Why cast and crew won’t be on set anytime soon…

Here are the facts:

The Coronavirus is extremely contagious and has killed more Americans than the Vietnam War.

Surviving the virus does not prevent the possibility of reinfection.

A vaccine, or new medical treatment that would drastically limit the mortality rate, would be the only ethical way to return to populated workspaces.

Any ethical job site would have to require every employee (and person they engage with) to be vaccinated, or tested and quarantined on site.

The fastest vaccine ever created was for The Mumps in 1948 and it took 4 years to manufacture. The fastest projections of a vaccine being distributed to 300 Million Americans is 2 years.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve noticed a disconnect from the facts about the Coronavirus and an understanding of what they mean for the film industry’s next year (or two), so I’m writing this because I’m not seeing any of these questions being brought up and to clarify how we should all be thinking about how to prepare for the next 12–24 months without film productions.

During this outbreak, many in our industry seem to be using positive deflections: “well, we’ll have to see what happens” or “when all of this is over-”, painting a picture of the Film, TV, and Commercial Industries returning to full form sometime in the near future. As much as I wish that this were true, it isn’t, it’s dangerously misleading, and here are a few reasons why:

Set-Life

Film sets are petri dishes for bacteria; we use buffet style dining for meals, we work in spaces with shared air-conditioning, and unlike some industries, we require a lot of people to be jammed together to make any of our products. I’m sure you’ve clocked this watching TV recently: we require actors to get close to each other a lot

When fighting a virus, a group is only as strong as its weakest link, and there are a lot of weak links on film sets. It would only take one person being lenient, or dismissive of protocol, to infect everyone on a film set.

Production companies will be unable to ensure everyone’s safety anytime soon.

Reputational Cost

Unlike the aftermaths of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, non-essential businesses around the world will not be bragging that they were open during the crisis, they will be bragging about how long they were closed, signaling to their customers how seriously they took the pandemic.

Our industry is always citing itself as being on the cutting edge of virtuousness, and because it is based largely on reputation (and reputational cost), my bet is that we will be among the later non-essential industries to reopen.

Producers, their actors, and the films would suffer too large a reputational cost to risk making anything anytime soon.

Lawsuits

If a company organizes a production and someone catches the virus on set, then passes it to a relative, they have now opened the film (and possibly the studio) to all kinds of lawsuits. Even if Contracts were signed by the crew waiving their lives and health, it would not clear the organizers from lawsuit; surgeons and hospitals are sued all the time.

There will be too much legal risk for Production Companies to hire crew or actors anytime soon.

The Financials

Audiences will not return to movie theaters until it is safe (a year from now if we’re lucky), not solely from fear of contagion, but fear of the reputational cost online. I love movie theaters and discussing movies with friends, but I love it only slightly less than I love staying home in order to save lives.

Huge Blockbuster films make most of their revenue from theatrical releases. They will not be able to recoup their budgets from digital sales, so budgets will be significantly reduced without ticket sales (outside of Animated productions). Will these big live-action movies die with 2019?

Streamers will finally win the War of attention that they’ve been fighting with movie theaters. Film studios and distributors will become subordinates to the BIG 5 American platforms because they now own 100% of the audiences. Movies that were expecting international releases this year will have to negotiate with these platforms without bargaining power, begging them to grant them sanctuary, a financial recoup, and real estate on their front page.

If you worked on a larger studio film or TV set, do not expect productions to pick up with the same budgets, or the same amount of staff.

Agism

If the industry starts loosening its lockdown, when a Producer is given the choice between hiring a 30 year old or a 65 year old, who will they choose in good conscience knowing the mortality rates for those over 60? This could force the older generations of talented crew and actors off of the screen entirely. Is this the end of Maggie Smith’s live-action career?

Conversely, what will recent graduates do? I graduated from Emerson right after the housing market collapsed and it took me four years to get a non-gig-based job in the film industry. Those opportunities that I had of learning and growing on set will not be afforded to young people for a long time.

And not just that, the members of the film industry who just lost their jobs, or will lose them in the coming weeks, will be so desperate to get these positions back after the lockdowns, that it will push out most opportunities for any of these newcomers.

The People

Consider all of the wonderful people that work on and around films, tv shows, commercials, photography studios, post-production facilities, and theaters whose entire income relies on the gathering of people together to break social distancing guidelines.

For people in the film industry, it is devastating, and horrible to consider, but in order to make living wages by 2021, most of us need to start researching alternate revenue options because collectively, we’re all going to need new jobs.

Overall, having a hopeful view of the future of the film industry is nice and it makes us all feel better and seem unconfrontational in a Zoom meeting, and it is fiction, and acting like everything will be close to normal by January could really hurt the freelancers in our industry who make their income between these film productions and can’t survive these 12-24 months on our wish-thinking. We are not setting them up for success, they don’t need hope, they need money. These hopeful outlooks help the companies, not the workers, and are actually really dangerous distractions for our crew members and actors to create sustainable financial plans for the coming year(s).

Positivity, in this case, is misinformation, and it is not being negative to be realistic. We need the implications of this science to hit us hard and soon so we can prepare to be out of film jobs for a long time. There is a lot of bullshit in The Film Industry, most of it is harmless, but it is crucial that we all quickly remove our feet from this newest batch and make sure that it stays out of our mouths.∎

Jim Cummings is a Sundance and South by Southwest winning filmmaker.

He is shooting commercials and product videography for brands, safely and ethically, from his home studio.

Maggie Noble is an illustrator and animator in Los Angeles.

She is now animating and illustrating for brands and journalists from her home studio.

POST SCRIPT: Some Silver Linings

Animation could become the new norm for large movies, as voice recording and animation production can be done from many locations (homes) at once.

A-List talent may be more likely to act in smaller film productions, helping struggling + more talented independent filmmakers.

Countries with better control of the outbreak will be able to open sooner and create new films, meaning that we could seen an even larger interest in American audiences toward international cinema because they will be the only new releases.

Single-location films could see a resurgence because of their lower risks of infection; forcing filmmakers to focus on craftsmanship not glitz, and getting a new class of independent filmmakers into the spotlight. (See KRISHA if you haven’t).

Sundance and SXSW Winning Filmmaker / @jimmycthatsme