Lights Out on the Film and TV Industries
Amid a pandemic that has claimed more than 490,000 lives, television and film have become a refuge for those stuck at home. For many, they are a way to connect with the outside world.
“Cinema has helped to catalyze the transition from finding adventure in the outside world to exploring new frontiers from the place I know best,” said self-described film fan Tré Flagg ‘24, “My home stopped being the place that I rested in between journeys or where I was when I had nothing to do and transformed into an exciting haven that harbored discussions ranging from DiCaprio’s wall street mischief to Danny Pudi’s wildly entertaining antics at college.”
Unfortunately, audiences around the world will have to stick to old releases on streaming services since the outbreak of COVID-19 has halted production and closed movie theaters.
While production across the world has impacted impatient audiences, those affected the most by the pandemic are the workers of the entertainment industry. Crewmembers, actors, editors, artists, designers, production staff as well as support staff, cinema workers, and many more have lost their jobs. In Hollywood, around 70 TV productions in Hollywood were shut down in March, and more than 100,000 people have been put out of work. In Canada, the pandemic could impact 172,000 jobs in their entertainment industry. It could result in an estimated cost of $1.8 billion according to the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA). According to The Hollywood Reporter, global box office revenue had lost around $7 billion by the end of March alone and it is projected to hit $17 billion. This virus has frozen the entertainment industry, leading to massive unemployment and revenue drops.
Even so, big studios have enough capital to cope with the temporary revenue loss. Once production is allowed to resume, they will not struggle to continue making shows and movies. But independent filmmakers, on the other hand, do not have this financial safety net—they often have to put immense personal capital, time, and effort into their projects. Many rely on freelancing gigs to make ends meet and to finance their films. Under lockdown, these jobs are no longer an option, eliminating the main source of income for most independent filmmakers. They also rely on film festivals to gather attention, reviews, funders, and production connections for present and future projects. As COVID-19 canceled film festivals around the world, this is no longer an option. This pandemic will leave independent filmmakers in limbo, without the necessary income of freelancing and the essential recognition and connections of film festivals. According to independent filmmaker Hillary Bachelder, independent filmmakers will need support after the pandemic to continue the passionate work that makes indie films so special.
Balance is essential for resuming production. While some studios are desperate to return to work, the risks of the pandemic require a middle ground between protecting the lives of workers and helping them return to work. There are many players involved in the development of new production procedures. Studios provide the necessary funds and services for production and are key players in setting up new production guidelines. All projects also require insurance to protect the studio from liability. For that reason, the new guidelines for filming must be acceptable to insurance companies. Finally, guilds and unions are also involved in the drafting of the new regulations to protect workers. Hollywood must have social distancing guidelines in place for when studios are finally able to resume production. While this has been difficult and time-consuming, efforts are underway to make this a reality.
To strike this balance, some studios have started to implement changes in the production process. In Australia, the show Neighbours has resumed production with some important changes. No longer will audiences watch intimate scenes between actors. Sets will be limited to 100 people and special camera angles will be used to make it appear like characters are close to each other while actually upholding social distancing rules. Additionally, male actors will no longer wear makeup, and there will be a nurse present on set. These rules create a very different set from those in a pre-COVID world. While not all studios may adopt the same rules that Neighbours has implemented, they are characteristic of the safety measures that will have to be taken by other productions.
While film producers in Hollywood impatiently wait for the pandemic to come to an end, many are looking beyond California to bring their projects to life as soon as possible. Even though international film locations are not new to American movies, directors and producers that were previously filming in Hollywood are considering expanding across the globe. They’re drawn to countries that have handled the coronavirus more effectively and that have quicker and safer plans to reopen. The Czech Republic was quick to resume production after the outbreak while Slovakia never stopped. While most countries are only open for domestic filming, some are starting to allow foreign filming under strict restrictions. Netflix is currently filming in Iceland, which opened its doors to some foreign film crews in May. States not known for their entertainment industries are also seeking to attract filmmakers. Montana Studios in Hamilton, MT, is calling on producers to consider filming in their state due to their spacious plains and low COVID-19 rates. The pandemic may be opening new filming locations across the country and the world, possibly expanding Hollywood’s reach in the long term.
However, not everyone is waiting to restart production when it is safe to go back to work. Some filmmakers are adapting to this new world by resuming production remotely. Variety shows like Last Week Tonight, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and The Tonight Show resumed production early into the lockdown. They’ve been filming from their homes and video chatting to interview celebrity guests. Reality shows are also filming through the lockdown, with Keeping up with the Kardashians embracing remote production. Deirdre Connolly, an executive producer for Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen spoke to The Washington Post about remote production.
“This is the first time anyone’s leaning into this sort of technology for broadcast, certainly in this capacity,” Connolly said, “We’re making sure that what we’re doing is what feels right for us.”
This is uncharted territory for producers, but they’re adapting to this new world.
This pandemic has even given rise to some productions like new podcasts, cast reunions, and shows. The cast of Community has taken advantage of the free time provided by the pandemic to come together for a virtual table read. Two of their cast members, Joel McHale and Ken Jeong, also started a podcast called The Darkest Timeline. Inspired by an episode of their show, this podcast focuses on the coronavirus and the sitcom Community. Michael Sheen and David Tennant star in the new scripted show Staged, written and directed by Simon Evans. The show is about two actors stuck in quarantine after their West End play is canceled due to the coronavirus. Production occurs remotely, and the actors film from home as they play fictionalized versions of themselves.
When the world went under lockdown, television shows and films were at different stages of production. Some were in pre-production, like The Walking Dead. The show’s writers continue to work through the pandemic over Zoom, writing scripts to be filmed once the lockdown is lifted. Other shows, like Dickinson, were in post-production. Showrunner Alena Smith led her team to finish color correction, VFX, and the score remotely. While TV production has changed and become more challenging during the pandemic, producers and showrunners are embracing the conditions. They’re using creativity to continue making the shows that bring us the comfort we so desperately need.
Directors, actors, and crewmembers no longer have to be together or in professional studios to make films and television. Technology has allowed for remote productions and filming from home. It has brought entertainment to quarantined families around the world and is normalizing new remote formats. Nonetheless, do not expect TV and film production to uphold quarantine adaptations once the world comes out of lockdown. Audiences deprived of new content in the traditional style and crews deprived of in-person production crave the comfort of the industry we know and love. Smith told The Los Angeles Times, “It’s good to know we can do more things remotely than we thought we could, but I don’t think anyone would choose to do it this way again.” Therefore, while some changes may remain as the world recovers from this pandemic, it is unlikely that the big changes we have seen in production will become the norm.
In cinema, the release dates of countless movies have been pushed back as studios hope to maximize profits by waiting for a time when big audiences can once again come together for the silver screen. Film fans will have to wait to see No Time to Die, Black Widow, Tenet, Last Night in Soho, and many more.
Nevertheless, not all new movies are being delayed until theaters can host big crowds of moviegoers. This pandemic has started to normalize online releases; films are skipping their cinematic debut and going straight to an audience through streaming services. Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s film Becky was released on June 5 on Amazon Prime on a pay-per-view basis and in open cinemas. Disney decided to release the film Artemis Fowl on Disney + instead of waiting for a theatrical release. Also on Disney + is Hamilton, which was released a year earlier than originally planned. Universal’s Trolls World Tour was released on demand and made more money in three weeks than the first Trolls movie made in cinemas for five months. Even though most big blockbusters are still reserved for the big screen, the pandemic has forced a lot of studios to opt for direct-to-digital releases. Cinemas are no longer necessary to watch the latest hit.
This may be the latest nail in the coffin of the movie theater industry. Netflix stock has jumped 50 percent since September 2019, while Hulu has grown the same amount in six months. Streaming services have clearly profited from millions of people staying home to flatten the curve of the coronavirus. Over the past decade, streaming has become movie theaters’ greatest competitor. Services like Netflix and Hulu are simpler and cheaper than going out to the movies and paying for exorbitant tickets and concessions. As a result, cinemas have been getting emptier and emptier as consumers opt to stay home and turn on the TV. Now that movie theaters are closed, streaming is the only option, solidifying its place as the principal entertainment service to attentive audiences. When movie theaters reopen, they will face the costs and obstacles of social distancing guidelines and audiences comfortable with watching streaming services from their couch. This new hurdle will make profiting even harder for an industry that has been on a downfall for years.
However, the pandemic may hold good news for some parts of the entertainment industry. Once filming resumes, there will be a catch-up period as TV shows that were shut down during the pandemic rush to produce new content. Just like the resurgence of reality shows after the writers’ strike in 2007, reality shows will likely be on the rise once again since these shows have been able to continue production during the pandemic and require less on-set filming and more postproduction.
There may also be a silver lining in the pandemic for an industry that was on its last leg. Drive-in theaters have been disappearing from America since their peak in the 1950s. By design, they are ideal for a world with social distancing. As people are desperate to leave their homes and normal cinemas remain closed, drive-ins are experiencing a resurgence. While this might not have long-term consequences, the pandemic has given drive-ins much-needed attention that has delayed the death of the industry.
COVID-19 has changed the world, that is clear to see. As many of us use this time to catch up on our favorite shows, we must not forget that this industry is one that has been greatly affected by the pandemic; that the people that made your favorite shows are probably out of work. The tenacity and creativity of the leading forces of the entertainment industry have become evident as productions of innovative shows continue through the difficult times we face. While the changes to production to ensure safety may not last for years to come, the pandemic may be changing the industry that makes us scream, laugh, and cry. It may be expanding to new locations, normalizing new styles, and strengthening the move to streaming services over cinemas. Yet, in such unpredictable times, only time will tell what the entertainment industry will be like once this nightmare is all over.