Right now, as stay at home orders extend deep into the late spring and likely further into the summer, we are finding ourselves relying more heavily on home viewing as our one and only avenue of entertainment. The fate of movie theaters are in limbo, Broadway is facing a massive crisis, and sports have gone dark for the foreseeable future, possibly continuing on without live audiences. But, there’s still television to tide us over, and the seemingly endless abundance of streaming material available. But, for many viewers believing that Hollywood will ride this pandemic wave out unscathed thanks to on demand entertainment revenue, there is another lingering factor that may spell a much darker future for the industry. While new entertainment options are continuing to premiere as planned on platforms like Netflix, it’s only because they had been worked on and completed before the outbreak occurred. When the world economy shut down all non-essential activity, it also put all film production to a halt. Everything from sound-stages on studio lots to on location production went completely dark in the hopes of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. And these productions continue to remain on hold, which does come at a cost. Time lost in production usually leads to productions losing the favorable weather conditions that they needed for their shoot, or the brief window they could have had with a certain actor before they commit to another project. And those are just the minimal problems related to a shut down. There’s a whole human factor about all the crew members out of work right now that is especially going to hurt the industry going forward. The question now is whether Hollywood can return back to normal after this shutdown, how much longer they can withstand not being able to produce anything, and what options we may have to face in the aftermath of this pandemic.
You take away all the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood mystique and underneath you’ll find that it is an industry just like any other in the global economy. All those names you see scroll by in the closing credits of a movie or television series belongs to a person who has a valuable purpose in creating the thing that you just watched. Whether it’s constructing the set, setting up the lights, fabricating the costumes, building the props, filing the paperwork, running errands, loading the camera, supervising the script, catering the meals, or even in some cases putting out fires or causing them for the sake of the scene. To the general public, these names in the credits are considered nobodies, but in reality, they are the lifeblood of the industry, and they are sadly the ones affected most by the shutdown. They don’t earn the kind of money that movie stars or directors do, but they take pride in their work and can often benefit from more steady employment as their talents can be applied to a far higher variety of productions. But with the shutdown happening right now, many of these same people have seen that market of available projects dry up. The unions and guilds that work within Hollywood can only help so much in assisting out of work crew members, and the freelancers are left to fend for themselves even more. They don’t have the cushy mansions and stockpiles of spendable cash that the Hollywood elite can live comfortably off of during these many weeks of isolation. Many of them have been living paycheck to paycheck, and with the cost of living still high in Hollywood, many of them won’t be able to maintain their residency there. So, as a result, the longer this shutdown continues, the more likely we’ll see many of the skilled labors leaving the business altogether, leading to a shortfall of available staff once production picks up again.
What will that mean for Hollywood? Sure, productions can fill the same positions with newer faces once things begin to ramp up; but you’ll lose the experience and knowledge that seasoned professionals would’ve had. There are a lot of crew members with specialty skills that only they are able to perform, particularly on the physical production side of things. You put these skilled laborers out of work for an extended period of time, it may lead them to abandon their trade in favor of more stable work that doesn’t utilize the same creative aspect. Like any other industry, there is an element of ageism in Hollywood that unfortunately causes many careers to end abruptly. For many skilled laborers in Hollywood, a halt in production means a loss of that stability of allowing their work to speak for itself, and for many of them, it means an end to their value in the ever changing landscape in Hollywood. Sure, the film industry needs to roll over their pool of talent in order to keep up with the changing advances in technology and standards within the workplace, but people who have spent decades refining their talents develop a skill set that can’t be easily replaced. And when this pandemic does blow over, we will likely see many careers come to an end because the employees couldn’t withstand the storm and had to compromise in order to feed their families, or were sadly seen as expendable in order to preserve the bottom line of the studio. It’s unfortunate, but sadly also can’t be helped either. The studios can’t just bring production back to where it was before the pandemic, because that exposes their worker to a potential new outbreak, which itself would have even more economic consequences. What we’ll likely see out of Hollywood in the aftermath of this is a much different character, of the new guard having to quickly take up the tools of the old guard.
While this is a devastating circumstance for the industry and the people who work within it, it is at the same time nothing new. Hollywood has faced crises before that has significantly dwindled their resources and available staff. And somehow, they always find a way to work around it. During World War II, with a significant portion of our population enlisted and fighting oversees, Hollywood managed to press on by joining the war effort itself, making propaganda films funded by the War Department and promoting the sale of War Bonds in their theaters. They also employed many women for the first time in roles typically filled by men as an effort to keep their staff levels up to normal, a move that itself would have a profound effect on a female presence in Hollywood thereafter. Subsequent conflicts oversees, and social unrest at home also didn’t deter the Hollywood machine either. The only major disruptions that they faced came from strikes within their own industry. The Screen Actors Guild, Writer’s Guild of America, and many other labor unions have all led to work stoppages within the industry as new market changes lead to more contentious negotiations between them and the studios. The most disruptive such strike came in 2007, initiated by the Writer’s Guild and supported by all the other Unions in solidarity. The strike lasted a full four months, which sounds like not that much time, but for a perpetually moving machine like Hollywood, it was a very costly disruption, costing billions of dollars and putting all those previously mentioned crew members in dire financial straits. Even through this, the industry still found a way to keep moving, and that was through reality television, which began to dominate airtime because it allowed them studios to put people to work without the two biggest guilds involved, the SAG and the WGA. Even still, movies were heavily affected, and many productions ended up being delayed or cancelled. Until now, this has been the closest that Hollywood has come to a full shutdown. The current climate in many ways dwarfs that of the 2007 strike, because at least that had a clear end point that could be worked towards. How do we work around a contagion that we still don’t fully understand yet?
The uncertainty of this pandemic is the main concern of Hollywood right now. We really don’t know when things are going to be back to normal again. All we have to go on are charts that tell us how pandemics play out to give us a rough estimate about when infection rates will slow. And so far, every study tells us that this is going to be a long process. Major studios like Disney are already feeling the crunch of a deep recession affecting their future recovery. The only thing the industry can do right now is to support each other in the midst of an uncertain future. A lot of charitable funds have opened up in order to keep out of work technicians and staff financially afloat while the studios remain dark, but again, how long could this last? For a lot of the industry, the need to return to work as soon as possible is becoming the only option they have left, even if it puts their own health at risk. Like joining the war effort during WWII and relying on reality television to stay afloat during hard times, Hollywood is finding itself improvising once again, with many television shows filming from home, utilizing the video meeting app Zoom to keep people connected. But, while this helps to fill airtime with new content, it doesn’t exactly replace what has come before either. And it only works for weekly, non-scripted shows. As we learned in the aftermath of the 2007 strike, there is a desire for scripted entertainment and that aspect of the industry will need to pick up immediately following the end of this shutdown. And the clock is ticking for Hollywood to be able to do that without significant financial cost. There is a lot about the business that is dependent upon new content releasing into the market over the course of the year, from marketing to merchandise to broadcasting rights and the subsequent ad revenue attached. You slow all that down, it will affect more industries than just Hollywood alone.
So what options does Hollywood have right now? While physical production is impossible during the pandemic, it is possible to have movies still work through development in order to be camera ready once the shutdown is lifted. Writers for one thing see no difference to the way they normally work during this pandemic since they are able to work from home anyway, and the Zoom Meeting feature allows them to continue their writer’s room collaborations on a normal schedule. In some instances, the shutdown has been a blessing in disguise for some troubled productions, as it buys them more time to fix underlying issues with their movies. That has been the case over at Marvel, which saw the departure of their director for the Doctor Strange sequel and the assignment of a whole new one to take his place. The shutdown now gives the new director, Sam Raimi in this case, much needed extra time to resolve issues in the production that would’ve been rushed had he had to deliver the film on it’s original May 2021 release date. But, a lot of other film productions don’t have the luxury that Marvel has where they can just move their releases one step backwards. For them, continuing to work still costs money and delays are costly. Because of this, the need to make changes to their projects in development must be worth the effort. The post production side can also function out of the home, as more and more people have available editing and visual effects programs installed on their home computers. But, as productions continue to process their way through safe, isolated home environments, there comes another problem; the empty gaps in between when a movie will be ready to complete and when it will actually be ready to premiere.
The process of making a movie sometimes takes years, but we don’t notice that process so much, because there seems to be something new coming out every week. But when every movie is put on hold all at once, it will create a ripple effect that will eventually catch up with the public. Right now, there are still plenty of new shows and movies making their way to streaming channels, and that’s because they were all shot and edited many months earlier. Eventually, Netflix and the like are going to run into the situation that they’ll have exhausted all their new content unless the shutdown ends pretty soon and they can ramp up production once again. The 2007 strike shut things down for 4 months and it caused a noticeable disruption in the years that followed. Imagine what would happen if this pandemic induced shutdown went on for possibly a year. We wouldn’t start noticing it for a couple years, but eventually that lack of new content could not only affect the bottom line of the streaming channels, it could change the face of Hollywood forever as a result. I believe that this is why the movie studios made the choice that they did to delay every theatrical release until the late summer and fall season, so that the industry can play a bit of catch-up once it’s able to. It’s a costly choice, particularly for the theatrical market, but in the end it may be the only way for Hollywood to be able to survive what comes after. If they don’t delay things now, they’ll either run out of new movies sooner, or rush everything into production which will hurt the quality of the output. Strangely enough, the one aspect of the industry that won’t be affected by this is animation, which in every aspect of production can be worked on safely from home. We may end up with a glut of animated movies in the long run because of this shutdown, depending on how long it lasts, because they are the only types of movies that can go on unencumbered.
There are some promising signs that tell us that things won’t turn out to be the worst case scenario. Countries like New Zealand and the Czech Republic are already making the moves necessary to re-open their film-making industries, and may be ready to welcome back film crews from around the world in as little as a month from now. Also, heavy hit areas, including New York and California (major epicenters of the film industry) are already seeing a decline in new cases and are making plans for a return to business under the guidance of the safety guidelines given by the CDC. But it will still be a long process that will no doubt leave the industry changed for a long time. The loss of skilled crew members who will see their careers in Hollywood come to an end itself will be a tragic outcome. One would hope that there is enough goodwill extended out to them in order to keep them afloat and able to continue in the film business, but that’s dependent on the needs of the studios in the long run and by how long this shutdown may stretch out. The ability for Hollywood to prolong their production schedules may also be a factor, as many promised upcoming projects may have to be sacrificed in order to either save capital or be dissolved in favor of something different. There may be even the societal changes that could leave a lasting effect on the industry. How comfortable will actors be with performing more intimate moments on screen in a era of social distancing. A lot of new normals are going to be the case over the next few years, and it may change us as a culture permanently. That in turn will extend down into the entertainment we consume, and Hollywood will be a different industry because of it. For right now, the empty film sets that sit silently all across the world wait for a different kind of storm to blow through once this current deadly one forces us into isolation. Hollywood is going to face a long road back to business as normal, and it may result in a Hollywood we no longer recognize.