We knew it was going to be bad once the cinemas shut. Cinemas are part of the fabric of daily life. To see them shuttered was a stark indication that COVID had taken us into uncharted territory. When we first went into lockdown, a friend sought my counsel. He wasn’t worried about his job, or his health. “What’s going to happen with movies?” he asks. “Are we going to run out? Will there be some kind of weird gap next year where nothing comes out?”
While anyone who says that they know what the long-term effects of COVID will mean for the film industry is kidding themselves—any forecasts are of course hostage to the vicissitudes of the virus—I assured him that it seems unlikely that the film industry will grind to a halt. It hasn’t yet. While there have been major disruptions to production and theatrical exhibition, any work that could be done from isolation has continued: financing, casting, design work, and most obviously, writing. But even if social distancing persists, our want for movies will outweigh our want to protect the people who make them, and at any rate those folks will think of creative ways of protecting themselves. Maybe the film industry will become like the porn industry: a cloistered community where everyone is tested regularly and production shuts down immediately and contact tracing begins as soon as there’s an infection?
“Productions may not be able to hire 150 background actors to stand in a field and pretend to be zombies, as they did in pre-pandemic days, but crews will be able to sort out creative ways to achieve the storytelling elements they need for a particular project."
Failing that, new technologies will be improvised to allow filmmakers to keep doing what they do. Atlanta’s Blackhall Studios, which brought us such edifying works as Venom, Step Up: High Water and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, has invested in an advanced air filtration system. Virus particles will apparently be sucked into the air-con where charged ions will stick to the particles, making them too big to get through a filter and recirculate. I’m convinced! Problem solved! Back to work, everyone! Frank Patterson, the CEO of the Pinewood Atlanta Studios where many Marvel and Disney+ productions shoot, expects to be shooting again by late in the northern hemisphere summer. His vision of post-COVID film production is very much in keeping with the corner of the film industry he occupies. He sees the social distancing requirements of COVID as an eminently solvable problem: just lean even more heavily into CGI. “Productions may not be able to hire 150 background actors to stand in a field and pretend to be zombies, as they did in pre-pandemic days, but crews will be able to sort out creative ways to achieve the storytelling elements they need for a particular project,” he says. “There won’t be any shot that we can’t get, it’s just how we get it that’s going to change.”
While creative uses of CGI will certainly be a part of workarounds for filmmaking under COVID, there are a couple of problems with this vision for the future. First of all, it imagines a very particular kind of spectacular, blockbuster, effects-based filmmaking that is irrelevant to most of filmmaking, which relies instead on capturing moments of intimate interaction between performers. As screenwriter Sebastian Andrae states in an article about the German film industry’s response to COVID: “Our work is always about portraying human interactions. Without proximity it doesn’t work.” Second of all, even in the kind of filmmaking Patterson is talking about, these moments of intimacy exist, or at least they should; they are crucial for storytelling and tend to come off very badly indeed when computer-generated.
"Fisher’s posthumous performance looks like it is visiting us from an entirely different movie that never existed. I wish I’d seen that one."
Just think of all of the mistreatment of images of Carrie Fisher in recent Star Wars movies. First there was the stratospheric hype around a young Princess Leia appearing—through the movie-magic of CGI—at the end of the spin-off prequel Rogue One. With all of the money and will in the world, the best they could conjure was an uncanny digital meat-puppet. Then, in the truly mind-numbingly awful instalment of the Skywalker saga, The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams and Co. were faced with an added challenge: this time Fisher was not only several decades older than she was in 1977, but also dead. Not to worry, we were told; Fisher had already shot a good deal of footage and her character would play a pivotal part in the finished film. Anyone who has had the profound misfortune to see that film will know that the integration of that footage is a hyper-conspicuous disaster. Fisher’s Leia’s “conversation” with Daisy Ridley’s Rey looks exactly like what it is: two actors shot months apart in different locations and lighting-states, failing to connect with one another. The result is, sadly, laughable. Fisher’s posthumous performance looks like it is visiting us from an entirely different movie that never existed. I wish I’d seen that one.
Another more promising direction for post-COVID filmmaking is espoused by academic and script consultant Linda Seger. She envisages a boom in “intimate dramas” and “claustrophobic horror movies”; scripts that creatively work around social distancing restrictions. Remember that movie where Ryan Reynolds was buried alive (satisfying my deepest, darkest film critic’s desire)? More of that sort of thing. Seger also suggests shooting scenes in an order that minimises casts’ and crews’ exposure, and even casting actors who are part of the same family, or hold other close relationships. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were hospitalised with COVID while shooting Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis in Australia. Given that we managed not to kill The World’s Nicest Man and his Equally Nice Wife, maybe they’ll head back Down Under and shoot a gritty, taut thriller where they play serial killers in a house or something? Dan Mintz, CEO of media conglomerate DMG Entertainment, echoes Seger in envisaging a post-COVID move away from the blockbuster in favour of scrappy independent films featuring intimate stories shot by small crews. To my mind this prognostication carries water, coming as it does from the man in charge of a company whose unblemished track record of commerciality includes distributing Twilight in Chinese cinemas and producing Iron Man 3.
While picking suitable material, changing working methods, and technological advancements might allow production to continue more or less unaltered, the changes to film distribution and exhibition that have characterised the lockdown period are likely to persist. In the same way that we’re probably not going back to hot-desking in crowded offices now that our managers can see that we’re safer and—crucially for them—more productive working from home, this experience will likely alter how and where we consume films. Like working from home, COVID has accelerated a trend that was already well underway. We already knew that there was no good reason we had to go to a theatre to see a new movie, just as we knew that there was no good reason to have to go to the office to work, but it took the COVID crisis to prove it.
I don’t wish to minimise the profound impact that COVID has had on the film industry. It has been particularly hard hit, and the economic and human losses across production, distribution and exhibition are real and deeply saddening. However, it’s important to distinguish between The Film Industry and The Institution of the Cinema. The Film Industry is in trouble right now, as so many industries are, but The Institution of the Cinema looks healthier than it has for some time. The Institution of the Cinema doesn’t stop when the production of new blockbuster movies does. For this reason it was hard for me to relate to my friend’s concerns about what would become of films. This is the difference between a film critic’s and a film consumer’s orientation to cinema.
"If we consider the entire back catalogue of 125 years worth of movies, and all of the watching, thinking, talking and writing about them that we do, then cinema looks more like a remedy for the COVID crisis than it does a victim of it."
I’m reminded of something that Australia’s most famous film critic, David Stratton, once told me. Stratton is Australia’s equivalent of Roger Ebert. He too had a long-running weekly film review television show, though Stratton’s co-star Margaret Pomeranz knew much more about films and had snazzier earrings than Ebert’s co-star Gene Siskel. Stratton reviewed the new releases every week for the better part of 30 years, and he told me that it was a tough job because 70 percent of films that get released aren’t worth watching. Ten years ago, when I was but a callow youth, that seemed like a shocking revelation, or at least shockingly cynical of Stratton to say. Now I’ve seen enough to know that this is a fair assessment, maybe even a generous one. Remember this when we’re assessing the loss caused by the disruption to the film industry: most films in new release are not worth your time.
But if we consider the entire back catalogue of 125 years worth of movies, and all of the watching, thinking, talking and writing about them that we do, then cinema looks more like a remedy for the COVID crisis than it does a victim of it. COVID has given me the opportunity to fall back in love with cinema; working from home I’ve gone from too tired and busy to watch many films anymore to watching at least one film a day. At my most isolated, films were what I had instead of conversation and intimacy. As restrictions eased, I had hours free to stay home watching movies and shows with those closest to me. This was an important way of re-establishing our bonds.
"How can cinema be in trouble in a world where you could be watching one of the greatest comedies ever made, right now, streaming on demand?"
The other night my partner and I watched Preston Sturges’s sparkling 1941 screwball comedy The Lady Eve. Barbara Stanwyck plays a shrewd conwoman seducing derpy Henry Fonda, reptile enthusiast (Are Snakes Necessary?) and heir to an ale fortune (Pike’s Pale: The Ale that Won for Yale, ra ra ra…). Stanwyck has managed to finagle a nervous Fonda into her room and plant him on the edge of the divan, which he promptly slides off, thudding to the floor. He remains there for the rest of the scene. Unphased, the seated Stanwyck presses her face against his, wraps her sensuous claws around his shoulders, and speaks of her ideal type of husband:
“I guess we all have one”
“What’s yours like?”
“He’s a little short guy with lots of money.”
“What does it matter if he’s rich?”
If you watch this scene on YouTube (and you should), you might wince at how disrespectful Stanwyck and Fonda are of 2020’s social distancing norms. It is precisely this kind of intimacy that cinema thrives upon. While we can’t shoot scenes like this at the moment, we’re fortunate to have much of the back catalogue of 125 years of cinematic intimacy at our fingertips. How can cinema be in trouble in a world where you could be watching one of the greatest comedies ever made, right now, streaming on demand?
"These were very social stories. They were about people who work together, failing and triumphing, loving and hating each other. At its best, this is what cinema can capture and crystallise, and this is what we need right now more than ever."
For all the devastation that this pandemic has caused, the great silver lining has been the way that it has cut through the fragmentation and tribalisation of contemporary life. In an alienating postmodern world it had seemed that there was no longer such a thing as shared experience. Tragic though it is, the virus has proved that this isn’t so; we are all still in this together. Just in time to remind us, Netflix released two landmark docuseries at the height of global lockdown: Tiger King and The Last Dance (Netflix: doing just enough to warrant your continuing subscription since 2012). These shows gave us distraction and relief from COVID, and while we were unable to gather around actual water coolers, the memes on social media and enraptured Facetime calls with friends and family provided a digital equivalent. Did Carol Baskin kill her husband, or just maim him and leave the rest to the tigers? Why do so many comely young women want to be in portly Bhagavan’s stripy harem? Will Joe Exotic’s imprisonment stand in the way of him being chosen as Trump’s running mate in 2020? Are all NBA championship teams this riddled with dramatic family tragedies? Has any other professional athlete in history ever looked quite so much like a science teacher as John Stockton? Will anyone ever understand me the way Phil Jackson understands Dennis Rodman?
These were very social stories. They were about people who work together, failing and triumphing, loving and hating each other. At its best, this is what cinema can capture and crystallise, and this is what we need right now more than ever. Both as subject matter and productions these docuseries relied on intimacy. They remind us that, moving forward, we don’t need just any moving images; storytelling by any means necessary. We need ones with actual people in them, sharing space, getting up in each other’s shit, reminding us what it means to be human.