From the Filmmaker Newsletter: When Do We All Go Back to Work?
Each Friday, Filmmaker sends out a free newsletter containing an original Editor’s Letter as well as news of film openings, events, etc. (the latter mostly streaming and online, these days). The Editor’s Letters usually aren’t posted online, but here’s the April 17 edition, which links to a Deadline piece and considers the question everyone in film production is asking at the moment. If you’d like to receive the Filmmaker newsletter, you can subscribe for free here. — SM
When do we all go back to work?
While provisional answers to this question are suggested every day in the newspapers and in government press briefings, industry-specific conversations play out in email exchanges, Zoom conference calls and text message threads. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been canvassing producer friends and colleagues about what they’re doing and what they’re hearing. Of course, testing — virus and antibody — as well as declining, low-level transmission rates in the shoot location will be givens before any production will start. Assuming that, however, their answers are all over the place. Studio feature production may not be starting for a year, some say. But some television may go in the Fall. There are producers who think they will be shooting their indies mid-summer. Others, are more confident of lensing in October. There’s one particular producer, I’ve heard, who plans a virtual prep in July for an August shoot — an indie in one main location with a tiny cast. He really wants to make Sundance.
All of these conversations are put in stark relief by the article of the moment: Nellie Andreeva and Mike Fleming’s Deadline piece, “Reopening Hollywood,” which gathers a number of mostly anonymous producers and studio execs to weigh in on what film production will look like post-Coronavirus. Or, rather, post-“shelter in place” but pre-“end of the pandemic,” a resolution that won’t occur until an effective vaccine is created some 18 months hence, if then. The article discusses what safety measures will need to be taken during this interregnum in order to protect cast and crew as well as satisfy the unions who advocate for their safety.
I tweeted a link out to the piece, which got retweeted and commented upon many times, with readers adding their thoughts about the impact of these changes department by department. Hair and makeup, for example. The low-budget model of key hair, key makeup and day-playing additionals will now go by the wayside as name cast will insist on their own personal H/MU teams — people who touch only them. Art departments will no longer share tools. Craft-service will change to everything being single-serve and sealed. Holding areas will need to be bigger to allow for social distancing. Meal areas too. Temperature checks will start the day — but what do you do when your DP tests at 99.9? Pushing through while feeling under the weather won’t be an option. Look for shooting schedules to lengthen to compensate for more downtime. Large crowd scenes will obviously be written out of scripts, or else accomplished through green screen and digital means. And what about insurance? The Deadline article states that insurers are likely to exclude COVID-19, centering their commentary on employees who will sign indemnification waivers protecting the production if they get sick. But what about the effects of COVID-19 on a shoot — cast and crew dropping out, or a location unable to be entered because of an ill location owner, for example. Cover sets and alternate scenes on the call sheet won’t be just due to weather. And what about cast? Will name actors want to squeeze in an indie between better-paid studio and episodic shoots if there’s a risk of them getting sick?
In short, the level of uncertainty and risk and additional cost added to film productions will be significant when we are allowed to go back up while social distancing rules are still in effect. Studios will have the systems to fully plan for these eventualities and the budgets to allow for necessary schedule lengthening and duplicative resources. But independents? I’ve seen commentary that microbudget filmmaking— which Mike Ryan wrote about in a perhaps prescient piece — could emerge again as a model as small teams, all tested, could gather in locked-down locations to make films.
But the Deadline article ends on an even more provocative note — one that’s about the creative impact of COVID-19 on filmmaking. “In addition to adjusting scripts to avoid location shoots, large crowds and action scenes, there are questions whether it will be appropriate for shows to reflect the life we had before the pandemic hit,” Andreeva and Fleming write. “With social distancing expected to be a part of our lives for months and even years, studio executives and creators are wondering whether it would it be jarring to depict characters having a family dinner, for example, which is a staple in each Blue Bloods episode, or go to a crowded restaurant.”
Indeed, if mask-wearing and social distancing become some part of our daily lives for the next two years, will we be making automatically period films if we exclude them? Or films set in the future? (I need to go back and watch Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, whose contemporary resonance Tash Aw wrote about this week at the Paris Review.) Or will we, as author Charles Yu suggests, come to more radical realizations and change our art accordingly. “The world isn’t for us; we are part of it,” he writes. “We’re not the protagonists of this movie; there is no movie.”
No answers this week, certainly, but I’m interested in your thoughts on how the pandemic will impact film production in the months ahead. You can always email me at scott AT filmmaker magazine.com. If you have comments you’re fine with having published, please let me know, and I hope you are all well and safe.