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Film Production In Utah Has Begun To Crawl Back

Photo of a man standing outside wearing a mask
Courtesy of Linda Hart
Actor Matt Sincell stands for a wardrobe check on one of the state's first commercial productions since the pandemic began.

With big crews and lots of moving parts, it can be hard to maintain social distance on a film set. Because of that, film production has been one of the hardest hit industries during the coronavirus pandemic, and one of the slowest to return. But over the last few months, in Utah, it’s begun to show signs of life.

It began with a few small commercial shoots in late May and early June — projects that might require a crew of about 40 people and a couple days to shoot — and now the state is seeing a few smaller feature films and TV series already up and running, or set to begin again in the next month.

Linda Hart, a freelance producer based in Salt Lake City, managed one of the first commercials to shoot in Utah in late May. She said the project — for a toilet paper company — was impacted in almost every way by COVID-19. She was only able to have 20 of the 35-member crew on set at a given time and the script was written to allow one person in the shot at a time. 

The crew also had to break multiple times a day for what Hart called “COVID air outs.” 

“At least once every half hour, we stopped all work,” she said. “People walked away from their stations, everyone went outside and we put fans in to blow any air in one direction.”

She said while she did everything she could to keep the cast and crew safe, as well as limit the production’s potential liability if someone were to catch the virus on set, it’s impossible to do it all without adding costs. Limiting how many crew members she could hire helped to reduce some expenses, but other measures made the production more complicated and time-consuming, such as having the director working remotely from Los Angeles. 

“You have all of these stakeholders that aren't physically there,” she said. “It's like playing telephone when you're talking about ‘does the product look good in the shot?’”

Photo of a cutout photo of man holding up his thumb
Credit Courtesy of Linda Hart
Director Dugan O'Neal worked remotely on the project from Los Angeles, so crew members kept a cutout of him on set.

Safety guidelines issued both by the Utah Film Commission and an industry-wide task force have helped standardize the process somewhat, though still add other complications. They include suggestions such as limiting the number of takes so crew aren’t standing around as much and providing regular coronavirus testing to cast and crew members. 

Film sets have also been hiring a new position on sets, like a dedicated COVID-19 monitor who consults on virus detection and prevention. 

And while some projects are beginning to return, it’s been harder for larger productions, said Utah Film Commission President Virginia Pearce. Producers for season 2 of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” for example, are still working out their plan for return. It started filming in February before it was forced to halt production, though it is expected to begin again in the next few months. 

“I think it is very similar to many industries,” Pearce said. “It's not the same for a small restaurant [to reopen] as it is for a big restaurant. So I think everyone's got to take those things into consideration, given the size and scope of what they're working on.” 

Despite the added challenges, Pearce said Utah’s film industry is in a good position to come back faster than other areas. 

“We are an ancillary market,” she said. “We're not a huge city. While our cases are growing, we’re not growing at the level of LA or Texas.”

Hart agreed, adding that Utah has great filming locations, it’s close to Los Angeles and has a rich talent pool, all of which have contributed to the industry’s growth over the last several years. 

“I think the people I worked with would put Utah really high on their list of places to consider in the future,” she said. “Because they can't shoot where they normally would, people are shooting here and getting exposure to Utah.”

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

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