- Viknesh Silvalingam
COVID has impacted Ultra Low Budget filmmaking
As stated in SAG-AFTRA website, for a film to be considered Ultra Low Budget (1*), a film project's budget should not exceed $300,000. Even though this amount may be just the snack budget for Hollywood productions, for most independent films especially ones being helmed by unrecognized filmmakers, this is how much their film is going to cost. COVID 19 has impacted Ultra Low Budget filmmaking. My second feature film, Cold Pressed, is an ultra low budget film, and to be honest, I'd cut many corners to bring the cost way below $300,000. However, if I were to make that film now, I would have to add a new non-negotiable line item into the budget: COVID-19 prevention. It has been highlighted in an article by Variety that producers expect safety measures to cost as much as 10% of their production budget (2*).
So where would the cost go? Production insurance, for starters, would go up. When COVID eventually hit the motion picture industry back in March, insurance companies were not offering pandemic coverage as they were already paying out to thousands of TV and Film productions that had shut down abruptly. Now, after many months, there are still only a few insurance companies that offer COVID polices. Those policies are expensive, and there aren't many to give away due to the lack of resources to make sure that the production follows the COVID protocols. Naturally, the big-budget productions will swoop up those insurances whenever they became available.
Next, the insurance policy would impose the need to hire a COVID compliance officer. The officer would be qualified in understanding the guidelines for preventing exposure, health education services, and contact tracing. The officer would have a team of her own, who would ensure that the set is secured from any viral infection. Thus anyone, before coming down to set, will have to provide a recent COVID 19 test result and have their temperature checked. The COVID compliance officer would then educate and enforce social distancing. This sanitation crew will require additional equipment for cleaning the sets, washing hands, checking temperatures. All this is very necessary and important for the safety of the cast and crew, however, this would mean production shoot days will get longer.
To ensure that a production comes within budget, it is common for crew members to work 12 to 14 hours days but now they will have to be reduced for fear of exhausted crew members falling sick. Even their call times will have to be staggered to ensure that they can maintain their social distance. What is completely missing is the hustle and bustle of a film set, where typically you would see a group of people working together to get a film made. Now, crew members will have to seek permission from the COVID officer to enter the set. Essentially a "need to be there" policy will be enforced. For example, if the art department needs to enter the set do set up the props; after they leave, the COVID compliance team will have to come in to sanitize the set, and only after that, can the director come in with his actors for rehearsal and once they are done another clean up may ensue. This will look like an endless carousel of people coming in and out. Even though this picture doesn't reflect the collaborative kind of work that I wrote about in my previous blog, this situation nevertheless showcases the fighting spirit of filmmakers.
I personally feel for filmmakers like myself who work with a very small and tight budget, it's time to go back to filmmaking basics. I recall when I was in film school I usually work with a small and intimate cast and crew. Back then my crew usually consists of 5 to 6 of my fellow classmates, who wear multiple hats. The grip does the lighting, the art director is also the makeup artist, the camera operator will help out with grip and lighting, the writer would be the script supervisor, assistant director, and production assistant, and I would direct and end up doing the craft and services as well. (The crew needs to be fed right?) And everyone would be involved with the loading, unloading of gear, and the eventual clean up at the end of the day. A true Skeleton crew indeed. For those of you not aware of that terminology, a Skeleton Crew is a film crew that is stripped down to the bare essential crew members, usually in order to save money in production or to be less conspicuous when shooting without permits(3*). There is no set rule on the number of skeleton crew as it will vary on the project. For short films, it can be 5 to 6, and for a feature 12 to 14. I had a crew of 18 for Cold Pressed, some days it swelled to 25 depending on the location and the scene. It was the biggest set which I've ever worked on and actually wished it was smaller. A smaller crew would mean a stronger camaraderie, but that would also mean longer production days. However with COVID rules now in place, you may have to do the math to find the middle ground.
Based on my experience below are the essential positions if you are running a skeleton crew feature film set.
COVID officer (as of March 2020)
Hopefully, COVID will be a thing of the past once we have a vaccine. (But we shouldn't let our guard down as a set needs to be safe from all possible dangers) In the meantime, please continue to stay safe. If you like this blog that I've written about filmmaking please do subscribe to my newsletter and my social media accounts, Twitter, and Instagram. I've also launched a film production tool, The Martini, which will help filmmakers collaborate on their current and future projects during this "COVID-world."