn said. “If you’re shooting in a mansion, the Hempstead House, that’s a 50,000 square foot mansion.”

One production, an ABC television series called “The Brides” about vampires from "Riverdale" creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and starring Gina Torres had to cancel a planned shoot in March because of the pandemic, Horn said.

“We’re told they’re going to reschedule,” Horn said.

Location fees are an important part of the conservancy’s budget, bringing in between $300,000 to $600,000 a year, as much as 25 percent of its revenue.

“That revenue is extremely important to us,” Horn said.

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