Netflix reported a “small number” of coronavirus cases among production staff after film industry stakeholders indicated to the B.C. government that they wanted to be exempt from the 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers.

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Digestible version:

  • In June, unnamed film industry stakeholders wanted the British Columbia government to excuse the industry, often reliant on foreign labour, from the mandatory 14-day quarantine required for entering travelers across the country, according to a briefing note obtained by the downUP.
  • The suggestion was met with rigid steadfastness from the province, which said that it would not be lifting the requirement for the film industry and pointed to how well the visual and animation segments have done (which don’t require people working in person).
  • Just months later, in November, separate documents obtained by this publication show that Netflix said it had a “small number” of positive cases among production staff.
  • The revelation shows the desperation of an industry that had been pummeled by a pandemic that effectively shut down live-action movie shoots.
  • The Canadian Media Producers Association released a report in April saying the film and TV sector faced a $2.5-billion hit and the loss of 172,000 workers.
  • Earlier this year, it was revealed through freedom of information documents that the Motion Pictures Association of Canada pitched three-year post-Covid tax breaks for non-resident foreign workers to kick-start the industry again. That suggestion was met with silence.

What this story contributes:

This story reveals that some film industry stakeholders wanted to be exempted, like essential workers, from the 14-day mandatory quarantine imposed on every traveler across the country. It also reveals that Netflix, in an effort to convince the province that its virus testing methods met government standards, identified a “small number of positives” among production staff.

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Deeper version:

Last summer, during the height of uncertainty as to when the pandemic would end, the British Columbia government fielded an unusual request: film industry stakeholders wanted the industry to be exempt from the mandatory 14-day quarantine for its foreign labour, which was viewed as a “barrier” to business, according to a briefing note obtained by this publication.

“Health officials and the Premier have indicated that exceptions will not be made for the film industry,” said the June 5, 2020 briefing note prepared for the minister of jobs, economic development and competitiveness.

That decision might have avoided a disastrous outbreak because in November, content streamer Netflix, in a separate document obtained by the downUP, reported that it had a “small number” of positive cases among production staff. It revealed that fact to health officials when it was trying to convince the government that its laboratory Covid tests met provincial standards; it claimed that its tests produced faster results than public health.

Netflix-Positive-Cases

“In any of the small number of cases where someone related to the production tested positive, they immediately went into quarantine,” Lindsey Scully, Netflix Canada’s head of communications, told the downUP.

“We have had no recorded cases of on-set transmission of Covid in British Columbia, and no Netflix productions were required to stop filming as a result of Covid transmissions,” she said.

In response to a question about whether the streamer had asked any government for immunity from the 14-day quarantine, Scully replied: “Since the beginning we have taken an approach to testing that complied with the government’s requirements and we’ve been diligent in ensuring we are respecting all rules and regulations in place.”

When reached for comment, the Ministry of Health said that it understood the challenges that industries faced with reopening after initial Covid restrictions.

“We worked with the Public Health Office and the film industry to support their safe reopening plans. B.C. has become one of the most desirable filming locations in North America during the pandemic and we’re pleased to see productions in B.C. are at an all-time high.

Ministry of Health

“We worked with the Public Health Office and the film industry to support their safe reopening plans,” the statement said. “B.C. has become one of the most desirable filming locations in North America during the pandemic and we’re pleased to see productions in B.C. are at an all-time high.

“Regarding COVID-19 cases, positive cases in any setting are tracked by public health and the [B.C. Centre for Disease Control] and appropriately managed.”

The revelations illustrate how desperate the film industry has been during a crushing time for any type of media business, but especially for live-action shoots that often rely on close contact and foreign labour.

“The majority of BC’s film industry consists of service work for American productions, so the self-isolation requirements are a significant constraint on the industry’s business model,” the note said.

The Canadian Media Producers Association released a report in April saying the film and TV sector faced a $2.5-billion hit and the loss of 172,000 workers.

The industry, thus, had to make due not only with socially-distanced filming, but actors moving in and out of the country and being subject to two weeks of isolation each time.

“Film industry stakeholders have indicated that the 14-day self-isolation requirement is a barrier to restarting productions, which often rely to some extent on actors and technical staff from outside Canada.”

June 5, 2020 Briefing note

There have been a number of rescue packages for the creative industry. The federal government allocated $500 million for an emergency support fund for cultural, heritage and sport organizations in May, $115.8 million of which went to the Canadian audiovisual sector.

Beyond funding, producers had to rely on smaller crews, scene rewrites and visual effects to make actors appear closer together when they were distancing, the note said.

The stakeholders who requested the exemption are unknown. The Motion Pictures Association of Canada, which represents in the country the giants of the industry — Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Netflix, Universal, and Warner Bros. Entertainment — told the downUP it was not one of them.

Sydney Grieve, director of public affairs and communications at the MPA, said “the positivity rate of COVID-19 on MPA studio productions is more than 100 times less than the provincial positivity rates.

“In BC specifically, MPA studio productions shot over the last four months of 2020 administered more than 138,713 PCR tests with an overall positivity rate of just .08%” she said. She said that they don’t have data broken down by company.

Throughout 2020, the film industry has been regularly lobbying the federal and some provincial governments. Often those communications would be about friendlier tax laws because they know the provinces have been fighting each other over creative talent.

But lately, it’s been about Covid.

Documents from the provincial government show that the MPA lobbied the B.C. and federal governments for tax credits for non-resident foreign actors for a period of three years post-Covid to help stimulate the industry again. It was met with silence.

The bright side to the denial of exemption came from that same June note: “Several factors should help make BC an attractive destination for filming once entry restrictions are relaxed, including BC’s success at controlling Covid-19, the weakening Canadian dollar relative to the start of 2020, an experienced local work force, proximity to California and generous tax credits.”

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