Coronavirus has been devastating for film. Reports suggest the pandemic may cost the industry more than £16 billion ($20 billion), with the release of dozens of high-profile films pushed back and work delayed on countless others. Some of the other impact is only just beginning to be seen.
Though cinemas are reopening and the films that have been held are back on the bill – and something like normality will be resumed for film lovers in the coming weeks and months – the same can’t be said for those who make them.
The British Film Commission has published new Covid-19 production guidelines in line with government advice, outlining the changes and challenges that film sets will need to overcome. Essentially, it means an effective ban on crowd scenes, new social distancing measures put in place, regular symptom checks, staggered call times, and mental health counselling for members of staff. People are also required to “avoid standing face-to-face” during production where possible – likely to be extremely hard to put in place – and most sets will be off limits to all but essential crew. Others will be encouraged to work remotely.
Making movies, then, is going to prove more difficult than ever.
“Many of the best stories we tell in the UK are very personal, which need to convey a closeness which often needs to be real – be that in fight scenes or love scenes and everything in between,” says Ben Roberts, BFI chief executive. “Even on a socially distanced set, challenges remain for intimate scenes.”
Bectu, a union for creatives in the film industry, agrees. “[Independent films] will struggle with the extra safeguards and the lack of insurance cover should the productions stop because of Covid,” says Spencer MacDonald, the union's national secretary.
“Also there will be a significantly increased mental and physical workload for all crew coping with these new demands which will be multiplied on independent films.”
That said, film thrives on creativity, and not everyone is pessimistic about the future. There are even some relishing the challenge of working under the conditions.
“The period we’re in has forced us all to reapproach the worlds we want to create,” says Wesley Joseph, a British filmmaker, songwriter and producer based in London. “The lockdown has placed walls and guidelines around the context of the stories, but I think this can allow for more depth. Limitation can be a key to innovation, and thinking of unusual methods in telling a story.”
Joseph also believes we’re about to see a rise in movies which utilise easily accessible technology – ones shot on phones, told on computer screens or "amateur looking POV films, Blair Witch style.”
People haven’t been waiting around to get things done during lockdown, either. Zendaya and John David Washington have completed what’s reported to be the first feature film recorded since lockdown began.
Independents have been busy too. London filmmaker Harry Jackson recently released his powerful satirical short film Stop and Search, which shines a light on institutional racism in the UK. He’s been working on new projects during the lockdown, using the resources available to him.
“I filmed a comedy-drama entirely over Zoom, starring Simon Callow and Linda Thorson called A Silver Lining,” he says. “Stripping back the large amount of kit and crew was liberating in some ways, it felt like going back to basics… It did mean the actors were also directors of photography, costume designers, make-up artists and production designers. It asked a lot of them, but I imagine that this kind of disruption to the normal way of working will have to become quite common.”
The biggest practical change which is likely to show on screen is the change to crowd scenes. The guidelines suggest that filmmakers replace extras with CGI equivalents in scenarios “where the UK Government’s social distancing requirements cannot be observed”.
“I’d be very surprised if bigger productions didn’t replace extras with CGI, it’s already something that happens a lot," says Jackson. "This won’t be affordable for a large amount of low budget films though, especially with added competition for CGI artists."
"We might have to resort to cardboard cutouts like in Australian Rugby League," he says, laughing, before adding more soberly: "In reality I think it'll mean low budget films completely avoiding crowd scenes.”
Wherever possible, though, Extra People – one of the biggest agencies working background artists in the industry – believes that things will return to normality before too long.
Limitation can be a key to innovation
British filmmaker Wesley Joseph
Tom Walker, Extra People's CEO, thinks people always top their CGI counterparts: “In our experience, filmmakers always prefer using real people, especially within close proximity of the actors and talent. CGI already exists for large crowd scenes, so CGI may be increased for a little while – but ultimately filmmakers strive to make things as real as possible. Long term, this will be true for crowds too, we hope.”
There’s uncertainty in the industry, but there are good signs on the horizon for filmmakers looking to secure funding for new projects.
Joseph, for one, is hopeful for what's to come. “The restrictions will definitely make it more difficult to make many types of films right now, but maybe not getting them financed,” he says. “We can still communicate our ideas to each other very clearly. If someone has a great premise for a film, I don’t see why these conditions would stop someone else from seeing it.”
BFI boss Roberts also has a great deal of faith that the world of British film can still flourish after Covid. “We have some of the most tenacious and resourceful filmmakers in the world – independent producers who can secure finance in the most trying circumstances, through to creative and ingenious writers and directors who continue to do amazing things with the form.
"Yes, it’s a challenge, but one that I know will push our filmmaker’s creativity, not hamper it."