Is Hollywood in danger? Maybe
History repeats itself, even when related to the so-called seventh art – cinema.
In October 1918, the rising silent film industry was forced to stop its reels because of the Spanish flu. Today, after less than 100 years later, the situation is the same: productions are stopped, postponed, or cancelled, and cinemas closed, until a later dated.
As for all the other sectors forced to stop, it is complicated to estimate or make an accurate prediction about the coming year, but it is doubtless that even film studios will struggle to resist the effect of Coronavirus.
Before the pandemic outbreak, Hollywood was already in the midst of a deep transformation. In recent years, the Netflix revolution has subverted the modality of enjoyment of movies, giving both the major studios and the small productions a hard time; every aspect of the film industry – from the diversity of its narrators to Oscar rules – was already at issue.
Previously, the point was to find new compromises in a sector still very sceptical towards streaming. Now, however, the problematic issues have reached a more practical level and pose new questions: what films can be awarded if none is released in the cinemas? Will actors need to play with face masks or at a distance? Will people return to cinemas or will they indulge in domestic screenings?
There are no certain answers so far. The situation is still in the making, but the various governments’ restrictions have already determined two major problems that will likely drag on until next year. Indeed, there is the impossibility of distributing ready contents and of creating new ones at the bottom of the whole chain.
Film distributors had to postpone the release of productions that had been planned for months, maybe after the launch of the promotional process.
This means to lose investments of several million euros for the most important productions, for the minor ones it can result in the fact that their films will not be released in the pictures.
When cinemas reopen, there will be several films “queuing” and programmes won’t be able to include them all. In this way, overlaps that are dangerous for everyone’s takings can be avoided. It is still difficult to predict to what extent cinemas will repopulate. If auteur cinema can (hardly) survive with a few filmgoers, mainstream cinema cannot. Aspirant blockbusters need hundreds of thousands of dollars only to balance the first investments, and it could be impossible to reach break-even in the post-pandemic, in front of an audience decimated by social distancing and fear. Someone emphasises the possibility of streaming, maybe choosing the path of the on-demand with a fee for each film, but it would still be difficult to make ends meet. In addition, monthly prices of Netflix & Co. subscriptions are only slightly higher than a virtual ticket, and thus more affordable for most non-aficionados. In the meanwhile, major studios are playing for time: Universal has postponed Vin Diesel’s "Fast & Furious 9" to April 2021, Warner Bros. has not announced a new date for Christopher Nolan’s "Tenet" yet (currently to be released on the 17th July), and Disney has delayed the release of "Black Widow" and of Pixar’s title "Soul".
Even the most important festivals, crucial for film producers and for those searching for a distributor, are frozen, postponed or cancelled. Cannes Festival has been the first to surrender and to decide to take a year off; Venice Film Festival, instead, seems to resist, but the ultimate decision rests with the pandemic. Oscars are likely going to take place, but they will be “forced” to make an exception to the rules and to include films that were never released in cinemas, excluded from the competition until the last edition.
In the meantime, the production of new contents is frozen. The ban has been imposed at various levels: not only are sets prohibited, but also the dubbing studios have faced some problems, and even the editors and post producers had to stop. To imagine the future of film, the Directors Guild of America (the most important corporation of US cinema and television directors) has formed a task force led by Steven Soderbergh, the director of the pandemic-themed film “Contagion”. The concern linked to “how” it will be possible to work again is deep and there are no definite protocols, therefore it is pivotal to map the major issues in order to invent new solutions.
The pressing regulations as regards spaces and contacts could be a major obstacle for settings in the whole world, generally characterised by the presence of several people close to each other. A film, indeed, is not produced by actors and directors only; rather, it involves an invisible microcosm of different roles and people who must necessarily be present during filming. Technicians, directors of photography, lighting cameramen, sound mixers, scenographers, make-up artists, hairdressers, costumers, and various essential assistants, all working together with the same props in every department. In an office, employers use their own computer and workspace, which they can sanitise at the end of the day, but it would be impossible to do the same on a set between one action and the other, for every prop. Gloves and personal tools will be essential for all the workers on the set, and make-up artists and costumers should be granted different brushes for every actor. Ready-made food, non-simultaneous lunch breaks, the adoption of doors without knobs, the renting of entire hotels to create safe zones for all the professionals during filming, and the abandonment of live coral scenes – replaced by special effects – are among the measures under consideration.
In this regard, a great lesson could come from the adult film industry. Since it is impossible to use face masks or other individual protection devices during filming, the idea is to introduce compulsory tests for the whole category, as in the pornographic industry. In the 80s and 90s, indeed, the PASS (Performer Availability Scheduling Services) system was created to protect actors from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The protocol, still in force, establishes that actors should be tested for sexually transmitted diseases every 14 days; results are then inserted in a database, which can be openly accessed by producers and directors.
Coronavirus has a different modality of transmission, but the idea of testing actors daily is not entirely wrong. In the same way as tests have safeguarded the actors’ health in the porno world, this could be the only solution for cinema to film every kind of scenes safely in the near future, or until the discovery of a vaccine that can restore everyone’s normality, Hollywood’s included.