According to Screen Producers Australia, at least 119 productions have been shutdown or delayed indefinitely by COVID-19, stalling almost $500 million worth of activity in the sector.
Jason Herbison, Fremantle’s executive producer for Neighbours, said a small team worked steadily through what began as a scheduled two-week Easter break before ballooning into a month-long hiatus to “adjust the scripts and reimagine the production model” of the show.
“With every decision, our first objective has been to adhere to the government guidelines and protect health and safety. Secondly, our goal has been to preserve the editorial of the show.”
Neighbours is unusually well-placed to cater to the social distancing guidelines, with a dedicated studio in suburban Melbourne that readily lends itself to small teams working discreetly.
“Our production facility is one of the largest in the world and that puts us in a very fortunate position,” said Mr Herbison. “We have three large interior studios and two smaller ones as well as a gigantic backlot, where we have created the world of Erinsborough. We are taking advantage of every inch of the site and spreading everyone out, creating separate areas which limit the movements of each individual.”
Fremantle will also be running daily temperature checks for everyone on site and limiting the number of cast in any one scene. “However, we will schedule additional cast separately and edit them together, to give the illusion of a larger group,” Mr Herbison said.
At this stage, the thinking is to not include coronavirus in the storylines. “We are currently plotting episodes that won’t air until much later in the year, so anything we write now might feel very outdated,” Mr Herbison said. “Further to this, there’s a creative question: will our viewers want to switch on Neighbours and relive it again, or is our job to provide escapism? I tend to feel it’s the latter.”
The biggest change on screen will be around intimacy. “We can’t have any kissing scenes or hand holding for the time being. But longing looks are fine.”
The ABC, meanwhile, has redirected money that had been allocated to activities such as outside broadcasts and live music coverage that, because of COVID-19, can no longer go ahead this financial year.
The resultant $5 million Fresh Start Fund has been established specifically “to provide urgent and critical support to independent Australian producers and safeguard local content and creativity” while the industry is in effective shutdown.
There are five streams of funding available, including for production companies that have established relationships with the broadcaster, to “supercharge” production when it comes back online or to develop new projects.
There is also money for new producers without an exiting relationship with the ABC; for children’s content; for arts content; and for Australian music (for radio rather than television broadcast).
Screen Australia and several of the state screen agencies have also been reallocating budget previously earmarked for travel and marketing to development in the hope that the sector will emerge from the crisis with a raft of production-ready projects.
Of course, the question is how many of those projects will find a broadcaster, especially if the federal government decides to extend its relief on Australian content quotas into 2021, as many in the production industry fear.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.