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Sheltering in Place: The Independent Film Community Faces the Coronavirus Shutdown

It was February, 2020. At New York’s Steiner studios, the largest studio lot outside of LA, people were busily prepping Lin Manuel Miranda’s highly anticipated directorial debut, Tik, Tik…Boom! The movie was set to begin shooting in two weeks, and Jessie Pellegrino, a seasoned assistant prop master, paused her work to sit through a mandatory Netflix HR meeting. Near the end of the session, one of her colleagues raised his hand. “What’s Netflix’s plan for us if coronavirus forces our shoot to shut down?” The HR rep responded the best she could at the time. They were working on it; they were tracking it closely. Pellegrino remembers finding the question alarmist. But it stuck in her mind like a mental hangnail as she continued to gather ’90s-era Walkmans and bags of groceries for the movie’s background talent to hold. 

Friday, March 6th. Jeremy Hersh, a 29-year-old filmmaker turns off his phone to get a rare massage at Fishion Herb Center in New York’s Chinatown. It was an unusual indulgence for him but a needed reprieve from the cloud of anxiety that had followed him lately. His debut feature, The Surrogate, was about to go out into the world for the first time, and he was feeling vulnerable. An hour later, Hersh turned his phone back on, and dozens and dozens of texts lit up his screen. “I’m so sorry,” the refrain kept repeating itself as he scrolled through them all. He knew immediately that SXSW must have been canceled because of the novel coronavirus, and along with it, plans for his world premiere. 

Wednesday evening, March 11th. I was having drinks in the West Village with a friend, a doctor who had grown up in Syria and had recently moved to New York to work at Mount Sinai. He drank a negroni as I asked bewildered questions about the virus. “It’ll be ok,” he said a little unconvincingly, and I remembered he hadn’t seen his Syrian family in eight years due to the war. After we said goodbye, I looked at my phone, and a flurry of alerts awaited me: first-world hell had broken loose. The NBA was shuttered. Tom Hanks had coronavirus. My upcoming shoot in Budapest had officially been canceled. And Trump had clumsily announced a supposed ban on all travel between Europe and the US. Ani Simon-Kennedy, the director of a movie I had produced that was supposed to hit theaters in May, The Short History of the Long Road, was stuck in Paris, having gone to Europe with the film to attend a festival screening. Her boyfriend and business partner, both sitting in New York, were furiously locating a copy of her passport and looking up ways to get her home immediately, all while Ani slept in a different time zone, unaware what was unfolding. The next day, amidst a flurry of logistical texts, Ani wrote she was “crouched on a Paris street corner with headphones on, looking like a real maniac.” She was fervently trying to watch an updated cut of our movie’s trailer, which was supposed to drop the following week.

* * *

In 1918, soldiers returning home from World War I took with them a deadly virus that would result in one of the worst pandemics in human history. The H1N1 virus, or “Spanish flu,” would kill 20 million people in its first year alone, a number that grimly ticked upwards to a near 50 million just a couple of years later. Cinemas in LA  stayed closed for seven weeks in 1918, and 80% of all the theaters in America closed for two months. City governments banned the filming of crowd scenes, and studios on both the East and West coasts voluntarily closed film productions for up to a month. Movie stars, to demonstrate their macho qualities, flaunted being outside in public without wearing masks; Douglas Fairbanks allowed fans to mob him. At the start of the crisis, Moving Picture World, then the leading trade of the movie industry, suggested cheerily that theater owners use this downtime to “apply soap and water and fresh paint, and slick up a bit, so that theaters are fresh and clean to welcome back the crowds, who will surely flock back to theaters, eager to be entertained.” It would take years, however, for the movie industry to recover to a thriving pace. But by 1930, 65% of the US population attended the movies on a weekly basis. 

In more recent years, proponents of  the theatrical experience have been playing defense, charged with being out of touch with changing viewership and technology. Last year, when Steven Spielberg argued that movies must have theatrical runs to qualify for Academy Awards, the internet derided him as a straight-out dinosaur. And meanwhile, progressive industry figureheads such as Ava Duvernay, who has a $100 million deal with Netflix, have argued that theatrical windows are exclusionary for some communities, memorably pointing to the box-office hit Straight Outta Compton, which wasn’t available to see in any theaters in Compton itself. This all comes second of course, to more basic protestations: tickets are expensive, living rooms are more comfortable, and, now, “social distancing,” perhaps the most zeitgeisty verb of our time, makes home viewing straight-up safer. Filmmakers who grew up on the theatrical experience and dream of seeing their movies on the big screen are accused of placing nostalgia over practicality. And if filmmakers point to the fact that major critical papers like the New York Times don’t review VOD-only releases, they’re told to forgo that critical boost and just “audience-build” with their “networks” in ways that are vague or monstrously time consuming. 

But when the coronavirus crisis is over and we hobble out from our apartments to survey the damage this frozen time has wrought, won’t we be ready to find value in the communal ritual of theatrical moviegoing, and in ways that are not just economic but spiritual as well? 

* * *

When Sonejuhi Sinha had her first feature, Stray Dolls, acquired for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn, following a world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, she knew she had reached a rare percentile of success. The journey to get there was long; Sinha started working on the script in 2015 and pounded the pavement to find the financing for the indie drama starring newcomer Geetanjali Thapa. Samuel Goldwyn guaranteed a five-market release with a simultaneous VOD release on April 10th, and plans were underway for what she viewed to be a critical moment in her career. But in the wake of coronavirus, Goldwyn has canceled theatrical plans and will be releasing the film on VOD only, the April 10th date remaining intact. 

The importance of that now-cancelled theatrical boost is clear for Sinha. “Theatrical is a way to experience a film with an audience, to have a conversation about it, to have high-profile critics and cinephiles acknowledge your film in the canon of filmmaking and cinema,” she says. “It feels like you need that critical gaze to catapult you to your second feature.” But simply postponing the release, like some distributors are doing at the moment with their titles, didn’t feel like a viable option for her either; one of her main goals from this debut was to launch an active career in feature and in episodic directing work. She asks, “How do you pitch on a bigger film when your film has to be sent on a secret Vimeo link and it’s not out there for everyone to see?”

David Ehrlich, senior film critic at Indiewire, is no stranger to defending the theatrical experience but acknowledges that “[the coronavirus] is the single biggest crisis to face movie theaters; they’ve stayed open through world wars and assassinations and terrorist attacks.” But he condemns the immediate industry narrative regarding streaming. “Suddenly, you have all these articles from predatory industry pundits about how this is the opportunity streaming has been waiting for,” he says. “And that, to put it politely, is horseshit.” 

Ehrlich points to some basic economic truisms: that theatrical is still the best ad money a streaming release can buy; that studios made billions last year from box-office revenue alone; and that while movie tickets are getting increasingly expensive and more prohibitive for the whole socioeconomic range, “they’re still the cheapest mass entertainment people can get for a night out.” He believes that when theaters are able to get back on their feet and are able to pay their employees and pay their rent, we’ll find that theatrical and streaming can coexist peacefully, as they always have. “This isn’t a zero sum game,” says Ehrlich. “People want to go to the movies. They’re too popular as an activity to become a niche leisure activity.”

The impact the coronavirus will have on awards season is unknown as of this writing, but the implications loom large. As of now, theatrical runs remain a requirement for Academy Award eligibility. For a documentary to get on the coveted Academy shortlist, for example, the movie has to play on DCP for one full week in both LA county and New York City, with at least three showtimes a day and with at least one of those showtimes being an evening show. Similar standards are set for narrative features. “There’s a very different conversation to be had about what’s going to happen if this [shutdown] goes on for another month or if it goes on through September,” says publicity and marketing veteran Julie La’Bassiere, head of special projects at Obscured Pictures. “If it’s the latter, we’ll be in jeopardy of next year’s Oscars not happening at all.” So much of a film’s award campaigning is “hand-to-hand combat,”  she says, involving filmmaker’s face time with voters and live Q&As. This is even more true for foreign filmmakers; there’s no real substitute, in her opinion, for the in-person time filmmakers spend with Academy voters. “The Academy is so centered around the theatrical experience,” La’Bassiere says. “But you also can’t penalize movies this year for not being able to do that.” 

Josh Welsh, President of Film Independent, which produces the popular Spirit Awards, is monitoring the situation closely. Currently, the Spirits require eligible films to have played in theaters or to have world premiered at qualifying festivals (a list which includes Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Telluride, and Toronto, among others). And even though SXSW, Tribeca and New Directors/New Films were either postponed or cancelled this year, Welsh says that their programmed titles will be eligible for Spirit Awards. The Spirits haven’t made changes to the theatrical distribution requirement yet, but Welsh says Film Independent is ready to adapt if necessary. “The Spirit Awards is about celebrating the best independent films of the year, and if the best independent films of the year are circumstantially reaching audiences through digital platforms, we, of course, are not going to penalize them for that.” 

But after discussing the Spirits, Welsh pivots quickly and honestly to broader concerns. “This just feels so unique,” he says. “I think back to 2008, and 9/11, but this feels way more disruptive and scary, frankly.” What feels fragile to him is the ecosystem: the arthouse theaters, the great, smaller distributors, and the non-profits that support independent filmmakers — not just Film Independent but Sundance, IFP, Women in Film and so many others. “None of these organizations have a huge stockpile of money to weather a protracted scenario. And the non-profit sector is very dependent on corporate sponsorship — we’re essentially reliant on corporations’ marketing budgets. Given what’s happening to the economy, it’s crazy to think that they’ll be putting their marketing dollars towards the arts right now. So everyone’s battening down the hatches and trying to get through the storm.” 

Welsh says Film Independent is also  closely monitoring what’s happening with the bill currently in the Senate, particularly what kind of payroll relief the federal government can provide for small businesses. But with this clear-eyed worry comes optimism about the state of storytelling. “Indie voice aren’t going away,” he says.”Unique artistic perspectives might be disrupted, but they will come back. The storyteller will always reemerge.”

* * *

Before Danny Madden premiered his debut feature film Beast Beast at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, he was warned by others to prepare for a post-festival “comedown,” the adrenaline crash that can occur after such an emotionally stimulating event. After a successful premiere with positive reviews (the movie is currently looking for distribution), Madden is now sheltering in his LA apartment, watching the rest of his film’s festival rollout get canceled left and right. “I got an exaggerated version of a come down; the wind’s out of the sails right now,” he admits. Madden knows, of course, that he’s one of the lucky ones: he got to have his premiere. “We slipped under the closing door.”

Jessica Devaney, a prolific documentary producer who runs the company Multitude Films, was feeling particularly excited for the upcoming Tribeca premiere of her feature doc Pray Away, from new director Kristine Stolakis. The movie has a strong topical hook and a heavyweight industry team behind it, including production company Blumhouse and sales rep Cinetic Media. While Devaney is confident the film will have a life, she feels a real sense of loss over not being able to raise Stolakis’s individual profile as a director, something the festival apparatus uniquely allows. “Festivals offer a lot in terms of face time with industry and press,” says Devaney. “The ‘relationship’ side of the doc industry is really important to the life of careers and movies.” 

Almost immediately following SXSW’s cancellation, Twitter lit up with suggestions for how to move film festival experiences online, a strategy chosen by the now in-progress CPH:DOX, for example. But Devaney, whose company focuses on work from underrepresented voices, fears that those communities, which are already vulnerable, will be the ones hit hardest without the festival experience.“It’s great to see people trying to make solutions,” she says. “But what’s really helpful about festivals, particularly [the ones that] reach audiences beyond industry audiences, is that those real-time reactions help puncture and challenge the gatekeepers. So many of the buyers and reviewers are straight, white and often male, so there’s a loss of momentum from audiences who are diverse, who can see nuanced complex stories about underrepresented communities on screen, and who can reflect [those viewpoints] back to buyers and reviewers.” 

Coming from the documentary world, where one literally can’t predict what will happen to the subjects being filmed, has in many ways prepared Devaney for the bumpy road ahead. “Doc filmmakers are constantly pivoting to surprises in real life. There’s a real skill around being nimble to opportunity and crisis. The field is in dramatic flux all the time; the market, the resources, what happens on camera to your subjects you’re following. My orientation is always to look ahead to both worst and best case scenarios and holding out.”

Elegance Bratton, a 40-year-old writer/director based in Harlem is no stranger to adapting to difficult times. After being thrown out of his mother’s house at the age of 16 for being gay, he spent a decade homeless before joining the Marines at the age of 25. While doing his service, he made weapons demonstrations videos and became a troop photographer, a job that inspired him to do more directing and photography work. Currently, Bratton is at an exciting precipice of his career: he had his first Sundance film festival exposure with the 2020 premiere of his short film Buck, and his first feature directorial debut, The Inspection, should soon be fully financed. 

Having come from an unusual background, Bratton directly credits festivals with his ability to build a network. Festivals, he says, allowed him a chance to get the “Ryans, Seans, and Bobs of the industry to pay attention to a black queer filmmaker in a serious way.“ His earlier short Walk for Me played 200 festivals, and everywhere he went he took business cards and made personal introductions. “So many emails would go unanswered if I sent them cold,” he says. “But after I met people at festivals, and had some real face time, all of a sudden we’re on social media following each other, DMing each other, finding out we grew up watching the same cartoons. The familiarity makes it so much easier to navigate. All of a sudden, you’re in the loop.”

I ask him what advice he’d give to filmmakers who are where he used to be but who, at least for the moment, no longer have a festival circuit to make contact. “Social media,” he says immediately. “And if that’s not your strength, I’ll give you the advice my mother always gave me: use what you got to get what you don’t got. Who on your team can you mobilize to get the word out about your film?” He continues, “I’m black and gay: it’s always been coronavirus time for me. 

Says Welsh about festivals migrating online,“We’ll all adapt to this at some level, and there’ll be some benefits to it, and maybe there’ll be some concrete good that will come out in ways we can’t imagine right now. But what you’re losing from in-person festivals is not so much the films themselves but the conversation around the film, the sense of community and the unexpected people you bump into. That’s going to be gone in the short term.”

For Matt Miller and Benjamin Wiessner, two producers behind the LA-based company Vanishing Angle that is behind Beast Beast, festivals have been a significant marker of the calendar year. “Every year since 2012, I’ve made a project in the winter and then used spring to check in on what new projects were coming out,” says Wiessner. “It was my chance to catch up with the film industry before making more work.” He wonders if some of the medium-sized festivals that take place in the fall — New Orleans Film Festival, for example — might absorb the lost premieres and raise their statures at the same time. Vanishing Angle, which just wrapped a feature in upstate New York, is taking everything in two-week periods. “There’s so many questions people won’t know the answers to until there’s a clearer picture,” says Miller. “We’ll be in a holding pattern until April 1st. And then we’ll reassess and decide what to do in the next two weeks.”

As producers who are also constantly developing and packaging new work, Wiessner has identified one small bright spot amidst the chaos. “One of the places we’ve been seeing a lot of movement is actually with attaching cast right now. We have a low-budget feature we were just able to attach someone major. Actors are home right now, and they’re anxious to read.” He laughed and added, “We don’t know when these films will be made at this point, but people have the space right now to focus on what we’re sending them.” 

As for Hersh, he’s been elevating the profile of his SXSW title by doing remote streamed interviews with everyone from NPR to famed playwright Jeremy O’Harris. Hersh and I reflect on the fact that SXSW was unique in that there was breathing room around the cancellation announcement; it happened early enough, when the news didn’t get lost in the overall shut-down shuffle. There’s been time to grieve the loss of the event and to publicize the titles whose premieres were cancelled. Hersh has been struck by the sense of community that’s emerged as well: “I’ve sent and received emails from other SXSW filmmakers whom I’ve never met before. We’re all checking in on each other. It’s been really nice. We’re going to have to work harder to get to know each other, but I think ten years from now we’re going to have a real strong sense of solidarity about this experience.” Hersh added with little irony, “I think the festival should sell SXSW 2020 merch. It’d be a peak curiosity purchase. I bet it would sell really well.”

* * *

When Jax Deluca was appointed Media Arts Director at the National Endowment of Arts in 2016, the world, to put it mildly, felt a little different: Trump wasn’t yet President, and artists weren’t grappling with a global pandemic fallout. Deluca came to the position after running an arts organization; her background is in experimental art forms, and she’s no stranger to being around artists who are forced to work with limited resources. “I wanted to take this position because I was really interested in helping organizations and artists think about their financial sustainability,” she says.  

Deluca oversees hundreds of NEA grantees that span every single congressional district, including Puerto Rico and other US territories, and I ask her what the primary fear she’s hearing from artists right now. “Cash flow,” she says immediately. Deluca says her department at the NEA is working with each grantee to find solutions. “For some it means drawing down [grant] funds, but for others you’re dealing with tricky cashflow issues. When a festival cancels, for example, you have contracts that are paid out while they’re simultaneously having to reimburse tickets.” 

Trying to figure out longer-term resiliency efforts is part of a bigger question regarding artist advocacy that still feels less present on Capitol Hill, especially when it’s waged from the filmmaking sector. As a sector of the economy, the arts in America is unignorably huge, a fact that needs to be leveraged in order to obtain for artists government support and relief. The latest report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that the arts and cultural sector overall contributes 4.5% of the GDP — or $877 billion dollars, a number that’s larger than what’s generated by construction, transportation, and warehousing. And the pace of growth is notable as well: in the past few years the national economy grew at a rate of 2%; in that same period of time, the arts sector grew at twice that rate. “Capturing a unified data set that can help advocate for independent artists and freelancers working in the sector is crucial,” Deluca says, “because right now, when we look at these relief funds for artists, a lot of the artists aren’t eligible.”

The entertainment industry is also the most unionized industry in the county, and unions have a role to play in advocacy and protection as well. Pellegrino, the aforementioned props department member whose recent credits include The Irishman and Joker, has been an IATSE member (Local 52) for four years. The union has been active in asking members to write letters to Congress so that they’re included in the relief bill, and Pellegrino feels a strong sense of support and active participation from IATSE’s leadership. 

On set of Tik, Tik…Boom!, Pellegrino noticed changes right away as information about the virus grew. “Our producers and UPM were awesome and acted responsibly,” she says. Handwashing stations were set up everywhere on set early on, and information started to appear on each day’s call sheet about the latest known information on the virus. Craft services began individually wrapping everything to help manage the potential spread, and Pellegrino, whose job in props deals with so much shared physical contact with objects, began systemically wiping down director chairs and everything else handled by cast or crew. By early March of course, the shoot was put on hold, and Pellegrino awaits with the rest of her colleagues word about returning to work. “When the mood shifted in a serious way, we all felt it, crew members across different productions. Crew members on different jobs were keeping track of who was being shut down, and what they were hearing,” she remembers. 

But despite all the growing warnings, Pellegrino still reflects on how intense it all felt. “When I’m shooting, I’m really in my own world; if I’m prepping a ‘90s-set movie, my mind is consumed with that time period while I’m working. I can forget about the outside world for a 12-hour work day.  So when you go home and see that Tom Hanks has this virus, all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, shit.’” 

Pellegrino also added something wise that, in my view, has been under-discussed: “It’s important to set a precedent for disruptive events like this in general; with climate change, what have you – this kind of disruption will come again. We have to understand now how to handle it.”

* * *

I’ve always looked at the restaurant industry as a sort of kindred spirit to the filmmaking world. Both industries are high-risk, high-reward equity investments; both are glamour-facing and responsible for some impractical dreams; both require a high amount of physical labor and obsessive organizational protocol; both attract a type of pirate energy to their crews. So I have experienced a type of queasy heartache right now watching restaurants of all shapes and sizes and success levels flounder and beg for money online. It feels at times that my film brethren are still in a delayed-denial phase about what going back to work will look like, as though we are willfully forgetting the amount of physical contact our work requires: the makeup artists’ needed physicality with actors; the cramped, shoulder-to-shoulder moments on wonky location sets; the full 15-pass vans transporting crew home at the end of a long shoot day. When the shuttering of restaurants started to become a reality, New York Magazine’s Grub Street posted an article addressing the lack of government assistance. “The restaurant industry is begging for help. Is anyone even listening?”, read the instagrammed pull quote. One of the most-liked comments in the responses grated me. “Of course we all care but every industry and business is in trouble. The problem is that we are all scared and losing money. I adore my local restaurants but will I even have money to go out after this? It might sound selfish but it’s hard to save someone when you’re drowning.”

I couldn’t help but imagine someone saying the exact same thing about movies. A few days later, Governor Andrew Cuomo would stop by on The Daily, the popular New York Times podcast, and flatly lay out the state of things in his now characteristic grim candor. “This is not life as usual,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Accept it and realize it and deal with it.” When host Michael Barbaro pressed him for a more humane reaction to the economic fallout — “a friend of mine just had to lay off 90 of his employees at his restaurant, and is crying,” Barbaro said pointedly — Cuomo responded with some incredulity. “We’re alive, first of all. And if we are alive, we’ll figure out the rest.” 

Near the end of my conversation with Ehrlich, he paused and said, “I’m worried that what I’ll say now won’t age well when we’re all wearing a hockey mask and worrying about bigger things.” When he said that, I couldn’t help but flashback to election night of 2016. I was following the Hillary Clinton campaign that day, filming with a small team what was supposed to be a victory-tinged commissioned piece on female leadership. While we waited with hordes of journalists and broadcasters at the glass-ceilinged Javitts Center, now turned into an emergency hospital for Covid-19 victims, I listened in as a staffer worried about not having a change of shoes for an afterparty. Around the corner, two members of the cleaning crew expressed concern about the amount of balloons and confetti they’d be needing to sweep. In a moment of down time, I asked a fairly high-up staffer if she wished anything had gone differently on Hillary’s campaign. After a long pause she said, “I wish Oprah had endorsed us sooner.” Ehrlich was right: some worries don’t age well. 

Later that day, I catch up via phone with filmmaker Terence Nance, and he swiftly encapsulates what this flurry of grief and anxiety and confusion boils down to: “We’re all staggering through the same central freakout: am I going to be broke? Am I going to die? I think everyone is having that reckoning right now from different places of privilege.” I tell him what’s been dominating my mind the past few days: that in times of crisis we return to what we know. And what the industry has known for so long is not inclusivity, or progressiveness or boldness. What we know —and what I’d argue we still take comfort in — is white supremacy and patriarchy and keeping the rich and powerful propped up. For many Asian-Americans, the whiplash of having the mostly-white Academy acknowledging Parasite as the actual best movie of the year, followed by the highest targeted hate crimes against Asian-Americans just about a month later, is severe. It feels like the conversation around black and brown value, female directors, LGBT representation and so much more was just starting to hit some meaningful stride. If the world’s most celebrated white male filmmakers aren’t able to work, where does that leave the rest of us?

Says Nance, “I think that there’s a pessimism that runs through our experience as any sort of minority or oppressed people. We’re often in a trauma response, and it’s amplified right now. There’s a mourning of resources, an increased sense of tribalism. You can’t help think they’re not going to want my stuff — that the powers that be will go back to what they know. But I don’t know if we should necessarily engage with that pessimism. Because how we’ve always sustained ourselves in trauma response is investing in our own wealth, our own spiritual and material wealth, our own institutions. I think that that is available to us as it always has been. And I think it’s maybe a useable way to redirect that energy and fear for us as a community.”

On Friday, March 20th, an unseasonably humid day in New York, Netflix announced a $100 million dollar relief fund for industry workers, with $15 million targeting third-party organizations and film non-profits. This is a helpful first step, especially from a company whose stock is literally rising during this crisis. The day before that, Alamo Drafthouse announced a commitment to help furloughed cinema theater workers, while simultaneously launching a fundraiser online.

A strong prescience to what’s happening now can be found in the 2018 novel Severance, about a global virus that wipes out modern civilization, save for a small group of people who must learn to navigate their new circumstance without being pulled too deeply into nostalgia. The heroine, in early pages, while gathered with her surviving humans, describes a moment around a bonfire:

Making plans heartened us, and as we stayed up late, drinking, we theorized grandly. What is the internet but collective memory? Anything had been done before we could do better. We could move on from this. We could be better.

I think we can do better. But it’s going to be on all of us to fight. 

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