If these were normal times, there’d be singing and dancing at East High in Salt Lake City as production continued on Season 2 of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” There’d be horse riding and, no doubt, faux murder and mayhem in Summit County during production of Season 3 of “Yellowstone.”
But these are not normal times. Not only has production shut down on the Disney+ and Paramount Network TV series that call Utah home, but virtually all movie and television production in the state — an $87 million industry in 2019 — has been halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Those were the two that were, obviously, the biggest,” said Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission. “But there were a couple of smaller, independent films that were in production, and a couple that were supposed to start in March that are just waiting. We’re all just waiting right now.”
The “High School Musical” series was about a quarter of the way into production on its second season when it had to shut down.
"We had just wrapped and begun editing the first two episodes of the new season, and were hitting our stride shooting the next two,” said executive producer Tim Federele.
Season 2 was supposed to start streaming this fall on Disney+, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely as time passes.
Season 3 of “Yellowstone” will begin airing June 21 on the Paramount Network, with new episodes on Sundays. Whether all 10 episodes have been completed is unclear — the plan was to finish filming on the final episodes when the weather improved in Utah, which was at about the time the pandemic began here, and Paramount has not announced where those episodes stand.
(A fourth season has been ordered; those episodes would already be in production if not for the pandemic.)
If “Yellowstone’s” season is cut short, it will one of many shows in that predicament — a list that includes “Batwoman,” “The Blacklist,” “Bob Hearts Abishola,” “Bull,” “Charmed,” “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med,” “Chicago P.D.,”“Dynasty,” “Empire,” “FBI,” “FBI: Most Wanted,” “The Flash,” “The Goldbergs,” “The Good Fight,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Last Man Standing,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Legacies,” “MacGyver,” “Nancy Drew,” “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “The Neighborhood,” “New Amsterdam,” “Prodigal Son,” “The Resident,” “Riverdale,” “SEAL Team,” “Supergirl,” “Superstore,” “S.W.A.T.” and “Young Sheldon.”
After 15 years and 325 episodes, Vancouver-based “Supernatural” was forced to cease production two episodes short of its series finale — the final seven episodes are tentatively slated to air this fall, but that may be just wishful thinking.
“It’s happening everywhere,” Pearce said. “All across the country. All around the world. And here in Utah.”
Utahns out of work
The most visible people on any production are, of course, the actors. And there are a dozen or so regulars in both “High School Musical” and “Yellowstone,” along with various recurring and guest stars.
But they make up a fraction of a production team that numbers in the hundreds. According to creator/executive producer Taylor Sheridan, on any given day “Yellowstone” may employ more than 200 construction workers, electricians and drivers — and that’s not counting production assistants, the wardrobe department, caterers, hair and make-up stylists and umpteen more.
The vast majority of the crew on both that show and “High School Musical” are locals who aren’t getting paid while production is halted.
“Months into this temporary shutdown, I miss Salt Lake and especially the talented local crew, who are among the hardest-working and cheeriest folks I’ve ever worked with,” said Federle. “From the hair and makeup squad to the first ADs to the art department, they are the unseen people who make the show the show. And I can’t wait to see them again.”
When that will be is anybody’s guess right now. And, as with everyone who’s out of a job, there’s a trickle-down effect because the local crew members don’t have the money they’d normally be spending in the community.
“It hits the sectors that have been hit the hardest,” Pearce said. “Film has the potential to be a great economic driver that helps lodging and restaurants and construction jobs. Especially in the hospitality industry is where it could ramp up the quickest if we can get back to work.”
The race is on to reopen production across the globe — albeit a tentative competition in which most of the participants haven’t yet left the starting gate.
In early May, the Czech Republic announced it would allow production to resume on studio backlots, with heightened sanitation standards and mandatory testing of actors every two weeks, along with shortening quarantines and waiving face mask rules.
(The Marvel series “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” slated for Disney+, was filming in Prague when it was forced to shut down by the COVID-19 outbreak. There’s been no word on when production will resume on that show or get underway on Amazon series “Carnival Row” and “The Wheel of Time,” or several other TV series that were to be produced in the Czech capital.)
Iceland has been promoting itself as a safe place to film — cast and crew members could fly in; be quarantined in a hotel while they’re tested; then travel to remote locations for filming; and be tested again when production is completed.
Other countries, ranging from Israel to Slovakia, are also starting to sell themselves as safe places to film to studios and programmers hungry for new content.
Across the United States, film and TV production remains almost entirely on hold — in part because it’s sort of an entity unto itself. Like live entertainment — theater, music, dance — there are performers, directors and crew members. But there are substantial differences as well.
It’s not a live event. There are no tickets to sell. No audience.
“We really present kind of a unique challenge in that we can’t fit into one specific category,” Pearce said. “Slovakia actually classified film production as manufacturing, and that’s really closer to what we’re trying to pull off.
“We’re a little bit of everything. We have some food and beverage. We’ve been looking at construction guidelines. We have some personal services and hair and makeup. So it’s really taking all of that and trying to come up with what can ultimately keep everyone the safest.”
Studios are struggling to come up with guidelines, and looking to the unions — the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the Producers Guild — for some sort of direction.
“But also, what does it look like on the ground where they’re shooting?” Pearce said. “I think what is so strange about the situation we’re in is that no one knows. I mean, it’s totally new, uncharted territory. We’re all juggling.”
With most of Utah now at a “yellow” coronavirus safety level, production is beginning to revive — just a bit. A few commercials are shooting in more remote areas of the state.
“It’ll be good to see how that goes with really small crews and social distancing,” Pearce said. “I think it’ll actually end up being of benefit to local crews as well, because they can’t bring anyone in.”
(Crews from Los Angeles, for example, would have to self-quarantine before they could go to work.)
The Utah Film Commission is fielding inquiries from small companies and major studios about the state’s readiness to host film and TV productions. “There’s a lot of interest,” said Pearce. “And it’s going to be hard for them to go back to California, Vancouver or New York anytime soon.”
Those production hubs have larger populations than Utah, which complicates social distancing and, eventually, production — so studios are looking at places like Utah.
Resuming production on a TV series with its hundreds of crew members or even the dozens needed to film an independent film is more complicated than filming a few commercials, of course. And the industry is trying to figure out how to make it happen.
“I think they’re really going to have to get creative,” Pearce said. “And, look, we are a creative community. So I’m hoping that that can help get the film industry on its feet a little bit quicker.”
But big-budget movies and TV series will be the last to go back to work.
“Those are obviously going to be much more difficult,” Pearce said. “They’ll have to wait for recommendations from the DGA. And even when they go back to work, I think things will have to change. I mean, those giant crowd scenes with hundreds of extras will not happen in the near future.”