MTN Writer Matthew Ochal takes a look at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Ontario Film Industry
and how popular shows and movies can potentially recover from this economic devastation.
Over the last six months Canadians have not been able to engage in many of their usual
activities. This is with the exception, of course, of binge-watching television shows and movies,
for which there has been plenty of time. As many people were temporarily laid off, offered to
work from home, and schooling systems moved to a distant learning mode, consumers of digital
content have had more time on hand to engage in home-bound activities. This was coupled with
restrictions on large gatherings which ruled out many fun activities. As more eyes were glued to
television screens, two new problems were created.
Firstly, with more people trying to find entertainment within their homes, the demand for fresh
and new content began to increase. Neilsen Global Connect, a data and measurement film,
estimates the increase to have hit 60 percent! Moreover, new shows and movies were simply not
being produced due to restrictions associated with the pandemic.
This combination of circumstances creates a problematic backlog. Companies like Netflix and
Amazon were already pushing constantly for new content and the growing backlog worsens the
The second problem is the sheer number of people whose livelihoods are tied to this industry. In
the province of Ontario, Canada, in 2019, the film and television industry contributed 2.16 billion dollars to the
province’s economy. In Toronto alone, the film and television industry “directly employed more than 28,000 people“. A significant portion of the Canadian population are employed on shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale, movies like The Shape of Water, or the vast number of commercials shot each year. In the entirety of Canada there are approximately 180,000 jobs lost due of COVID-19, many of which are still on hold as the industry
works to sort itself out.
So, given the two problems of content and impact, how exactly is the industry attempting to get
up and running? More importantly, what is the government doing to try and make this industry
safe to work in?
What is happening in the industry?
For those who have ever seen a film set or wondered about the chaos and complexity that they
seem to drag along, the changes to the industry would be surprisingly minor. Masks are an
essential and a given. As are hand sanitizers found frequently and in sufficient quantities. While
many positions have been minimized (or in some cases outright eliminated) in order to lessen the
number of people on set, an entirely new job has been created; COVID Compliance Officers.
These are the individuals whose job is to take temperatures and oxygen saturation readings of all
crew members, and generally ensure a safe set. Filming indoors has led to strict control measures
to limit the number of people coming in and going out; this allows sufficient room for social
distancing measures indoors, thus limiting potential exposure. Occasionally there are weekly (or
even daily) tests run on crew members. Outside of these safety changes and taking things a little
bit slower than normal, things are remarkably similar to life before the pandemic.
Every set is being run a little bit differently, but what do the actual rules require?
What government guidelines are in place
The guidelines set out by the Ontario Government (set out by Section 21 Film and Television
Health and Safety Advisory Committee of the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills
Development), are surprisingly loose. There is a lot of ‘should’ and not a lot of ‘must’.
“You should provide workers with phone numbers/contact information of the people they should
contact regarding COVID-19 response.”
“Consider requiring sign-off (e.g. digital sign-off) that people have received and reviewed this
guidance and any producer policies and protocols.”
“The policies/protocols should be based on the considerations in this guidance that applies to
your specific workplace(s) … Your policies and protocols should cover how the workplace will
All these guidelines are essentially recommendations from the government based on which
organizations should base their policies. However, there is a lot left in the hands of these profit-
seeking businesses to decide on their own.
Self assessments are not specifically required. Nor are temperature checks or screening upon
entry. Outside of the overall mandates set out by the government, the film industry has no further
necessitated requirements, although unions such as ACTRA were a part of the development of
Section 21 itself.
All that being said, the Ontario government recommendations (as seen in Section 21 above) are a
well thought out starting point, and they even go so far as to give further specifics for each
How is the industry self-monitoring and self-policing?
Despite the guidelines set out, the industry is a wild west hodgepodge of varying rules and
regulations. Some businesses choose to go far above the government guidelines, while others are
worryingly close to the bottom of the barrel.
Examples have jumped out of extreme vigilance: Cardi B spending $100,000 on COVID-19
testing for one music video. Of course, even with testing, it’s still a risky situation. UK filming of The
Batman was interrupted by a positive case of COVID-19 and has now been shut back down.
Of course, this is a risk that likely exists in any workplace. A different aspect to consider is the
delay that comes along with a COVID-19 positive case in the film industry. Many workplaces can
take a day to sanitize and decontaminate, a few days get everybody tested, and finally get
everyone back to work as soon as realistically possible. However, such unplanned shutdowns can
likely last quite a lot longer, as rentals and locations need to be completely reworked. These
instances would potentially also carry additional financial burdens on the project’s budget.
Nonetheless, the extent of this shutdown is not entirely determined by legalities, and it is
interesting to see how, between that and the specific policies governing each shoot, the industry
has largely been self-policing without much government intervention. From the detailed sign-in
process, to the COVID-19 testing requirements, the industry as a whole has been attempting to get
back to it. How successful it will be in the long run remains to be seen.
A number of television shows and movies have been cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Not
just temporarily paused, but cancelled permanently. While some large projects are starting up
now, it could be a long time before we see more. Hopefully the collective demand for new
content can stimulate production of new and paused projects in the media industry.