A number of New Mexico industries were punished by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but film and entertainment wasn’t among them.
Despite a year filled with lockdowns, restrictions and general uncertainty about the virus, New Mexico’s film office reported $623 million in direct spend during its 2021 fiscal year, a new record for the state.
And keeping the virus out of movie sets played a big part in the industry’s success. In June 2020, a report drafted by an industry task force described health and safety guidelines needed to resume film and TV production. In the 12 months following Sept. 1, 2020, when film production restarted, there were 176,598 COVID tests administered throughout the various productions. Of those, only 183 were positive.
Obviously, studios and state officials deserve credit, but that success was due in no small part to a handful of little-known companies that helped studios manage COVID-19 testing and vaccination, a massive coordination effort that requires a different set of skills than normal testing.
“You just really don’t know who’s going to need testing every day, and that’s probably the crux of what’s really complex for labs to tackle,” said Alex Ostebo, founder and president of Kameo, a Los Angeles-based company offering COVID testing services for film industry professionals in a variety of markets, including Albuquerque.
Ostebo, who has a background in the film industry, told the Journal that she noticed early in the pandemic that the labs administering COVID-19 tests weren’t set up to serve the industry effectively. Ostebeo said movie and television sets are unlike other workplaces, as they feature people coming to a single location from all over and working in close proximity, with different people working on very different schedules. Traditional testing sites weren’t able to keep pace.
“They weren’t flexible, they only had one location, limited hours,” Ostebo said. “There wasn’t a central, production-friendly portal where I could access results.”
Since such a platform was hard to find in the market at the time, Ostebo and her husband, Matt Hibberd, decided to just build one. In addition to administering tests at designated mobile testing labs, Kameo offers a digital platform that allows users to track and manage testing and vaccination for themselves and their team. Crew leaders can develop testing schedules based on location and department, and users can upload their vaccination information to a mobile passport system.
“It’s super valuable for the admins to manage their testing on a larger scale,” Ostebo said.
Kameo launched in LA last summer, but quickly spread to other markets where film is a big part of the business ecosystem, including New York City, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. The company partnered with its first production in New Mexico — “When You Finish Saving the World,” a movie directed by Jesse Eisenberg starring Julianne Moore — in November, working with nearly 200 people on the production team there. Kameo has since worked on five or six large productions in Albuquerque, and Ostebo said she was impressed by the film industry ecosystem here.
“It really feels like Albuquerque’s going to probably be the next Atlanta, when it comes to productions just blowing up,” Ostebo said.
The pandemic also inspired existing health care companies to expand their operations. VIP StarNetwork is an Albuquerque-based company that provides a wide variety of on-demand medical services to partners ranging from schools to state government agencies.
When the pandemic hit, however, CEO Johonniuss Chemweno said the company pivoted to providing testing and vaccination services, primarily for the film and television industry. During the worst of the pandemic, Chemweno estimated that roughly 80% of the company’s activities were centered on dealing with the novel coronavirus.
“When COVID happened, we were already very well-positioned and have the infrastructure set up, where we just started to expand that same model,” Chemweno said.
Like Ostebo, Chemweno noted that film production can be a logistical nightmare for traditional labs, as production teams often have to bring people together from different countries, which had very different health and safety standards.
“The coordination was on a scale that I don’t think productions were definitely ever used to,” he said.
VIP StarNetwork works with production teams to get information about their needs. People working on a production would then contact the company to schedule either an in-person or remote test, after providing information about their schedule and needs, Chemweno said.
“We had to coordinate, under very strict requirements, based on those national standards and those governments they were coming from,” he said.
While the pandemic shows no sign of abating anytime soon, both companies are looking ahead to life after COVID. VIP StarNetwork is preparing to launch a mobile application that allows users to search for nearby providers and schedule appointments with a broad mix of medical professionals. Chemweno said the app will be useful for COVID-19 testing and vaccination, but can also be used for everything from OBGYN appointments to mental health services.
“We’re really, really excited,” Chemweno said. “It’s one of our big milestones.”
Kameo has rolled out a vaccine passport program as a future solution as testing plateaus. Ostebo said the company’s future ambitions are still under wraps, but the company is hiring for a wide variety of medical and production positions in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and other markets.
“We can’t hire fast enough,” she said.
Stephen Hamway covers economic development, health care and tourism for the Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.