Sheltering in Place: The Independent Film Community Faces the Coronavirus Shutdown
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It was February 2020. At Steiner Studios in New York, the largest studio outside of LA, people made Lin Manuel Miranda's highly anticipated directorial debut Tik, Tik … Boom! The film was scheduled to be shot in two weeks, and Jessie Pellegrino, an experienced assistant to the prop master, stopped work to attend a mandatory Netflix HR meeting. At the end of the session, one of her colleagues raised his hand. "What is Netflix's plan for us if Coronavirus forces our shoot down?" The HR officer replied as best she could. They worked on it; they followed it closely. Pellegrino remembers finding the question alarmingly. But it stuck in her mind like a mental hang nail as she continued to collect 90s Walkmans and bags of groceries to preserve the film's background talent.

Friday March 6th. Jeremy Hersh, a 29-year-old filmmaker, turns off his cell phone to treat himself to a rare massage at Fishion Herb Center in New York's Chinatown. It was an unusual pleasure for him, but a necessary delay from the cloud of fear that had followed him recently. His debut film The Surrogate was supposed to go out into the world for the first time, and he felt vulnerable. An hour later, Hersh switched his phone back on and dozens of texts flashed on his screen. "I'm so sorry," the chorus repeated over and over as he leafed through everyone. He knew immediately that SXSW had to be canceled due to the new corona virus and is planning his world premiere with it.

Wednesday evening, March 11th. I drank in the West Village with a friend, a doctor who grew up in Syria and recently moved to New York to work on Mount Sinai. He drank a negroni when I asked confused questions about the virus. "It will be okay," he said a little unconvincingly, and I remembered that he hadn't seen his Syrian family in eight years because of the war. After we said goodbye, I looked at my cell phone and a series of warnings awaited me: hell of the first world had broken loose. The NBA was closed. Tom Hanks had corona virus. My upcoming shoot in Budapest was officially canceled. And Trump had awkwardly announced an alleged ban on all travel between Europe and the United States. Ani Simon-Kennedy, the director of a film that I had produced and that was due to be released in cinemas in May, The Short History of the Long Road, was stuck in Paris after traveling to Europe to take part in a festival screening to participate. Her boyfriend and business partner, both based in New York, were furiously looking for a copy of their passport and looking for ways to get them home immediately while Ani was sleeping in a different time zone without knowing what was going on. The next day, in the midst of a flood of logistical texts, Ani wrote that she was "crouched with headphones on a Paris street corner and looked like a real maniac". She fervently tried to watch an updated excerpt from the trailer of our film, which was due to be released the following week.

* * *

In 1918, soldiers returning home from World War I took away a deadly virus that would lead to one of the worst pandemics in human history. The H1N1 virus or "Spanish flu" would kill 20 million people in the first year alone, a number that only grimly increased to almost 50 million a few years later. Cinemas in LA was closed for seven weeks in 1918 and 80% of all theaters in America closed for two months. City governments prohibited filming crowd scenes, and studios on the east and west coast voluntarily shut down film productions for up to a month. To demonstrate their macho qualities, movie stars flaunted being outdoors in public without wearing masks. Douglas Fairbanks allowed fans to bully him. At the beginning of the crisis, Moving Picture World, at that time the leading trade in the film industry, cheerfully suggested that theater owners should use this downtime to “apply soap and water and fresh paint and upgrade a little to keep the theaters fresh and fresh clean to welcome the crowd again, who will surely flock to the theater to be entertained. “However, it would take years for the film industry to recover at a thriving pace. Until 1930, 65% of the U.S. population watched the movies weekly.

In recent years, supporters of The theater experience played defense because it didn't come into contact with changing audiences and technologies. Last year when Steven Spielberg argued that films must have theatrical runs to qualify for the Academy Awards, the Internet ridiculed him as a straightforward dinosaur. In the meantime, industry advocates like Ava Duvernay, who made a $ 100 million deal with Netflix, have argued that movie windows are excluded for some communities, which is memorable for the straight-out blockbuster Straight Outta Compton, which can't be seen was in every theater in Compton itself. Of course, all this comes in second place to more fundamental protests: tickets are expensive, living rooms are more comfortable, and now “social distancing”, perhaps the most up-to-date verb of our time, makes direct viewing from home safer. Filmmakers who grew up with the theater experience and dream of seeing their films on the big screen are accused of putting nostalgia above practicality. And when filmmakers point out that major critical newspapers like the New York Times do not review VoD-only publications, they are told that they are giving up this critical push and only “building audiences” with their “networks” are said to be vague or extremely time consuming.

But when the coronavirus crisis is over and we limp out of our homes to investigate the damage that frozen time has done, we won't be ready to find value in the common ritual of the movie, in one way that is not only economical but also economical also spiritual?

* * *

When Sonejuhi Sinha purchased her first feature film, Stray Dolls, for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn after a world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, she knew she had achieved a rare percentile of success. The journey there was long; Sinha started working on the script in 2015 and hit the sidewalk to find funding for the indie drama with newcomer Geetanjali Thapa. Samuel Goldwyn guaranteed release in five markets with a simultaneous VOD release on April 10, and plans were underway for what she considered to be a critical moment in her career. But in the wake of the corona virus, Goldwyn has canceled theater plans and will only release the film on VOD, with the date of April 10 remaining intact.

The importance of this now canceled theatrical release is clear to Sinha. "Theater is a way to experience a film with an audience, to have a conversation about it, to get top-class critics and cinephiles to recognize your film in the canon of filmmaking and cinema," she says. "It feels like you need that critical look to catapult your second feature." But simply postponing the release, as some distributors are currently doing with their titles, did not seem to be a viable option for them either. One of her main goals in this debut was to start an active career in film and episode directing. She asks: "How can you make a larger film if your film has to be sent via a secret Vimeo link and is not visible to everyone?"

David Ehrlich, chief film critic at Indiewire, is no stranger to defending the theater experience, but admits that “(the corona virus) is the biggest crisis that cinemas face; They have remained open through world wars, attacks and terrorist attacks. "But he condemns the immediate industry narrative about streaming." Suddenly you have all these articles from predator industry experts about what opportunity streaming has been waiting for, "he says." And to put it politely, it sucks. "

Ehrlich points out some basic economic truisms: that theater is still the best advertising money a streaming release can buy; that the studios made billions last year from box office receipts alone; and that cinema tickets for the entire socio-economic spectrum are becoming increasingly expensive and unaffordable, "they are still the cheapest mass entertainment products that people can get for an evening." He believes that if theaters can get back on their feet and pay their employees and pay their rent, we will find that theater and streaming can live together peacefully, as they always have. "This is not a zero-sum game," says Ehrlich. “People want to go to the cinema. They are too popular as an activity to become a niche leisure activity. "

The impact of the corona virus on the award season is currently unknown, but the impact is huge. Theater runs are now a prerequisite for eligibility for an Oscar. In order for a documentary to be included in the coveted Academy shortlist, for example, the film has to run on DCP for a whole week in both LA County and New York City, with at least three seasons per day and at least one of these seasons being an evening show. Similar standards are set for narrative features. "There's a very different conversation about what will happen if this (shutdown) continues for another month or until September," said advertising and marketing veteran Julie La & # 39; Bassiere, director of special projects at Obscured Pictures. "If it's the latter, we're at risk of next year's Oscars not happening at all." So much of a film's price campaign is "melee," she says, incorporating the filmmaker's time with the voters and live questions and answers. This applies all the more to foreign filmmakers. In her opinion, there is no real substitute for the personal time that filmmakers spend with academy voters. "The academy focuses so much on the theater experience," says La & # 39; Bassiere. "But you can't punish films this year for not being able to."

Josh Welsh, President of Film Independent, who produces the popular Spirit Awards, is watching the situation closely. The Spirits currently require eligible films to be played in cinemas or premiered at qualifying festivals (a list that includes Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Telluride, and Toronto, among others). And although SXSW, Tribeca and New Directors / New Films have either been postponed or canceled this year, Welsh says their programmed titles are eligible for the Spirit Awards. The Spirits haven't made any changes to theatrical distribution requirements yet, but according to Welsh, Film Independent is ready to adjust if necessary. "The Spirit Awards are about celebrating the best independent films of the year. If the best independent films of the year reach the audience through digital platforms, we won't punish them for that."

But after discussing the ghosts, Welsh quickly and honestly turns to more general concerns. "It just feels so unique," he says. "I think back on 2008 and September 11th, but frankly that feels a lot more disturbing and scary." What feels fragile to him is the ecosystem: the arthouse theaters, the larger, smaller distributors, and the nonprofits that support independent filmmakers – not just Film Independent, but also Sundance, IFP, Women in Film, and so many others. “Neither of these organizations has a huge supply of money to survive a lengthy scenario. And the nonprofit sector is heavily dependent on corporate sponsorship – we essentially rely on corporate marketing budgets. Given what is happening to the economy, it is crazy to think that they will now put their marketing dollars into art. So everyone closes the hatches and tries to get through the storm. "

Welsh says Film Independent is too Close monitoring of what happens to the bill in the Senate, in particular what type of wage relief the federal government can provide for small businesses. But this clear concern goes hand in hand with optimism about the state of storytelling. "Indie voice doesn't go away," he says. "Unique artistic perspectives may be disturbed, but they will come back." The storyteller will keep popping up. "

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Before Danny Madden premiered his first feature film, Beast Beast, at Sundance Film Festival 2020, he was warned by others to prepare for a "comedown" after the festival, the adrenaline crash that can occur after such an emotionally stimulating event. After a successful premiere with positive reviews (the film is currently looking for distribution), Madden now protects himself in his LA apartment and watches the rest of the film's left and right festival rollouts being canceled. “I got an exaggerated version of a come down. The wind is straight from the sails, ”he admits. Madden naturally knows that he is one of the lucky ones: he must have his premiere. "We slipped under the closing door."

Jessica Devaney, a prolific documentary filmmaker who heads Multitude Films, was particularly excited about the upcoming Tribeca premiere of her feature film Pray Away by new director Kristine Stolakis. The film has a strong current catch and a heavyweight industry team, including the production company Blumhouse and the sales representative Cinetic Media. While Devaney is confident that the film will have a life, she feels a real sense of loss because she can't improve Stolaki's & # 39; individual profile as a director, which the festival apparatus uniquely allows. "Festivals offer a lot of time for industry and the press," says Devaney. "The" relationship "side of the documentation industry is really important for the life of careers and films."

Almost immediately after SXSW's cancellation, Twitter made suggestions on how to postpone film festival experiences online, a strategy chosen by CPH: DOX, for example. However, Devaney, whose company focuses on working with underrepresented voices, fears that communities that are already at risk will be hardest hit without the festival experience. "It's great to see people trying to find solutions," she says. "But what is really helpful at festivals, especially festivals that reach audiences that go beyond the industry audience, is that these real-time responses help pierce and challenge gatekeepers." So many of the buyers and reviewers are heterosexual, white and often male, so that the different audiences lose momentum, see nuanced complex stories about underrepresented communities on the screen and (these points of view) can reflect the buyers and reviewers. "

Coming out of the documentary world, where you literally can't predict what will happen to the filmed motifs, has prepared Devaney for the bumpy road in many ways. “Doc filmmakers are always about real life surprises. It is a real ability to face opportunities and crises. The field is in dramatic flow all the time; the market, the resources, what happens to your motifs in front of the camera that you follow. My orientation is always to look at and keep up with worst and best case scenarios. "

Elegance Bratton, a 40-year-old Harlem writer / director, is no stranger to adapting to difficult times. After being kicked out of his mother's house at the age of 16 because he was gay, he spent a decade homeless before joining the Marines at the age of 25. During his service, he made videos of weapon demonstrations and became a troop photographer, a job that inspired him to do more directing and photography. Bratton is currently on an exciting abyss of his career: with the premiere of his short film Buck in 2020, he had his first Sundance film festival and his first directorial debut, The Inspections, should soon be fully funded.

Bratton has an unusual background and directly attributes festivals' ability to build a network. Festivals, he says, gave him the opportunity to "get the industry ryan, sean, and bobs to pay serious attention to a black, queer filmmaker." His former short Pier Kids played 200 festivals, and he took business cards everywhere and made personal introductions. "So many emails would go unanswered if I send them cold," he says. "But after meeting people at festivals and having a real face time, we are suddenly on social media, following each other, DMing each other and realizing that we grew up with the same cartoons." Familiarity makes navigation much easier. Suddenly you are up to date. "

I ask him what advice he would give to filmmakers who are where he used to be, but at least no longer have a festival circuit to get in touch with. "Social media," he says immediately. "And if that's not your strength, I'll give you the advice my mother always gave me: use what you have to get what you don't have. Who in your team can mobilize you to To inform your film? "He continues:" I am black and gay. For me, it was always time for corona viruses.

Welsh about festivals migrating online says: “We will all adjust to it at some level, and there will be some benefits, and maybe there will be a concrete good that comes out in a way that we don't really imagine can now. What you lose at personal festivals, however, is not so much the films themselves, but the conversation about the film, the sense of community and the unexpected people you meet. That will be gone in the short term. "

For Matt Miller and Benjamin Wiessner, two producers of the LA-based company Vanishing Angle, which is behind Beast Beast, festivals were an important marker for the calendar year. "Since 2012 I have carried out a project every winter and then in spring asked which new projects are coming out," says Wiessner. "It was my chance to catch up with the film industry before I did any more work." He wonders if some of the mid-sized festivals that take place in the fall – like the New Orleans Film Festival – could pick up on the lost premieres while increasing their stature. Vanishing Point, which has just wrapped up a feature in the state of New York, records everything in two weeks. "There are so many questions that people don't know the answers to until they have a clearer picture," says Miller. "We'll be on hold until April 1st, and then we'll rethink and decide what to do in the next two weeks."

As producers who are constantly developing and packaging new works, Wiessner has identified a small ray of hope in the midst of chaos. "One of the places we've seen a lot of movement is when actors are attached. We have a low-budget feature that we could only attach a major to. Actors are at home right now and want to read." He laughed and added, "We don't know when these films are going to be made at this point, but people now have the space to focus on what we're sending them."

Hersh has improved the profile of his SXSW title by conducting remote streaming interviews with everyone from NPR to famous playwright Jeremy O’Harris. Hersh and I think about the fact that SXSW was unique in that the announcement of the cancellation gave room to breathe. It happened early enough when the news wasn't lost across the shuffle. It was time to mourn the loss of the event and publish the titles whose premieres were canceled. Hersh was impressed by the sense of community that also developed: "I have sent and received emails from other SXSW filmmakers that I have never met before. We all check each other in. It was really nice. We will Have to work harder to get to know each other, but I think in ten years we will have a really strong feeling of solidarity with this experience. "Hersh added with little irony:" I think the festival should sell SXSW 2020 merch. It would be a top buy of curiosity. I bet it would sell really well. "

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When Jax Deluca was named Media Arts Director at the National Endowment of Arts in 2016, the world felt a little different, to say the least: Trump wasn't a president yet, and artists weren't dealing with a global pandemic fallout. Deluca came to this position after leading an art organization; Her background is in experimental art forms and she is no stranger to being with artists who are forced to work with limited resources. "I wanted to take this position because I was really interested in helping organizations and artists think about their financial sustainability," she says.

Deluca oversees hundreds of NEA Fellows spanning every congressional district, including Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, and I ask her what is the main fear she is currently hearing about artists. "Cash flow," she says immediately. Deluca says that her department at NEA works with every scholarship holder to find solutions. "For some, this means raising funds (for others), for others you have tricky cash flow problems. For example, if a festival is canceled, you have contracts that are paid while having to reimburse tickets. "

Attempting to find longer-term resilience efforts is part of a larger question regarding artist advocacy that still feels less present on Capitol Hill, especially if it comes from the film industry. As an industry, art in America is unmistakably large, a fact that must be used to obtain government support and relief for artists. The latest report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that the arts and culture sector accounts for a total of 4.5% of GDP – or $ 877 billion, a figure larger than that generated by construction, transportation, and storage . The pace of growth is also remarkable: the economy has grown by 2% in recent years; During the same period, the art sector grew twice as fast. "It is critical to collect a single set of data that can help promote independent artists and freelancers working in the sector," Deluca said. “If we look at this aid for artists, many artists are currently not eligible. ”

The entertainment industry is also the most unionized industry in the county, and unions also play a role in advocacy and protection. Pellegrino, the above-mentioned member of the prop department, whose recent credits include The Irishman and Joker, has been an IATSE member (Local 52) for four years. The union has actively asked members to write letters to Congress to be included in the Aid Act, and Pellegrino feels a strong sense of support and active participation from the IATSE leadership.

On the set of Tik, Tik … Boom !, Pellegrino immediately noticed changes as information about the virus grew. "Our producers and UPM were great and acted responsibly," she says. Handwash stations were set up early on the set, and information on the latest known information about the virus was displayed on the daily call sheet. Craftsmen began packaging everything individually to cope with the potential spread, and Pellegrino, whose job in props deals with so much physical contact with objects, began systematically, directing chairs and everything else that was done by cast or crew wipe. At the beginning of March, of course, the shoot was interrupted, and Pellegrino and the rest of her colleagues are waiting to return to work. “When the mood changed seriously, we all felt it, crew members in different productions. Crew members who had different jobs tracked who was closed and what they heard, ”she recalls.

Despite all the growing warnings, Pellegrino still reflects how intense it all felt. "When I take pictures, I am really in my own world. When I prepare a film from the 90s, my mind is occupied with this period of time while I am working. I can forget the outside world for a 12-hour working day. So when you go home and see that Tom Hanks has this virus, you suddenly say, "Oh shit."

Pellegrino also added something clever that I don't think has been sufficiently discussed: “It is important to set a precedent for such disruptive events in general. What do you have to do with climate change? This kind of disturbance will come back. We now have to understand how to deal with it. "

* * *

I've always viewed the restaurant industry as a kind of related spirit of the film world. Both industries are risky and high-yield equity investments. both are glamorous and responsible for some impractical dreams; both require a lot of physical work and a compulsive organizational record; Both draw a kind of pirate energy into their crew. I was just experiencing a kind of queasy heartache when I saw restaurants of all shapes, sizes, and success levels struggling online and begging for money. It sometimes feels like my film brothers are still in a late rejection phase of what their return to work will be like, as if we were deliberately forgetting how much physical contact our work requires: the physicality required by the makeup artist Actors; the cramped moments from shoulder to shoulder on shaky location sets; The full 15-pass transporter transports the crew home at the end of a long day of shooting. When restaurant closure became a reality, New York Magazine's Grub Street published an article on the lack of government support. "The catering industry is asking for help. Does anyone listen at all? Read the instagram pull quote. One of the most popular comments in the answers appealed to me. “Of course we all care, but every industry and every company is in trouble. The problem is that we are all scared and lose money. I adore my local restaurants, but will I still have money to go out afterwards? It may sound selfish, but it is difficult to save someone if you drown. "

I could only imagine someone saying the same thing about films. A few days later, Governor Andrew Cuomo would drop by The Daily, the popular podcast of the New York Times, and present the state of affairs in its now characteristic grim openness. "This is not life as usual," said Mr. Cuomo. "Accept it and realize it and take care of it." When host Michael Barbaro urged him to have a more humane reaction to the economic consequences – "a friend of mine only had to fire 90 of his employees in his restaurant and cry," said Barbaro pointedly – Cuomo replied incredulously. "We live first of all. And when we're alive, we'll find out the rest."

At the end of my conversation with Ehrlich, he paused and said, "I'm worried that what I'm saying now won't age well if we all wear a hockey mask and worry about bigger things." When he said that, I couldn't help but look back at the 2016 election night. I followed Hillary Clinton's campaign that day and filmed with a small team what a winning piece on female leadership should be. Während wir mit Horden von Journalisten und Rundfunkveranstaltern im Javitts Center mit Glasdecke warteten, das jetzt zu einem Notfallkrankenhaus für Covid-19-Opfer wurde, hörte ich als Mitarbeiter zu, der sich Sorgen machte, dass er für eine Afterparty keine Schuhe wechseln sollte. Um die Ecke äußerten sich zwei Mitglieder der Reinigungsmannschaft besorgt über die Menge an Luftballons und Konfetti, die sie fegen müssten. In einem Moment der Ausfallzeit fragte ich eine ziemlich hochrangige Mitarbeiterin, ob sie wünschte, etwas wäre in Hillarys Kampagne anders gelaufen. Nach einer langen Pause sagte sie: "Ich wünschte, Oprah hätte uns früher gebilligt." Ehrlich hatte recht: Einige Sorgen altern nicht gut.

Später an diesem Tag telefoniere ich mit dem Filmemacher Terence Nance und er fasst schnell zusammen, worauf es bei dieser Flut von Trauer, Angst und Verwirrung ankommt: "Wir torkeln alle durch denselben zentralen Freakout: Werde ich pleite sein?" Werde ich sterben? Ich denke, jeder hat diese Abrechnung gerade von verschiedenen Orten des Privilegs. “ Ich sage ihm, was mich in den letzten Tagen beherrscht hat: In Krisenzeiten kehren wir zu dem zurück, was wir wissen. Und was die Branche so lange gewusst hat, ist nicht Inklusivität, Progressivität oder Kühnheit. Was wir wissen – und was ich behaupten würde, dass wir uns immer noch trösten – ist die weiße Vormachtstellung und das Patriarchat und die Aufrechterhaltung der Reichen und Mächtigen. Für viele asiatische Amerikaner ist es schlimm, dass die meist weiße Akademie Parasite als den besten Film des Jahres anerkennt, gefolgt von den gezielten Hassverbrechen gegen asiatische Amerikaner nur einen Monat später. Es fühlt sich so an, als ob das Gespräch über den Schwarz-Braun-Wert, weibliche Regisseure, LGBT-Repräsentation und vieles mehr gerade erst einen bedeutungsvollen Schritt gemacht hätte. Wenn die berühmtesten weißen Filmemacher der Welt nicht arbeiten können, wo bleibt dann der Rest von uns?

Nance sagt: "Ich denke, dass es einen Pessimismus gibt, der sich aus unserer Erfahrung als jede Art von Minderheit oder unterdrückten Menschen ergibt. Wir befinden uns häufig in einer Trauma-Reaktion, die sich derzeit verstärkt. Es gibt eine Trauer um Ressourcen, ein verstärktes Gefühl für Tribalismus. Sie können nicht anders, als zu glauben, dass sie meine Sachen nicht wollen werden – dass die Kräfte, die sie haben, auf das zurückgehen, was sie wissen. Aber ich weiß nicht, ob wir uns unbedingt mit diesem Pessimismus beschäftigen sollten. Denn wie wir uns immer in der Trauma-Reaktion gehalten haben, ist die Investition in unseren eigenen Reichtum, unseren eigenen geistigen und materiellen Reichtum, unsere eigenen Institutionen. Ich denke, das steht uns wie immer zur Verfügung. Und ich denke, es ist vielleicht eine brauchbare Möglichkeit, diese Energie und Angst für uns als Gemeinschaft umzuleiten. "

Am Freitag, dem 20. März, einem ungewöhnlich feuchten Tag in New York, kündigte Netflix einen Hilfsfonds in Höhe von 100 Millionen US-Dollar für Industriearbeiter an, von dem 15 Millionen US-Dollar für Drittorganisationen und gemeinnützige Filmfilme bestimmt sind. Dies ist ein hilfreicher erster Schritt, insbesondere von einem Unternehmen, dessen Aktien während dieser Krise buchstäblich steigen. Am Tag zuvor kündigte Alamo Drafthouse eine Verpflichtung an, den beurlaubten Mitarbeitern des Kinos zu helfen und gleichzeitig online eine Spendenaktion zu starten.

Ein starkes Gespür für das, was jetzt passiert, findet sich in dem Roman Severance aus dem Jahr 2018 über ein globales Virus, das die moderne Zivilisation auslöscht, abgesehen von einer kleinen Gruppe von Menschen, die lernen müssen, mit ihren neuen Umständen umzugehen, ohne zu tief in die Nostalgie hineingezogen zu werden. The heroine, in early pages, while gathered with her surviving humans, describes a moment around a bonfire:

Making plans heartened us, and as we stayed up late, drinking, we theorized grandly. What is the internet but collective memory? Anything had been done before we could do better. We could move on from this. We could be better.

I think we can do better. But it’s going to be on all of us to fight.

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