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Pandemic woes create tough outlook for Hollywood and FilmLA

The L.A. set of the movie "Songbird"
A photo from the set of the movie “Songbird,” a thriller that shot in L.A. during the pandemic.
(Jason Clark)

It has been a tumultuous year for Paul Audley, who for more than a decade has led the film permitting group FilmLA.

Last March, most filming in the region was shut down. It took until June for health officials to allow shoots to restart and until the fall for Hollywood’s studios and unions to agree on terms for a safe return to work. The resurgence of the virus this winter has thrown the industry once again into disarray.

FilmLA, which contracts with the city and other municipalities to coordinate location shoots, has faced its own pressures. With the level of permits plummeting — FilmLA’s primary source of revenue — Audley had to furlough half of his 104 person staff.

The Hollywood-based nonprofit organization’s revenues fell to $10.7 million as of June 30, 2020, down 20% from the previous year , according to its latest tax returns.

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FilmLA also has found itself caught between film crews eager to get back to work and residents dismayed at productions entering their neighborhoods while they have been forced to stay home and close their businesses.

Audley spoke to the Times about the outlook for production and his organization in 2021. Below are excerpts from the conversation:

Have you been disappointed by the slow pace of production in recent weeks?

No, not really. I think what we saw was, as the COVID numbers began to increase in the county, both the County Department of Public Health and the film industry itself began to look at the situation and what they should do. In the end, the health department asked the film industry to basically pause, not shut down.

At the same time, the industry had decided to take its holiday hiatus and extend it into the middle of January. I think it was a very responsible thing to do. We still are at under 25% of normal production levels than we would normally see at this time of year, which again, is down from that October, November number when we were getting close to 50% of normal.

Paul Audley
Paul Audley, president of FilmLA
(The Headshot Truck LLC)

The LA County health department reiterated a call to pause filming to the end of January unless absolutely necessary. There are, however, plenty of shows that have returned to filming in L.A. What’s been the response?

I would say that the industry did respond to Dr. [Barbara] Ferrer‘s request in that they have not begun to return to filming yet based on, you know, our permit numbers. I certainly can’t comment on what’s happening on the stages. But as far as on-location filming, we have not seen any increase since about mid-December. So they have maintained the pause except for, as I mentioned, some of the smaller productions.

There is one film filming and some television, but for the majority of it, it is pretty much still on pause. But we have seen a trend... which is that permits are applied for a little earlier than they used to be. They used to be at the most four or five days in advance. Now they’re applying a week or more. And what we’re seeing is a trend with some of them, in particular scripted television, canceling or rescheduling as they get close to the date and the pandemic has not abated.

What are your expectations for the coming weeks?

If everything follows, as it has so far, until we see a change in the numbers of the pandemic, I don’t anticipate any real increase in filming.

One of the film shoots [a Michael Bay project] that was a little bit larger scale moved from a neighborhood to a commercial district [in downtown L.A.] on MLK Day, knowing that there would be nobody around; businesses would be closed. So they’re trying to adjust to locations that are, for the most part, locations that are less likely to raise any kind of public concern even though they have extraordinarily strict safety protocols in place for the film industry.

Are the film crews experiencing maybe a greater backlash from the public than they normally might expect in L.A.?

I think yes, but I don’t think it’s massive. So obviously in the environment we’re in, emotions may be running higher for a lot of reasons, including the fact that we’re talking about a contagious disease and people being isolated and some anger over one industry being able to work while others aren’t.

But once we have the opportunity and they get a chance to read, you know, the information on our website and understand the restrictions that are on the film industry, it tends to put people in a much more comfortable position than they may be initially when they first get news that filming would be in their area.

In recent months FilmLA has had to contend with opposition to filming in the city. One video by an L.A. restaurant owner of a film crew catering site set up next door went viral. What’s your view on this?

We obviously have huge empathy for every business that is unable to work, including hers [Angela Marsden]. However, there was another business that rented that parking lot to the film industry that helps that business stay alive. So it wasn’t just, you know, the film industry dropping in. They rented that property.

And the other big difference between the restaurant industry and feeding on the film set, every single person on that film set has been tested and is re-tested and screened prior to working on that film set. And when they eat, they are required to social distance. Obviously, a restaurant can’t prescreen and pretest every customer that comes in. And when they have been allowed to open, they’ve not required their patrons to sit six feet or more apart while they eat. So it’s not the same thing. But we have tremendous empathy for her response and reaction to seeing something while her business is suffering.

How is FilmLA coping with this pandemic?

Our folks have been remote since March 12th. A fair number of them remain on furlough for us and with the reduced work, obviously, that’s reduced work for the entire rest of the organization as we go forward. We’re continuing to function fully. We’re not unable to fulfill our obligations to our municipal clients or the community.

But like every other business, it’s a struggle financially in an environment, especially when it’s gone on this long and we don’t know how much longer we will be in the position we are in today. So we’re OK. But the pressures are on as they are with every business.

We furloughed half the staff. In early April, we brought back some so that we were up to about 70% of normal as we went into the fall. People’s hours are greatly reduced at this time. The federal and other relief packages for unemployment have been really, really helpful to our staff that have been furloughed or have had reduced hours. I think for every business that’s had to do this, it’s the toughest part of where we are, these are colleagues and human beings with families that aren’t working. And that’s true in every industry, filming is not exempt from that.

Can you speak to how heavily impacted your finances are and if you needed to get any financial aid?

We have built up reserves in our business planning for any kind of long-term interruption of filming, whether it’s been a natural disaster, and we did have a pandemic scenario. We have not been breaking even since March. And so that reserve has been used to sustain us and enable us to continue doing our work for the various communities. We do not receive support from any of our government clients. And so we’re sustaining; we’ve planned well, but it is draining that resource over time.

How long do you think you have before you run out of cash?

We still have months that we will continue before we run out of cash. And we do have lines of credit. We just hope we don’t have to get to that point.

Can you comment on what you think about the chances of an actual shutdown again?

What’s been the constant in the decisions not to shut down has been the industry’s extreme response to the safety protocols and the lack of transmission through the industry into its own community or the community in general. It seems like as long as that’s true, then the industry will be allowed to continue to work at some level. But obviously, they have extraordinary restrictions which make it unlikely that we would see a huge return to filming even if numbers start improving in the next month. Until we have a real system-wide vaccination of the public I don’t see the film industry returning to its full levels. And so we’re talking probably about next fall (2021) before we see it come back.

We have to look at this industry as people and small businesses because so often we think of it as a big monster conglomerate businesses. And when you realize that there are literally thousands of small businesses with 10 or fewer employees in L.A. County that are dependent on this industry, it’s important to know that in many ways there’s a lot of gratitude that they have been able to find a way to keep working safely at this time


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