Risky Business: New Assessment Tool released by SAFC

As COVID strikes, what do producers do if something goes terribly wrong? There's a way to work that out, started by the SAFC, but spreading to the world.

Six months ago a production team had to deliver shows on time and on budget that told a great story, honoured cast contracts and provided fair working conditions for crew. 

Then the virus swept in and every form of human contact had to be seen in a new way. Producers were suddenly managing an invisible war on a medical battlefield. History will say that the speed and imagination of the sector was extraordinary.

The hidden driver was contractual. The lawyers and negotiators turned into priests before our very eyes because the single most important question was not about art or decency or human health. It was: how are we going to get paid?

Very quickly, insurance became central and each production culture developed a set of practices and guidelines which made sure that the companies could be insured around COVID. No insurance = no money.

History will say that the speed and imagination of the sector was extraordinary.

Enter the South Australian Film Corporation, which was trying to restart a couple of contained local productions. It turns out that financiers needed more than the guidelines that satisfied insurers. They wanted a new document, a Risk Mitigation Plan.

According to Beth Neate, the SAFC Head of Production and Development, ‘We felt there was a gap between the safe production protocols and the risk mitigation plans that financiers needed. A risk mitigation plan is a skill set that screen production companies do not have experience in, because they haven’t been required to provide them before and everybody’s learning on the fly.

‘They needed a methodology for how they could identify their own risks, and assess the mitigation steps they would take to reduce risks and convert that into a plan. So it gives them an intermediary between the oversight protocols, and the plan they need to produce. It’s like a framework for the way they need to work.’

The COVID-Safe Guidelines already developed nationally state how a production will behave. A risk management plan explains how they will deal with failure.  Since the SAFC did not have risk management skills either, the task fell to Deloitte Risk Advisory which makes a business out of corporate prediction around the world. 

Called A Risk Management Tool, available here, the document is basically a spreadsheet which formalises six stages: 1. Identify the hazards, 2. Determine the consequences, 3. Determine the likelihood, 4. Determine the Risk Rating from the ‘Risk Matrix Table, 5. Evaluate the risks and decide on control measures, and 6. Review and update assessment if necessary.

Aftertaste, a comedy series from Closer Productions for the ABC, was forced to halt pre-production at the beginning of the pandemic. Producer Rebecca Summerton and production manager Bettina Hamilton worked with the SAFC to restart, and were involved with Deloitte as it developed the risk management solutions.  

As Summerton explains, ‘We worked with them as a production to create a COVID-safe plan which utilised the tool. I guess we were the first to apply the tool to a plan for production.’

‘Without that,’ says Neate, ‘I have absolutely no doubt the production would not have happened if they hadn’t been able to satisfactorily give that confidence to the investors. So, it is such a crucial part of enabling production to happen. 

‘They ended up choosing to engage the lawyer to create a risk management plan, but you can’t create it without having this as an intermediary step.’

The tool is a template that needs to be adjusted around the circumstances of the production, including the existing insurance.

The tool is a template that needs to be adjusted around the circumstances of the production, including the existing insurance.

Summerton points out that Closer already had an insurance plan which did not exclude COVID, and South Australia seems to be safe from community transmission. Their particular problem was key people coming in from interstate.

‘We’ve had the benefit of a few months of planning, and working directly with Deloitte, but when the borders were close to Victoria I was receiving many texts from frantic people saying to me, “Oh my God, how are you going to manage this?” And I had a plan. We know it’s not foolproof, but we have a plan to deal with this.

‘A producer’s worst nightmare is to have problems come up that you don’t have a plan for. We’ve all been making shows for a long time so when things come up usually you’ve kind of experienced it in some way before but this is a new a whole new beast to deal with. I guess that’s what this tool is, to help us have a plan.’

All this fastidious work helps to manage a production culture in which people work hard for long hours and feel they have failed if they call in sick.

’One of the other things I’ve been really strict about is that if you have any respiratory symptoms, you must not come to work and you must get tested,’ says Summerton. ‘In film production, everyone just works – they push through unless they’ve lost a leg, that’s the traditional mentality. It’s a really nice change in some ways because there’s a sense of looking after each other and yourself, to stay healthy. We’ve had to plan for that in our contingencies.’

Interest in the Risk Management Tool spread quickly through the sector, as Screen Producers Australia promoted it to its members, and Ausfilm put the link on its website.

According to Beth Neate, ’We found a huge boost in international downloads after that so it just shows you it’s something that’s really in demand worldwide.’ 

This is a tool and not a solution. There’s a long, long way to go. As Rebecca Summerton observes, ‘I don’t want to sound foolishly confident. Who knows what the next eight and a half weeks hold in store but I do think the risk assessment tool is a really useful piece of work to help us navigate what can sometimes feel completely overwhelming.’

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.