ATA Chief Karen Stuart Urges Agents To Be “Diligent” About Ensuring Safety Protocols Are In Place For Clients Returning To Work

As film, TV and commercial production slowly resumes, Karen Stuart, executive director of the Association of Talent Agents, has told her 115 member-agencies that they should be “diligent about making sure proper safety protocols are in place to protect the health and safety of their clients.”

The safety of cast and crew members employed on commercials and other short-term productions is a particular concern because many are being shot without testing for the coronavirus and aren’t required to do so by Los Angeles County health officials. “The unions/guilds are working non-stop to reach an industry-wide safety agreement with employers in TV/Film,” Stuart wrote in a recent memo to her members. “The areas of commercials, music videos and similar short term productions are problematic.”

Assistant director John Nolan came down with COVID-19 symptoms in mid-July after working on a six-say shoot for a State Farm commercial in Texas, and he died on August 29, though it has yet to be determined where or how he contracted the virus. And Deadline has learned that actors working recently on a beer commercial received notice from the ad’s producers that a crew member on the shoot had contracted the virus but were told that the crew member had not come in close contact with them.

In her August 27 memo, Stuart noted that Hollywood’s guilds and unions have yet to finalize an agreement on the safe return to work. “Absent an industry-wide labor-management safety agreement, you should not assume that a production (commercial, film/TV or other) is cleared by the union/guild or County,” she wrote. “For example: SAG-AFTRA staff, in a recent pre-production meeting with a commercial producer, requested the production company conduct pre-employment COVID testing since cast would be within six-feet of each other without PPE. The production company would not agree. Therefore, SAG-AFTRA did not ‘clear’ the commercial. They advised the agents and performers that the company would not agree to testing, but the decision to work or not was up to the performer.”

Hollywood’s unions and guilds, she wrote, “have varying contractual agreements with employers and the ability to ‘shut down’ or ‘order members not to work’ is not always an option. However, SAG-AFTRA general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland made it clear to me that SAG-AFTRA can, and will, shut down an unsafe production if it is in violation of legally required protocols. He said the employer retains the legal responsibility to maintain a safe set, and all the work being done by the unions (and agents) is in furtherance of holding employers (producers) to that standard.”

In its guidelines, the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health states: “For television and film production, there is regular, periodic testing of the cast and crew on a given production to mitigate the risk of the spread of COVID-19, especially for those cast and crew that are involved in high-risk scenes requiring close contact without face coverings for extended periods of time.”

The Health Department, however, has exempted short-running productions such as commercials from testing, stating that, “where testing may not be feasible for one-time productions operating under a very short filming schedule — e.g. many commercials or smaller music recording sessions — all work should be planned to eliminate close physical contact between cast, crew and performers as much as possible. Any and all testing programs are the responsibility of the employer and should benefit from the guidance of a medical professional.”

The Association of Independent Commercial Producers, which says its member-companies account for 85% of all domestic commercials aired nationally, doesn’t require testing for the virus either. Instead, the AICP protocols call for commercial productions “to self-diagnose health symptoms” before each day’s work. “Currently, testing for active cases is not available on-site,” the AICP’s guidelines and recommendations state. “In addition, testing (such as antibody testing and temperature-taking) are not reliable screening indicators – therefore, using symptomatic polling is the most reliable screening process.”

IATSE Members Petition Union’s Leaders For Stronger COVID-19 Protocols On Commercials & Music Videos

Stuart, in her memo to the agencies, said that the ATA “recommends that you ask for a copy of the safety protocols-in-place and ask if the applicable union/guild has vetted the production or casting. Most important, inform your client of the inquiries you made and the protocol information provided in ensure an informed decision may be made.”

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