Ready for a (socially distanced) close-up

Daniel J. Munoz//October 26, 2020

Ready for a (socially distanced) close-up

How the state’s film industry is navigating the pandemic

Daniel J. Munoz//October 26, 2020

Before Hollywood, there was Fort Lee. At the turn of the century, the Hudson River borough was home to nearly a dozen film studios. And the phrase “cliffhanger” reportedly was coined in Fort Lee, as a nod to the Palisades cliffs that tower over the Hudson River.

In July 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy said he envisioned restoring New Jersey’s status as an East Coast Hollywood and signed a measure creating a larger, revamped film and television production incentive program. It was a $100 million pot of tax breaks deployed to lure projects into the state.

And at first, the state was buzzing. Scenes of the Academy Award-winning 2019 film “Joker” were filmed in Newark and Jersey City. HBO’s “The Many Saints of Newark” – a prequel of sorts to the hit series “The Sopranos” – was filmed in its namesake city. Netflix shot several scenes of “Army of the Dead” in Atlantic City, while scenes of the NBC spy thriller “The Enemy Within’’ were filmed at Bergen Community College of Paramus and Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” was filmed in Paterson.

Meanwhile, the interior of the old Meadowlands Arena – formerly known as the Izod Center and before that Continental Airlines Arena – was retrofitted as an indoor film studio.

“2020 was going to exceed that,” said Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. “Going into March, we had three network series already about to film, and then the pandemic hit and all production stopped. Everywhere. Across the globe.”

Sanctioning Evil cast on location in New Jersey. - SINCLAIR YOON PHOTOGRAPHY
Sanctioning Evil cast on location in New Jersey. – SINCLAIR YOON PHOTOGRAPHY

The stoppage was reflected in the immensely popular film tax credit program, which in 2019 saw demand outstrip available funding. Under the program, film projects can be awarded a tax break equaling 30% of their production costs, or 35% for filming in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Mercer or Salem counties. In January, Murphy approved an expansion of the program from $75 million to $100 million a year for film and TV, though digital media projects are still capped at $10 million.

But usage of the tax credits plummeted in 2020. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which awards the breaks and monitors compliance, had $150 million of tax breaks it could award over the program during the 2020 fiscal year, $50 million of which carried over from the previous year.

Just over half of the available credits – $64.3 million – were never awarded, and state law allows up to $50 million to be rolled over into the following year.

“Because many film productions were delayed or cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NJEDA board approved less credits than it might have otherwise,” Jake McNichol, a spokesperson for the NJEDA, said in a statement.

In New Jersey and across the nation, governors put their states into near total lockdowns in a bid to halt the spread of the virus. Businesses were closed and public gatherings were barred, as were most forms of travel.

The film set of Sanctioning Evil, due out sometime in 2021.. - SINCLAIR YOON PHOTOGRAPHY
The film set of Sanctioning Evil, due out sometime in 2021. – SINCLAIR YOON PHOTOGRAPHY

When businesses such as hair salons, gyms, casinos, retail, malls and restaurants were allowed to reopen, they had to follow intense sanitization and 6-foot physical distancing protocols. Face coverings were mandatory, and staff and employees had to be screened for symptoms before they could be allowed on the premises.

The same rules generally apply to the resumption of filming in New Jersey as production companies seek ways to keep COVID-19 off the set.

Pent-up demand is driving a resurgence in filming, according to Tom Bernard, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures. “Because the streamers need movies and products, the networks … need movies and products, and eventually the theaters are going to need products,” he said. “The business is booming because people need content, and they have to make it now because they’ve used up all the content that happened before.”

A number of headliners are already underway in New Jersey. The upcoming 2020 crime drama “The Equalizer” produced by Universal Television and CBS Television Studios is being filmed at soundstages at the retrofitted Meadowlands Arena. Neither Universal nor CBS would comment for this story.

But according to a statement from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns the arena, CBS and Universal Television are “following all COVID-19 safety precautions established by the state and the industry.”

“The Meadowlands Arena and the sports complex continue to be a very popular location for the television and film industry,” the agency said. “The NJSEA continues to receive inquiries from companies wishing to use the Meadowlands Arena as a home for film and television production.”

Hulu and Imagine Television Studios are shooting several scenes in New Jersey for the second season of drama series “Wu-Tang: An American Saga.” Hulu did not respond to several requests for comment.
Just to the east of the Meadowlands Arena sits the 130-acre Kearny Point, a sprawling office space and business center at the site of a former military shipyard, which has been an increasingly attractive option for filmmakers weary of Manhattan and New York City’s outer boroughs.

Sanctioning Evil has scenes filmed in Paterson and Sussex County. - SINCLAIR YOON PHOTOGRAPHY
Sanctioning Evil has scenes filmed in Paterson and Sussex County. – SINCLAIR YOON PHOTOGRAPHY

“It’s gotten very busy,” said Nick Shears, Kearny Point’s director of leasing and marketing.

In recent months several commercials were shot on the premises and Kearny Point closed a deal for a studio operator to lease 30,000 square feet of warehouse space to use as a soundstage, Shears said.

Another deal is for a 12-month lease with Hulu for 83,000 square feet of office and soundstage space, Shears added. “Our site is only 4 miles from the Holland Tunnel. A lot of people live in New Jersey and they don’t want to go back into New York.”

Further north, independent film production company JARS Media Group is moving ahead with the shooting of “Sanctioning Evil,” scheduled for release in 2021. According to IMDb, the film will follow the life of a former military sergeant who during his efforts to adapt to civilian life “finds his way back into society via a charismatic politician with a covert plan to eliminate an underground criminal element.”

Filming began the week of Oct. 19, according to Rob Simmons, JARS’ chief executive officer, and scenes had been shot in Paterson and the Sussex County township of Sparta. There are roughly 30 cast members and 40 crew members and staff.

“So basically the guild won’t clear a film unless you present a comprehensive health and safety COVID plan,” he said in an interview. JARS is following the rules from the Screen Actors Guild, a nationwide labor union of over 100,000 film and television actors.

“It’s just the set life is different,” he said. “It’s an added cost.”

Simmons said the company had to provide SAG with a diagram for each location and how social distancing would be followed. To ensure distancing and prevent overcrowding, the crew is color-coded by green, yellow and red.

“Green is essential crew to have access to the set and everywhere, yellow is production as needed and red is confined to the off-set,” Simmons said. Green would include actors and directors, while yellow would include staff who do work on set but are not always needed. Red employees would be those who never have a reason to set foot on set – such as those who do work at the set’s workshop.

Testing is constant, Simmons said. Actors and extras take the tests three times a week, since they are always in contact with each other.

A 57-page agreement dated Sept. 21 between the Directors Guild of America, the SAG, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and dozens of other unions representing workers who perform jobs on set outlines a litany of other protocols for how filming can resume.

The lower priority a worker, the less they have to get tested. Yellow zone or “Zone B” employees have to get tested at least once a week, and red zone or “Zone C” employees get tested every other week. Zone C workers have to wear masks and socially distance the entire time while on the job.

Lunch buffets typical of film sets are a thing of the past, and in their place are individually wrapped, boxed lunches.

Scenes that involve large crowds or actors well within 6 feet of each other are a bit more tricky. Large crowds have been prohibited during the pandemic, though as rules were lifted people were allowed to attend larger gatherings, so long as they wore face coverings.

But Simmons said many of the protocols the production has to follow provide at least an added layer of safety. “They’ll tell you they don’t want to hinder production and say characters can kiss or hold hands or shake hands,” he said of the guild. “All they ask is that we have actors hand sanitize before and after, and really just once the director calls cut, have all the actors basically try to social distance and put the masks back on.”

Costs for PPE, testing and other COVID-19 prevention measures are driving up production expense by between 15% and 30%, according to Dan Hank, a New York-based producer whose work includes

“Grand Army” on Netflix and the Starz 2017 series “American Gods.”

Still, the Sept. 21 agreement urges directors and scriptwriters to minimize scenes requiring high levels of physical interaction. Digital effects can be used to simulate normal interactions, as could adjusted shooting schedules to “minimize the amount of back-and-forth travel needed by performers.”

Going into the pandemic, New Jersey had been increasingly viewed as a cheaper location for filming and with the added benefits of a variety of different landscapes and settings. These advantages are more important amid a new normal and COVID-19, some industry insiders contend.

“It’s a lot more filmmaking-friendly for location-filming than New York is right now,” Hank said.

“New York City is putting in a lot of regulations relating to how many vehicles you can have, how many vehicles you can have on your sets taking up parking,” he added. “We’re competing with all the other outdoor dining, and all the other industries competing now for curb space where they didn’t use to.”

And New Jersey, with its sprawling suburbs packed with unused mini-malls, big box stores and empty parking lots, provides a smorgasbord of potential soundstages and film studios. Just a little soundproofing is needed, he said, to keep out the sounds of weather or nearby traffic that might disrupt shooting.

“In New Jersey, there’s a lot of places that haven’t been overfished and overwhelmed,” Hank said.

“People are like ‘wow you want to come here and give me money to shoot in my restaurant that’s been closed for six months? Please bring all your friends and your checkbook.’”

Gorelick contended the production had effectively forced itself out of urban centers “where it’s difficult to follow the very strict COVID-19 protocols that the industry had imposed on itself for safety reasons.”

“When you come to New Jersey you can spread out. It’s easier to work around those protocols.”