Sydney in lockdown (Image: iStock)

When George Miller announced in April that he would be filming the long-awaited prequel of Mad Max: Fury Road in New South Wales, state treasurer Dominic Perrottet claimed there was “no better place to make an international blockbuster”.

Nearly four months later and Perrottet, along with the rest of the NSW government, is overseeing the seventh week of a lockdown in a state responsible for almost half of the total production expenditure across feature films, TV, and online drama in Australia.

While the Sydney outbreak is yet to shut down sets, the rise of cases has raised questions about certain COVID policies and how they relate to the industry.

The news last week that HBO Films had decided not to proceed with Day of Abandonment following the last-minute departure of Natalie Portman was accompanied by reports producers had struggled to find a replacement willing to commit and spent two weeks quarantine upon entry into Australia.

Hotel quarantine proved effective in reducing the spread of coronavirus when it was introduced in March last year, but has remained mandatory for everyone, despite a large part of the international community now being vaccinated.

The topic was discussed at length at the end of last month when Screen Producers Australia conducted a Facebook Live event with Screen NSW head Grainne Brunsdon.

Brunsdon said prior to the current lockdown, other territories were beginning to open up, meaning that quarantine became an “additional challenge” for those coming in. She added it was one of “a number of issues” now that needed to balanced for Australia to remain attractive and “not go from hero to zero and beyond very quickly”.

“Hopefully the federal and state governments are talking about how you manage people who are fully vaccinated coming in. Are there other different measures that can be put in place, and do they still need to do two weeks quarantine?” she said.

“Nothing has been decided on that yet but I think that will be something that is discussed in the coming months at national cabinet.”

EQ Media CEO Greg Quail, who is executive producer on the new ABC series Troppo, starring Thomas Jane, said forcing fully vaccinated people into two weeks quarantine was “a real problem”.

“Asking your big name leads to come to Australia and spend 14 days in the hotel in lockdown when they are fully vaccinated is a real disincentive,” he said.

“The science does not support it; if you’re fully vaccinated and not COVID positive, then why do you have to spend these days in quarantine?”

Australia is not the only market where there is a renewed focus on the virus.

Production in LA was shown to have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels during the second quarter after a statewide reopening in June, with permit data from FilmLA indicating there were 9,791 shoot days from April to June of 2021, which Variety reports is the highest total since the last quarter of 2019 and higher than the average level for all of 2019.

But according to the State Office of Public Health, California is now experiencing the fastest increase in COVID-19 cases during the entire pandemic, with 18.3 new cases per 100,000 people per day.

‘Bridgerton’. (Image: Netflix)

In the UK, restrictions were eased in mid-July, just as Delta restrictions were beginning to spike.

The subsequent rise in cases led to disruptions across an array of productions, with Netflix’ hit period drama Bridgerton and HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon both temporarily halted due to COVID positive tests.

Cases in the country have since dropped off heading into August, sitting at just below 25,000 per day after reaching more than 50,000 a day in July (Worldometer).

What sets the UK and LA apart from Australia going forward is how they have got to where they are.

Both regions have more than 60 per cent of their respective populations fully vaccinated and are moving towards vaccination mandates for indoor venues.

At the end of last month, Netflix became the first major Hollywood studio to implement a blanket policy mandating vaccinations for the casts of all of its U.S. production.

Australia on the other hand, having largely pursued an elimination strategy, has just over 20 per cent of its adult population fully vaccinated, and is now facing a series of lockdowns and tighter border restrictions.

Quail questioned the merit of the approach long-term, describing it as “naive from the start”.

“It only takes another variant to come through that is worse than Delta and we’ll be back where we started,” he said.

“There’s only two possibilities; you’re either going to get COVID or you’re going to get vaccinated.”

However, the pursuit of complete suppression garnered fans worldwide last year, especially in the production industry.

Among them was Made Up Stories, which made the decision to relocate two of its stalled productions, Netflix drama Pieces of Her and Hulu series Nine Perfect Strangers to NSW last year from Vancouver and California respectively.

Steve Hutensky, Bruna Papandrea, and Jodi Matterson from Made Up Stories.

Speaking to IF last month ahead of the Nine Perfect Strangers premiere on Amazon August 20, COO and producer Steve Hutensky said the goal of elimination was one of the main differences between navigating the pandemic in Australia, compared with other countries.

“When we’re shooting in LA, Georgia and Toronto and London, it’s a different philosophy in what they want to do with COVID, so if Australia is successful in getting the numbers back down to that kind of level, it’s going to provide something unique that only really New Zealand and a couple of other places in the world can provide as a filming location,” he said.

Made Up Stories Founder Bruna Papandrea said it had been “quite fascinating” to navigate the virus in different countries, adding that the nature of the industry meant it was well equipped to handle the evolving challenges of the pandemic.

“We are in a very adaptable business and part of what we do is logistics, so I think we have adapted really well more than most businesses and we take the medical stuff really seriously,” she said.

“But like with anything, you learn lessons and adapt as the situation changes as it has now.

“People are still watching film and TV shows and we get to keep making them, so we feel very grateful to be able to do that.”

Australia’s screen industry is still working under the COVID-Safe Guidelines developed in consultation with the office of Australia’s Chief Medical Officer last year.

These guidelines are followed by all productions, in addition to each state’s workplace safety directives. They have seen productions put in place additional safety measures on-set, including maintaining workplace bubbles and frequent COVID-testing for all cast and crew. 

Ausfilm CEO Kate Marks said it was these “streamlined safety standards” combined with Australia’s globally competitive screen tax incentives that maintained international interest in Australia as a filming location.

“Australia continues to offer great advantages in screen production expertise and infrastructure with globally highly regarded cast, crew, VFX creatives and post technician, and world-class sound stages.

“We continue to work very closely with international productions seeking entry into Australia which employ thousands of Australian cast, crew, technicians, and businesses.

“Whilst there are administrative challenges with border restrictions and flight caps, international productions continue to receive exceptional support and advice from Australia’s state and territory screen agencies and the industry’s leading travel companies.”

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