Jennie Cook wipes the sweat off her brow. She has had to let almost half of her staff go, and she’s been working long days and even longer weeks in order to compensate for it. Though she’s had to power through exhaustion, she considers herself lucky. Her business is surviving, which is more than can be said for many of her peers.
Cook owns Jennie Cook’s Catering, a Los Angeles-based company that derives almost all of its business from Hollywood productions. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in all film productions stopping, causing Jennie Cook’s, and thousands of businesses like them, to struggle to survive.
“It’s been devastating,” said Cook. “Our business has taken such a hit. I’m in a lot of catering networks and I can tell you everybody in the events business is scrambling.”
The Economic Impact of Film
In March, when the pandemic hit, filming was completely shut down. It wasn’t until the end of June that it was allowed to start again, and at a much slower pace than before.
According to Dan Taylor, President of the Inland Empire Film Services, film brought in $50 million to the Inland Empire last year.
This year, Taylor is uncertain that the same number could be reached again.
“If you’ve taken three or four months of the prime filming time, it’s going to be a major hit,” said Taylor. “I doubt we’ll be able to hit what happened last year.”
This impact extends not only to individual businesses, but entire communities as well.
“Like the town of Lucerne Valley for example. Small little town, but that small little town gets a lot of filming. There’s a lot of dollars spent in that town for supplies or food,” Taylor said.
Lucerne Valley is a small, isolated town, and it’s full of businesses that rely on film productions. When filming stopped, so did the community’s revenue stream.
“They got hit big, and they’re struggling,” said Taylor. “Some of them survived and some of them didn’t, so it’s one of those things where hopefully they had enough reserved to maybe survive and be able to pick back up again, but we’ll see.”
Struggling to Survive Without Film
The lack of film productions meant that many people had to do whatever they could to support their business.
Alex Hamilton, commercial producer and owner of Big Bear Locations, had to take unemployment in order to support herself. Even now, she estimates that she only has “about ten percent” of the workload she used to.
“Well commercials came back first, and they came back around August. The TV shows are just finally starting to try and come back,” said Hamilton.
With television and film not having fully returned, less people are going to Big Bear to film which, in turn, means less work for Hamilton.
Cook estimates that she’s getting about 35 percent of the orders she used to get, but she was getting none when filming was closed.
Without getting any revenue, she had to take a step back and weigh her options.
“I had one chef that was absolutely convinced we should close, and I said the minute we close we lose our relevance,” Cook said. “Isn’t it better to keep in front of the mind of the client so that people know we’re still open and relevant?”
As a solution, she decided to reinvigorate an old take-out business that she ran years ago. It was this reinvention that gave Jennie Cook’s the push it needed to stay in business.
“It worked, but it was a huge gamble,” Cook explained. “I mean we’re all doing things that we never thought we’d do. You take what you can get.”
Though Jennie Cook’s has survived, others have not been as fortunate. Businesses like New York Food Company and Contemporary Catering have announced that they are shutting their doors for good.
Staying Safe in a Dangerous Landscape
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging on, vendors are having to decide which jobs are safe enough to take.
“Me personally, I have no desire to go on a soundstage right now,” said Hamilton. “The only reason I took my last production managing job is because it was all outdoors.”
This caution extends to communities as well. Beverly Hills, for instance, is still not issuing new permits nearly four months after restrictions were lifted.
Though most places are able to open for filming, Hamilton explains that a lot of people simply aren’t willing to allow filming to occur at their homes.
“Neighborhoods don’t want filming because they don’t want people coming in that could potentially have COVID,” Hamilton said. “It’s a rough time to work in the industry right now.”
Legally, film productions have to follow a wide range of safety protocols in order to be allowed to film, but the threat of infection is still there.
“They make everyone get a COVID test as soon as they show up, and they never leave their car,” said Taylor. “They’re doing everything they can to protect the talent, because without the talent there is no show.”
These regulations mean that catering businesses are unable to provide the full service that they would under normal circumstances.
“We used to have a server stay and set up a pretty buffet and then break it down after an hour, and now basically they take the food from us when we arrive,” said Cook. “Sometimes we don’t even get out of our car.”
While there is a general sense of optimism that things could return to normal soon, businesses are preparing for this to continue for quite some time.
“From my estimations, just what I’ve heard people say and the stats of it, I think this’ll end this time next year, maybe 2022,” said Cook.
Hamilton encourages her clients to get their film permits as soon as possible, as they are unlikely to get one if filming shuts down again.
While people have different ideas as to when this may end, Taylor sees the future as uncertain.
“It’s a different year, and it’s really hard to predict,” said Taylor.