Ben Affleck film moves shooting to Canada as Hollywood abandons U.S. without widely available coronavirus testing

Key Points
  • A Ben Affleck feature was supposed to film in the U.S., but a lack of readily available testing material and quick lab results has pushed production to Canada.
  • Producers are also looking at the U.K. and Australia as other possible safe havens for production.
Ben Affleck
Bauer-Griffin/GC Images | Getty Images

Solstice Studios was supposed to begin filming its newest feature starring Ben Affleck in Los Angeles back in April. While the film's production was halted by the coronavirus, it's the lack of widely available testing that will keep it from resuming in the U.S. this fall.

"It became quite clear very quickly that it was absolutely impossible," Mark Gill, president and CEO of Solstice Studios, said.

Instead, the movie will be shot in Vancouver, Canada in October. 

Rising Covid-19 cases in California forced the studio to look at Austin, Texas as the new home for the film. Those plans quickly dissolved as cases grew in the Lone Star state and it became apparent that the production would not be able to accommodate the three tests per week for actors and crew that Hollywood guilds were requiring if it remained in the U.S.

"The problem is there is a shortage of tests, a delayed time between the test and the lab result and that would put us in immediate violation of our agreement with the unions who represent that cast and crew," said Gill, whose producing credits include "Pulp Fiction," "The English Patient," "Good Will Hunting" and "Shakespeare in Love."

Gill said the production also looked at the U.K. and Australia as other possible safe havens for production.

Last month, Frank Patterson, CEO of Pinewood Studios in Atlanta, said that the studio had conducted over 1,000 tests and had less than two dozen positive results. The majority of these positive tests were from part-time workers, he said. 

When asked for additional information on testing on Friday, Patterson declined to comment.

A limited supply of Covid-19 testing materials has hampered the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic since the very beginning, public health specialists say. It's made it difficult for people to get tested in some parts of the country. Delays in processing test results plagued the U.S. throughout the summer as those who could get tested waited days, sometimes more than a week, to get their results — making them virtually worthless.

Though national labs say they've recently cut the wait time, the U.S. is currently running around 600,000 tests a day when most epidemiologists say the country needs to process millions a day to truly reopen the economy open. 

Producer Shaun MacGillivray, who is the president of MacGillivray Freeman Films, which predominantly produces and distributes documentaries, noted that there is no official enforcement of some of union testing guidelines, but there is a massive liability for productions if the rules are not followed and someone gets sick.

For larger studios, the additional costs to secure tests and laboratories to run them are easier to absorb. Independent production companies may have a harder time, MacGillivray said.

"From a budget standpoint, you've got to think about 20% to 25% more expenses to do that," he said.

In Canada, Solstice Studios will have readily available testing and quick lab results. The additional health and safety costs adds up to a couple of million dollars for the studio, which produces films in the low-to-mid-tier range of $30 million to $80 million. 

Additionally, Canada has far fewer instances of coronavirus. The country reported an average of less than 400 new coronavirus cases per day, over the past week compared with more than 46,400 in the U.S., according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The cast and crew will have the quarantine for 14 days after arriving in the country.

"You can't plan for something if you know right now it's not possible," Gill said of productions that are looking to restart in the U.S. this fall. "You have to know now it will be possible in eight weeks or you are just planning for a disaster."

— CNBC's Will Feuer contributed to this report.