This company is helping Canada's film industry beat records — despite the pandemic
Pulsar UV, founded by 4 friends in the entertainment business, provides rapid COVID-19 tests on film sets
Corey Mayne is no stranger to the entertainment industry. The filmmaker, born in Windsor, Ont., has had turns working on the set of Divergent, Transformers and — most recently — as director of the Stephen King-adapted short story Willa.
And despite theatre closures, border restrictions, and a raft of new COVID-conscious filming requirements, there's been no slowdown for him. In fact, things are ramping up.
"We've been busier than ever," Mayne said while on location for the upcoming Kathleen Turner-led musical The Swearing Jar.
"We've been working on, like, 11 different shows at any given time."
The reason Mayne has been able to keep so busy is that while he's still working on movies, he and his business partners are now providing much-needed COVID-19 tests for film and television productions.
Their company, Pulsar UV, began with just the four people who had been making films together since high school: Mayne, his sister, Kelsi Mayne, and husband-and-wife team Barbara Szeman, an assistant director, and Adrian Jaworski, an actor.
But the operation quickly grew to include 15 nurses working on sets throughout Ontario, providing the kind of testing that film boards across the country say has been instrumental in what at times has been record activity.
WATCH | Ontario company keeps creative productions rolling during pandemic:
Pulsar UV provides COVID-19 testing on set — performing roughly 80 tests per day on cast and crew members, which are necessary to stay in compliance with the industry's various new safety measures.
While there are other and bigger companies that also provide that service, Mayne says their experience with the rapidly shifting schedules and needs of film sets gives them an edge.
"We're able to speak with directors, producers, line producers in their language and understand. We know how to read a call sheet," Mayne explained. "We know [the] hierarchy on set."
The team also started with medical know-how. The company's CEO, Adrian Jaworski, is a registered nurse, as is Pulsar's chief medical officer Kelsi Mayne — who released her debut album as a country singer within weeks of the CDC declaring the novel coronavirus a pandemic.
It has been roughly two years since she's practiced in a clinic, but that didn't stop her.
"When the world shut down for us over here in Canada … I wanted to help out in any capacity," she said. "And me having my nursing degree and my nursing background, I didn't want to put that to waste."
Like its employees, Pulsar has been through a number of changes to adapt to the pandemic. They started out disinfecting equipment with UV-C light, though quickly found testing to be in higher demand.
Since then, they've pivoted to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, which is considered the most accurate. They also offer the rapid antigen test, which returns results within 15 minutes.
And its that diversity of options, said founder Barbara Szeman, that allows them to help keep the entertainment industry on its feet through a pandemic.
"All the unions — SAG, ACTRA, DGA — they all have different requirements for testing," Szeman said. "And with the film industry, it's a chaotic environment. There's last minute demands."
"Testing is what has kept the film industry running so smoothly."
Canada's film industry weathers the storm
Canada's film industry has managed to continue through the pandemic, in many cases as busy — or more — than before global industry shutdowns.
In emails to CBC News, film boards across the country reported healthy industries.
In British Columbia workers have followed protocols established by WorkSafeBC, and relied on thousands of daily coronavirus tests to keep film sets working. A spokesperson with Creative BC said that COVID-19 stoppages resulted in periods of both record low and record high numbers of productions taking place in 2020.
In the fall, the province saw its highest count ever of productions shooting at one time, after rising transmission in California led to an influx of 40 to 50 American productions in September. Currently, there are 35 projects working in B.C.
A spokesperson for the Alberta government said the province had 31 productions shoot in 2020, while there are 11 major productions scheduled to shoot in the spring and summer of 2021. He also said the government expects the coming shooting season to be "the largest production year on record in Alberta."
Justin Cutler of Ontario Creates, an agency of the Ministry of Tourism, reported 41 ongoing film and television projects in the province, with more than 50 expected to take place over the summer. There was "record-breaking production volume and spending" through fall and winter, he said. If schedules continue at the same pace the province "may see higher volumes than pre-COVID years."
The Quebec Film and Television Council, which keeps track of foreign features and TV series, said that, after the "best start of the year" in 2020, film production in the province struggled; only 13 were able to finish filming by December. There has been an uptick since, and communications manager Aurore Lagonotte wrote 2021 could be "the best [they] have had so far."
Meanwhile, Manitoba Film and Music's communications director Janice Tober described the demand to shoot in the province as "overwhelming." There are over 20 productions currently shooting, she said, and the province is "poised to make a strong recovery — not just for our sector, but the additional industries that rely on the film industry for their own bottom line."
All four organizations cited safety protocols and onsite testing — like that provided by Pulsar and others — as a major force protecting and reviving the industry at large.
"I think it's just proving us to the world even more than it ever was," said lead producer of The Swearing Jar Jane Loughman. "I love that the big American studios are coming up to shoot in Canada and Toronto."
Still, it's not all smooth sailing. Last week, the Amazon series The Summer I Turned Pretty, which was scheduled to begin filming in Nova Scotia, switched location to the United States, where COVID-19 protocols have relaxed.
And a $50 million insurance backstop announced in September — which would provide compensation for productions forced to stop shooting due to the pandemic — only came after months of campaigning and significant delays for movies and series shooting in the country. Even then, producers said the amount wasn't enough to fully support the industry.
The backstop, which was revised in March of this year, pays out a maximum of $1.5 million per project. The scheme's guidelines also state that the fund's administrator, Telefilm Canada, has final judgment and blanket discretion on whether productions receive compensation, and payouts are "subject to the availability of funding from government."
Loughman, meanwhile, said that roughly 10 to 15 percent of their budget has gone toward testing — a difficult additional cost, while the additional scheduling and hurdles associated with pandemic-era protocols have been "stressful" in an already stressful time. But the confidence and safety instilled by entertainment workers who have so quickly pivoted to provide that service, she says, has been invaluable.
"We have a fantastic team who are helping us oversee everything," Loughman said. "It's just the whole team. It's all been incredible."
'We've succeeded when we're out of business'
For Pulsar, Adrian Jaworski said while keeping the industry going is vitally important, their "hearts are in entertainment."
But when it comes to the question of when they'll be able to return to their old jobs, he has a simple answer.
"We don't know and, you know, we don't care," Jaworski said. "We're here to keep people safe. Whether or not this does continue this year, next year, five years — we'll be here."
Szemen echoed that sentiment.
"We actually have said, you know, 'We've succeeded when we're out of business,'" she told CBC News. "But ... I hope things do go back to normal soon."
With files from Sharon Wu and Eli Glasner