The Day After Tomorrow
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. After almost 100 years, the situation is the same: productions are stopped, postponed, or cancelled, and cinemas closed, until further notice.
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 rise of streaming over the last decade already signaled the eventual downfall of movie theaters. George Lucas or Steven Spielberg predicted that streaming would take over the industry back in 2013. It doesn’t hurt that Netflix, the top dog in the world of streaming, has provided some of the most high-profile directors in the world with unprecedented budgets and immense creative control, resulting in films like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. The former film did get a theatrical release, but the complex de-aging technology that partly defined it was only made possible by the budget Netflix afforded it. Streaming services like Netflix were therefore already setting their sights on toppling the nation’s largest theater chains. And then 2020 happened.
Nobody could have predicted that a global pandemic would come along and suddenly accelerate cinema’s otherwise slow decline. Cinemas have been adjusting to the evolving media landscape for years now, placing stronger emphasis on concession sales and proliferating the number of available auditoriums for sure-fire box office hits. The theater experience is already vastly different now from what it had been for so long, but the COVID-19 pandemic may just be the final nail in the theaters’ coffins. Whereas certain industries have been able to adapt to these unique circumstances, theater chains have struggled, and for legitimate reasons. Their success relies heavily on large numbers of people gathering in enclosed spaces. They need customers to purchase food and drinks — and many other alternate things.
And when they 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 and Disney has delayed the release of “Black Widow” and Pixar’s title “Soul” is available on Disney+
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.
Cinema is facing an existential threat, one that likely can only be combated through transformative change at the federal level, and no one director can be held responsible for such a development. The same can even be said for some of the key figures involved in the controversial decisions made in the big studios. While their announcement could certainly be deemed near-sighted and irresponsible, it is merely reflective of broader developments within not just the entertainment industry, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.