Lights, Camera, COVID: How the Utah film industry beat the odds amidst the pandemic

News

Courtesy Lindsey Hamrock

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Light’s, camera, action, but COVID called “cut.”

Utah’s film and television industry took some hits in 2020 like everywhere else, but thanks to an idea from a local business many turned to Utah for its blueprint.

This story begins with a mystery.

Recently two movie trucks were spotted on a set in Murray flying flags from the fictional Miyagi Dojo and the Cobra Kai Dojo. Was Cobra Kai here in Utah filming a scene? The answer is complicated.

ABC4 News started asking around, and while we did solve the Karate Kid mystery (more on that later), we stumbled into an underdog story all its own with the film industry in Utah itself taking top billing.

The reality? Utah’s film industry has been fighting a mixed bag since the coronavirus pandemic began. The state had already taken a hit after losing Yellowstone, a series starring Kevin Costner; the filming locations of the series changed to Montana. And then when everything shut down in March, including the film and television industry, the outlook got bleak.

However, the challenges didn’t come without a silver lining.

Virginia Pearce, Director of the Utah State Film Commission, tells ABC4, “We definitely saw an increase in March inquiries.” She continues, “I think that partly had to do with production had come to a halt, producers nationwide were trying to figure out what’s next? where am I going to put my next thing? Could locations with wide-open spaces be an answer?”

There have been 400 project inquiries since July, but it’s important to note that inquiries do not mean the projects necessarily selected the state of Utah to do their production.

Even still, the Film Commission reports 180 new crew members registered with them and 52 new vendors.

Everyone tried to get back to work in May, but it was a bit of a roller coaster. Virginia Pearce says, “It was slow going at first, when we did a survey in July of 2020, 58% of the Utah film industry was back to work.”

Tonia Huston of Moving Pictures echoed Pearce’s sentiment explaining that with the ups and downs, they used the time to do some remodeling, their goal –getting people back to work.

Kevin Costner's Live Talking Yellowstone
Yellowstone moved from Utah to Montana but still uses Utah people

While everyone was down, Jeff Midgley of TNT First Aid came up with an idea to start training people to keep sets safe.

But you’d be hard pressed to hear Midgley take credit for the idea, instead doubling-down on the collaborative effort.

He explains, “We were 3 weeks from going bankrupt, we didn’t qualify for the programs offered, I wanted to work, people depended on me, holy crap, what am I going to do?”

His answer? Training COVID-19 compliance officers and creating a way to keep people safe on set.

This enabled Utah to be the first state in the country to start film and television work amid the pandemic.

“We’ve seen a big uptick in COVID compliance, both in crew members and in vendors, that’s an entirely new area for us, that’s been interesting to see,” says Pearce. “COVID compliance officers are a new position on a film set.”

According to Midgley, “Our (COVID-19) numbers at the time were lower than any other place in the nation, and that allowed for a crew of 35-50 people to work, which is the number needed for most commercials.”

Midgley says he realized the only way you could get tested was if you were sick. He realized being pro-active was the key so he created a secondary company called Lab to You. The company provided on-site testing for people on sets.

This opened the gate for production to start again in Utah…and get some people working.

The state simultaneously caught a bit of a break when commercial and industrial work in Los Angeles started closing down.

Courtesy: Utah Film Commission

Utah Casting Director Jeff Johnson says, “I think it’s important to realize it is in commercials only we have had a bump, it’s not in film and it’s not in television, it’s commercials only.”

“I think what happened is L.A. shut down, and they couldn’t shoot commercials, and they needed to get some commercials out, so we had a little bit of a bump here for commercials.”

Johnson says, “As far as film production it shut down and nothing happened for a while.”

However, Johnson adds, productions like “High School Musical: The Series” are shooting now, and a couple of movies are beginning to start getting into production.

Jeff Johnson says when the pandemic hit, “I thought I was going to have a year off, but we got all of these national commercials.” He explained he couldn’t say which ones or what products they are, but, “We got some big national commercials that came in that we don’t usually get in Utah.”

Johnson explains there has been a bit of a downturn just like everyone else. Film and television has slowed down a lot. The business is slowly recovering.

“It’s hard to shoot a film with COVID, it’s hard to shoot projects with COVID going on,” Johnson explains. “There’s a lot more testing, there’s union rules you have to obey for the actors, it’s causing an effect where it’s more expensive to shoot if you’re low budget film it costs you more money to shoot it now.”

Panek adds, “Commercials, industrials (corporate), voice-overs, and visual work for the web, have been consistently being booked.” She continues, “The industry has changed, and the booking and audition process being moved online to help with COVID safety changed the way callbacks are handled.”

Brian Clifton, president of Redman Movies and Stories, says Utah had the ability to adapt to the safety protocol needed to prevent COVID-19 infections on the film sets, “We were able to create a way of getting the production safely done.”

Midgley laments that he was most proud of being able to create 900 shifts without one COVID-19 case in Utah.

Utah is considered the example of how to keep people safe on set, and Lab to You now provides safety services for 25% of the entire film industry in the United States.

Courtesy: Utah Film Commission

“We’ve been pretty busy since July,” says Pearce. “Late July and August, we’ve had three Hallmarks, Amazon has been here, lots of reality, two Crypt T.V. shows, The Chosen was in Southern Utah, we have a couple of indies including the American Murderer, that are finishing up here.

“Once we got going, it felt like a regular fall, without Yellowstone, and I think that can be attributed to people like Jeff Midgely who helped figure out how to keep sets safe, and the overwhelming demand and need for content.

“I think the Entertainment industry as a whole has had to play catch up since they had to stop production.”

Pearce adds, “The Utah Film industry is an incredibly creative adaptive industry; we’ve had some highs and lows over the last 30 years, we were able to adapt and make things work in a way that maybe bigger markets were not.”

And the answer to the film set mystery that stemmed this entire story? As it turns out, the Cobra Kai flag flying from the inside of one box truck is the electric department, while the Miyagi–Do flag is props. We were assured that Utah grips are neutral in the conflict.

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