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European Production Perseveres Despite Second COVID-19 Wave

Tom Cruise on the set of Mission Impossible 7 (Courtesy of AP)

A second spike of coronavirus cases and new national lockdowns in Europe aren’t yet stopping film and television productions abroad, as new precautions to keep casts and crew in quarantine bubbles have been largely successful.

Last spring, cameras stopped rolling almost everywhere during the first COVID-19 lockdown, since much was unknown about safeguarding sets from the virus that has caused 1.2 million deaths worldwide. But this winter, shoots in France, Italy, Germany and the U.K. are largely carrying on — even as restrictions are presenting fresh headaches and soaring costs.

Since France emerged from a three-month lockdown in May, the volume of shoots has skyrocketed, especially in June after the government launched a $116 million indemnity fund covering producers in case of COVID-19-related postponements or cancellations.

“In Paris, the number of shoots for films, TV series and commercials has exploded; we’ve never had so many shoots in the city,” says Michel Gomez, who heads Mission Cinema, a body that coordinates production in Paris. “There isn’t a single truck available for rental right now.”

Gomez notes, however, that only two foreign productions have shot in Paris since the start of the pandemic: one from Spain and another from Eastern Europe. Not a single U.S. shoot has braved the French capital. Among the scrapped American shoots, Gomez says, is a high-profile series for Apple TV Plus that was due to film in France for one year. It was first postponed from spring to fall, and has now been pushed to next fall.

The precautions largely boil down to talent, explains Federation Entertainment boss Pascal Breton, whose Amazon series “The Banker’s Wife” was supposed to shoot across Europe this year but has been delayed to fall 2021.

Platforms and U.S. producers are freaked out about flying talent across Europe,” Breton says. “Most are waiting for this virus to be over and/or a vaccine to come out. Each talent is surrounded by agents, managers and lawyers, and the risks are way too high right now.”

That said, Germany has hosted major shoots since the summer — notably “Uncharted,” a movie starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, and Lana Wachowski’s “The Matrix 4” with Keanu Reeves, which resumed filming in Berlin in August and is set to wrap this month, confirmed Warner Bros.

Similarly, despite restrictions in Italy, which went into semi-lockdown on Oct. 25, Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible 7” will continue its Venice shoot. Filming began weeks ago, though production was forced to stop at one point following at least a dozen coronavirus cases on set, according to Italian reports that Variety has confirmed.

The U.S. blockbuster’s Italian line producer, Marco Valerio Pugini — who declines to comment on the COVID-19 cases — says the “Mission: Impossible 7” shoot is managing by “working in bubbles that create safety layers” across different groups.

Local Italian producers are also going full steam ahead. Filming on “Nudes,” an anthology TV drama about teens and social media from Wild Bunch, has just started near Bologna. Producer Riccardo Russo says that in the days prior to the start of filming, he was getting cold feet. However, when he talked to other Italian producers who said they were going forward, he felt emboldened to take the plunge.

“If any one of us had stopped, it would have had a negative domino effect,” Russo says.

In the U.K., where coronavirus cases have now topped 1 million, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is enforcing a month long national lockdown from Nov. 5 through Dec. 2. But much like elsewhere in Europe, production can continue.

John McVay, head of producers’ trade body Pact, highlights that rigorous COVID-safe protocols are to be thanked for the exemption. “Once we put the protocols in place [in June], and those were approved by government, we haven’t had to shut down,” McVay explains. “The protocols have now been adapted several times, and we’ll keep working.”

Liza Marshall’s Hera Pictures is on week eight of a 12-week shoot for Sky drama “Temple.”

The shoot has been coronavirus-free so far, but the producer admits: “It’s quite a challenging time. [The situation] is literally changing every half an hour.

Marshall, whose credits include the films “Boy A” and “Before I Go to Sleep,” says the lockdown mainly affects location-based shooting, where new restrictions for nonessential businesses must be worked out in advance.

“We’re shooting in a club in Soho that really wants us to come because they’ve been closed down and people are very worried about money,” Marshall says. “Then we shoot in a block of [apartments], and I’m concerned because residents may not want us to come in.”

And yet, it’s not feasible to slow down. “We can’t stop shooting. We don’t have that kind of money,” says Marshall.

SF Studios wrapped a nine-week shoot in Sweden for period drama “The Emigrants” on Oct. 28. (Courtesy of SF Studios)

In Sweden, which hasn’t gone into lockdown since the start of the pandemic, the volume of shoots has been steady, if not higher than usual, due to a number of productions that were supposed to shoot abroad relocating locally. SF Studios wrapped the Netflix original series “Snabba Cash” in Stockholm last month, and just finished a nine-week shoot for its big period drama “The Emigrants” on Oct. 28.

The production, which is headlined by the L.A.-based Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo, Gustaf Skarsgård (“Vikings”) and “The Bridge” star Sofia Helin, is one of the many international shoots filmed locally due to the pandemic.

“We were supposed to shoot in Czech Republic, but roughly four months before we started filming, we decided to relocate to Sweden because the health situation in Eastern Europe was worrying,” says Fredrik Wikström Nicastro, senior vice president of international productions at SF Studios, who is producing both “The Emigrants” and “Snabba Cash.”

It was more expensive to shoot in Sweden, but we made a good call; we avoided talent traveling and we could be more in control of the project. Plus, Czech Republic has become a COVID-19 hot spot in the past couple of weeks,” adds Wikström Nicastro, who notes that Film i Väst, a regional fund in western Sweden, “heavily supported the relocation.”

Producers are trying to catch up when it comes to testing protocols that vary by country. In France, for example, testing isn’t mandatory and results are not publicly disclosed without permission.

Michael Gentile’s The Film TV started filming Julie Delpy’s Netflix series “On the Verge” in Los Angeles in August and recently wrapped filming on a comedy series for OCS in France. The executive says France’s lax attitude around testing is creating delays.

“We started filming ‘On the Verge’ in August, and we haven’t had problems because everyone on set is getting tested three times a week,” Gentile says. “But in France, it’s chaotic. It should be enforced for everyone on set, because if only a third get tested, it’s pointless.”

In contrast, the Italy production of “Nudes” is adopting more stringent measures than local protocols require, with everyone taking two swab tests a week instead of the required one.

Some say the mandatory quarantine requirement is creating a more secure environment for shoots because it limits the risk of contamination with cast and crew, who are not allowed to go to town during the production. Russo admits the new restriction gives them “a bit more security,” because the young actors of “Nudes” are now “banned by law from going out at night.”

Matthias Weber at Paris-based 2425 Prods. is finishing up filming Emmanuel Poulain-Arnaud’s “Le test” in the south of France and is set to shoot two other films — “Les Promesses” and “A Nos Ages.” The producer agrees that lockdowns create a “stronger awareness” of safety on set, though they’re also keeping stress levels high.

“Ironically, both ‘Les Promesses’ and ‘A Nos Ages’ were initially scheduled to film earlier, but we pushed them to the second half of the year to be on the safe side. Now we’re caught in this second wave,” says Weber.

Breton, whose shoot for “Around the World in 80 Days” with David Tennant recently restarted in Romania after a seven-month break, says time is of the essence. “We have to shoot in South Africa next, and it feels like we’re on a mission to get it done quickly, knowing that the virus is on our trail.”

Variety's Elsa Keslassy, Nick Vivarelli, and Manori Ravindran contributed to this post.

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