South Africa's film and TV industry got the green-light to reopen but as cameras start rolling and lights flicker back on it won't be business as usual.
After the country's film and TV biz was frozen to a standstill for over five weeks during lockdown - except for the ongoing production and broadcast of TV news and current affairs programming- there's a new hope.
On Sunday night, 3 May the South African government gazetted regulation amendments under the Covid-19 Level 4 shutdown situation, paving the way for the reopening of the local TV and film industry which has been hammered by the national lockdown period.
Filming on-set is scheduled to resume Monday, 4 May at the Sasani Studios lot in Johannesburg at SABC2's 7de Laan produced by Danie Odendaal Productions, SABC1's Skeem Saam, kykNET's Binnelanders at Stark Studios and several others, with more shows across the country including Cape Town and Durban that will gear up during the week.
The restart will, however, be mostly centred around the flurry of locally-produced soaps and drama series seen in primetime across SABC1, SABC2 and e.tv, as well as M-Net's Mzansi Magic, 1Magic and kykNET channels. Some of them have already run out of their stockpiled episodes over the last two weeks, while the available episodes left for playout in the video stack cupboard of the rest are dwindling fast.
Other shows that will flicker back to life in a limited fashion with new episodes include local studio-based magazine shows across the SABC, SuperSport and the M-Net channels such as Kwêla on kykNET, produced from Cape Town, that was already out with a newly recorded episode on Sunday night.
While shooting of scenes in feature films and on-location filming can technically happen, it's highly unlikely due to the expensive overall production cost to start-up for only certain scenes. Cinemas from Ster-Kinekor to Nu Metro, including independent film theatres countrywide, will all remain closed.
EXTREMELY STRICT RULES
The restart will, however, come with extremely strict rules. Film and TV crews working on shows already attached to a broadcaster and making use of local casts and crews are allowed to return to work and to the studio.
This includes crew working on post-production, for instance, editors, and anyone working on sound and special effects, animators, or anyone finishing material in specialised studios.
The South African government is placing the responsibility for the reopening of studio doors on broadcasters – the SABC, the MultiChoice Group, including divisions like M-Net and Supersport, and eMedia Investments.
They may "elect to resume content production based on risk assessment" and are cautioned to only restart shows "that can be produced with minimal risk", for instance soaps and telenovelas shot in a studio environment that are easier to handle than location shoots.
"Broadcasters must identify solutions to ensure the protection of performers and production crews" according to the Government Gazette, and should "retain, to the extent possible, a work from home approach".
"Each broadcaster must work closely with the respective production companies and the relevant industry bodies to determine the most appropriate return-to-production strategy and feasible implementation dates."
STUDIOS: GEARING UP FOR GERM SPREADING PREVENTION
Although studio crews will wear them, the local casts of TV soaps won't immediately appear on-screen wearing face-coverings – if ever. Gone are extras and studio audiences for shows like game shows, reality talent competition shows, and talk shows.
There are three reasons for soap stars who won't immediately be seen wearing masks and plastic shields on-screen: Soaps and telenovelas will continue filming the locked scripts and story arcs already written and in the production pipeline before the Covid-19 lockdown began – stories that don't include the coronavirus pandemic.
Secondly, newly filmed episodes will take some weeks to be shown.
Lastly, while most soaps might incorporate elements like health advice and work in Covid-19 messaging into dialogue since they collectively reach a viewing audience of millions and do to a degree reflect real-world issues, their purpose is escapism.
Viewers primarily tune in to get a dramatic entertainment reprieve from the day's problems and issues dominating the news headlines.
Soaps and telenovelas will start to look different; with more close-up shots and bare backgrounds. They will be cutting down on using extras – those walk-on, non-speaking roles in the background.
Studio audiences where they have been used are also, for now, a thing of the past, for instance, the upcoming studio-based finale of the second season of The Bachelor SA on M-Net.
Sasani Studios in Highland North in Johannesburg – where 7de Laan, e.tv's soaps like Rhythm City produced by Quizzical Pictures, Scandal! produced by Ochre Moving Pictures, The Venda soap Muvhango on SABC2 and Skeem Saam on SABC1 are all filmed – is a good example of what will be happening at TV productions and studios across the country including Cape Town and Durban.
The Sasani Studios facilities management team together with TV series produced there are now doing temperature and screening at the gate before entry onto the studio premises is permitted, with face masks and shields that are provided to cast members and crew.
Nobody is allowed to enter on-site or roam on the studio lot without it. Alcohol-based hand-sanitisers have been set up at various points, and a register is being kept of all cast and crew, including recording daily temperatures and possible symptoms. The cleaning and sanitising process has also been intensified.
At 7de Laan specifically, only one-third of the cast and crew are now permitted on-site, as staff rotate and others continue to work from home. Staffers now do meetings and conference calls over Skype and Zoom, while extras will only be used if it's "absolutely necessary".
Only essential crew will be on-set during filming, wearing their face masks and shields. There will no longer be any intimate or close contact scenes between actors.
Make-up crews will wear plastic face shields at all times, and while every actor has always had their own makeup brushes, that will now be disinfected after every application. All jewellery will now be sanitised before it's handed to an actor.
Objects that are handled by more than one person – with special attention to props handled by crew and actors – will be sanitised between team activities.
THOUSANDS OF FREELANCERS LEFT WITHOUT INCOME
The abrupt shutdown has already seen an as yet unquantifiable number of job losses clearly numbering in the thousands within the embattled South African film and TV industry.
The National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) told Channel24 over the weekend that it's impossible at this stage to give a number on job losses or how many people within the fragile industry will be impacted.
The NFVF will be working with several industry organisations to start a process of quantifying how many people have lost work and is impacted by the shutdown.
Although impacted, broadcasters like the SABC, e.tv and MultiChoice are best positioned to weather the Covid-19 storm, but the lockdown has been wreaking devastation on independent production companies and producers as well as freelancers or so-called "independent contractors".
It's these people – from cameramen to make-up artists, video editors to lighting technicians, location scouts, craft services and many more in specialised jobs within the industry – who have suddenly been left not just without jobs and the cancellation of upcoming projects but also no lifeline or any financial support from the South African government for which they don't qualify.
"Freelancers in our sector are left not only without an income due to the lockdown, but without any income relief," Jack Devnaraian, chairman of the South African Guild of Actors (SAGA) told eNCA in an interview over the weekend.
"It's a blatant and unforgivable oversight by the government to have an entire sector of tax-paying people who work within the industry – who are simply left to their own devices – hoping that something will drop from the heavens above".