A TALE OF OUR TIMES...
In mid April of 2020 I spoke with a representative of the Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Department for his take on how the pandemic had upended Hollywood thus far. Although he was ambiguous in positing any definitive directive the industry might employ moving forward, he did cryptically declare, "I can tell you that the longer this whole thing goes on, the weirder it is going to get." Exactly two weeks later, AMC theater corporation declared war on Universal Pictures.
In a breakdown of where Hollywood now stands (both domestically and internationally), we have decided to document the Summer of 2020, and then revisit the industry after coming full circle, to assess how it has responded to a crisis unlike any in the hundred and twenty five year history of cinema.
ARTICLE 1 (IN A SERIES OF 4) -- THE NEW PRODUCTION PARADIGM
Let me ask you a question: Say you are an investor prepared to advance hundreds of thousands of dollars of your own capital into a film production that could inevitably be shut down by the illness of single member stricken with COVID-19. Do you take the risk of tying up your money in a risky arts gamble or invest it in PPE (personal protective equipment)? If we can't secure movie sets, how will Hollywood ever return to normal? And how might safety protocols or technological advancements help to quell investors' nerves?
Major studios and boutique production companies are now peeking into their crystal balls, trying to visualize what being "on set" will truly look like in the coming months (or years, for that matter). In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Nicki Ledermann, (professional makeup artist/Joker) said that, "the only way to do that is for every union to work out what is needed to keep their specific membership safe." In fact, a Future Practices Committee has already been established by the American Society of Cinematographers just for that purpose. They intend to facilitate the conception of a set of universal guidelines designed to aid not only their constituents, but those of the DGA, the PGA, the SAG, industry vendors, and the unionized crews that make up the workforce we know collectively as "Hollywood". Such on set protocols that reinvent established workflows are being developed with the help and guidance of health care professionals. These new safety and security practices would force stricter hygienic conditions and mobility limitations in order to protect productions from possible liability. But what exactly might all this look like?
For a glimpse, we turned to German TV producer, Guido Reinhardt. During the rise of the pandemic, his crews were in full operation mode while practicing proper social distancing techniques as designated by their regional jurisdiction, which happens to utilize an 80-point COViD-19 Guidebook, that included such directives as "no on-air physical contact, like hugging or kissing."
In a recent interview Reinhardt went into great detail to explain what a typical shoot day now looks like with the new heightened safety measures in place. He began by describing the discriminating level of security that greets each entrant at the door to the soundstage, where everyone is subject to temperature checks and then required to wash their hands before starting the work day. Reinhardt said his actors all do their own makeup (with guidance via video chat from makeup professionals), and that all props or catering are individually wrapped to help stop the spread of infection. He also mentioned that his entire cast practices social distancing on set, with the use of what he calls a "Corona Stick." All actors are measured to ensure each is standing roughly 5 feet apart and only allowing three actors in front of the camera at any one time. His DPs are also implementing "visual tricks, shooting long focal lengths, or over the shoulder, to give the impression the actors are closer together than they actually are." In order to protect his crew, Reinhardt, has 6.5-foot-square plexiglass shields placed between his DPs and sound technicians. Of course, masks are worn at all times, save for the actors on screen. And even with all of these measures in place, production has only added one full day to its normal five day work week per filmed episode. His production budgets are taking a hit, but not a significant one.
In most countries, public spaces such as parks, gardens or cemeteries remain off-limits, and areas where you can gain access are limited to small crews of no more than 50, all of whom are required to travel via private charter to and from set locations. Most countries also require a local health liaison to be on set at all times, monitoring the actions of the crew with strict safety oversights.
Such oversights seem daunting, time consuming and cost prohibitive. How can smaller operations afford, for example, daily testing which has been proposed by some unions for the protection of their members. Such a requirement may only be available to large studio conglomerates that can finances such medical directives. Or perhaps it's time to invest in adaptive technologies that could help restart the major studios. Recent leaps in virtual technology could help studios hurdle the crisis in new and imaginative ways.
A perfect example of innovative application was recently harnessed by Jon Favreau (if you don’t know who this guy is, then you probably don’t watch movies much). His production company employed real-time in-camera VFX next-generation filmmaking in his latest production of The Mandalorian streaming series for Disney+. This video wall technology (for short) has significantly improved on set filming capabilities, allowing for smaller, mid-budget projects to avoid the hardships and expense of on location shooting. Developing this technology on a much larger soundstage-size-scale could certainly eliminate the need for world travel during a pandemic.
Another such innovator is Google's own Paul Debevec, a senior staff engineer at Google VR. His team is developing a 360-degree stage within which actors perform separately and are composited in post, allowing for the ultimate social distancing experiment. He recently declared that this new development is a, "director's dream. You just focus on getting the performance right and worry about where the camera goes and how to light it later. It's like having the whole power of the Star Trek Holodeck at your disposal for the purpose of making your movie." Debevec added "We have the ability to record actors at different times and then light them the same way, put them in the positions relative to each other in 3D and create the shot that way," he says. "You could even simulate the shadows that one actor would cast on the other." Game-changing, to say the least. But until the rental or even purchase of such studio equipment is reasonable enough for boutique production companies to charter or own, such technology will only continue to benefit the majors.
Even with such significant advancements either in play or on the horizon, the human proximity for film set crews is still a hurdle that will need to be resolved. "This will be a formidable task," Jordan Horowitz (Producer, La La Land) recently told THR. "Every film set I’ve ever been on has been a breeding ground for collective sickness, in one form or another." And this is exactly what makes investors and producers nervous. The financial impact could be far reaching if strict precautions aren't adopted. And a bigger question still looms. How will insurance companies hold studios responsible?
Janicza Bravo (Director and co-writer/Zola), believes that all productions for the foreseeable future will no doubt have to amend budgets for the consideration of on site medical staff. And there are other financial considerations that must be addressed, too. Regions concerned about the potential risk of contamination may require a line item implementing the power to shut down productions if a crew induced outbreak occurs. There always exists the possibility of disrupted schedules so long as COViD-19 remains a factor. And as the old Hollywood adage goes, "time costs money."
Then again, effective testing and contact-tracing efforts could also put the major studios back in the game while putting the financial burden back in the laps of the insurance companies. But such efforts require the necessary equipment and trained personnel. Sadly, the medical industry in our country doesn’t even seem capable of maintaining these production chains for their own staff. It is unlikely Hollywood will fair much better, or with any assurance of consistency, leading into the near future.
This new Hollywood paradigm, however it may unfold, seems likely to benefit smaller, lower budget independent/documentary productions that employ local talent and smaller crews, for the time being. The ability to work quickly in this new normal will be the lifeline extended to such smaller operations and provide a significant advantage in their ability to avoid studio-based furloughs and shutdowns due to ongoing outbreaks. Collective quarantines prior to shooting, staggering crew work hours, strict video-conferencing-only communication in the pre-production phases are all proposals that larger productions may be required to adopt, extending production schedules that are already years in the making. It goes without saying that the more creative you can be, the more likely you are to survive this crisis.
Ron Howard is leading the pack. Just before the crisis hit the states, Mr. Howard was in production on a documentary focused on World Central Kitchen, run by chef José Andrés. The organization is a nonprofit that distributes prepared foods to those suffering from natural disasters. With no way to continue production, Howard asked the essential workers delivering the food to record footage using their cell phones. He is now at home in Connecticut sifting thorough the dailies as he continues the project in post production.
Other documentary innovators, such as the producers of The Day Sports Stood Still, or the Rudy Valdez produced documentary on the life of Carlos Santana are conducting online video conferencing interviews to acquire necessary talking-head footage, all the while practicing social distancing to the fullest.
Some US based filmmakers, in a reflection of what we are seeing within the international film community, are full speed ahead. Tyler Perry's Atlanta-based studio will be in full swing starting in July, where he intends to quarantine his cast and crew for the duration of filming of the BET produced, The Oval and Sistas. Executive producer Michelle Sneed has said that every precaution will be implemented to contain the safety of the staff. Perry has even offered his private jet to ferry talent and work crews to and from Atlanta.
In a more contemplative approach, other organizations have come together (including Doc Society, Field of Vision, and the Sundance Institute, to name a few) to create a living online document for filmmakers that posits the more ethical implications of working in this crisis, which are typically left out of the media conversation. In fact, the new guide begins by forcing filmmakers to ask themselves, "Is there a sufficient public interest to justify my filming now?" The guide goes on to ask if the industry should consider themselves morally responsible for turning "every location on earth into a High Risk Location."
"And, having assessed the risk (and safety measures), is the risk to the film team and others potentially affected by the project (subjects, fixers, vulnerable communities, my family and work colleagues) proportionate to the public interest? If not, the answer is a flat no, and if in doubt, err on the side of caution."
For the rest of the Hollywood elite, all eyes are on the largest film production company in the world, China's Hengdian World Studios, which has adopted their own return-to-work policies and which already has various productions underway. This swift trailblazing experiment might become an ominous reminder of how frail our industry ecosystems truly are. Then again, it may just be the light at the end of the tunnel, a pathway moving forward for all to follow. It will certainly bring things full circle, if nothing else. Because it goes without saying that the government-funded film companies of China are probably well on their way in the creation of the blockbuster of all blockbusters; a COViD tall tale with China as the world's ultimate savior. From unleashing the menace to creating the vaccine that eradicates its presence, China's narrative will need to be one of hope… for us all.
*Article 2 in our series of 3 will focus on the state of the theater industry and the rise of the drive in movie theater.