How COVID-19 has spurred a fundamental shift in the film industry

This is a graphic illustration of a pink clapperboard that says, "The film industry vs. COVID-19."
Illustration by Jessalyn George.

COVID-19 has altered our way of life and an infinite amount of changes have been made to the world around us in order to adjust to a new normal. In the midst of the global pandemic, many sectors in the entertainment industry have also been rattled, including the film industry. 

Since March, cinemas across Canada have been closed down, productions on set have been stalled in order to accommodate COVID-19 regulations, and release dates for blockbuster films have been pushed into the new year. With such fundamental shifts in the film industry, many have been left wondering whether it will recuperate from the pandemic.

A large piece of the film industry dwells in the exposure of new content through film festivals and award ceremonies, as well as giving various communities the opportunity to come together in excited anticipation. Award ceremonies, for many, are typically enjoyed from the couch with a bowl of popcorn, regardless of a worldwide pandemic. 

However, just last month, the 2020 Primetime Emmy Awards rang in its 72nd year almost entirely virtual. Jimmy Kimmel returned as an emcee in a near-empty Staples Center in Los Angeles. To fill up the seats, cardboard cutouts of various celebrities were scattered across the rows. Many clips and soundtracks were pulled from last year’s show to create a fuller ambience. 

As the first major award ceremony to go virtual, the 2020 Emmy Awards provided a starting point for future ceremonies that may fall under the same fate in the upcoming months. A major concern of having a virtual show was coming up with creative ways to enhance the experience to keep the audience engaged. 

To combat this concern, Television Academy sent out a plethora of camera crews to nominees’ homes in order to catch any winning moments or grateful acceptance speeches. Delivery people were decked out in hazmat suits designed to loosely look like tuxedos and given the task of handing out trophies—not even knowing who the winners were—which led to some amusing moments

In the virtual version of the show, acceptance speeches were not pre-taped, leaving room for winners to deliver live and enthusiastic words while holding their trophies. All in all, the ceremony did surprisingly well to keep everyone watching entertained and optimistic. Kimmel even ended the show with a joke about an afterparty on Zoom (a software I am sure we are all very familiar with by now). 

Inventive measures were taken to bring film festival culture to multiple audiences this year. For example, the prestigious Venice Film Festival still welcomed patrons in physically distanced auditoriums while administering heavily calculated scanning procedures to ensure a safe environment for film lovers. Meanwhile, in the heart of our own city, the Toronto International Film Festival held its 45th annual event with virtual screenings and drive-in shows, replacing the red carpet for a grassy parking spot. 

The pandemic has encouraged the film industry to get creative, which is crucial now more than ever as consuming film will most likely be altered forever. The way we view entertainment has been drastically impacted in the past few months, especially when it comes to finding new ways to fill our day-to-day life with little joys. That may include a family movie night or a Netflix Party with your friends in order to stay connected. 

Streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video have been dominating the industry for years now, bringing films and television shows directly to peoples’ homes. However, these services have grown exponentially during the pandemic, crushing the box office with virtual downloads and exclusive digital releases in the wake of COVID-19.

The rise of streaming services could significantly affect studio companies and their negotiations with cinema chains, leading to an impact on consumer behaviour. The closure of cinemas has affected the short window of opportunity from when a film is first released for the big screen to when it is ready for an additional release across various streaming platforms. With the declination of box office sales, it is safe to assume that both theatre chains and studio companies may struggle to regain their former glory. Despite this looming fear, a survey done in August by Landmark Cinemas and Atom Tickets showed a positive reaction to returning to cinemas across Canada. The survey shows that only 0.9 per cent of respondents would not make the decision to return. Considering these results, cinema chains may be able to expect things to return to normal as Hollywood postpones a variety of franchise film sequels or well-anticipated blockbusters. 

Right now, accessibility and affordability are at the forefront of film and television consumption. This notion in itself fuels the need and desire for streaming services that can offer extensive viewing opportunities. 

From an economic standpoint, the film industry has taken a hit, following suit of many integral industries that hold exceptional influence within our society. On a more positive note, Canada’s film industry has steadily returned to the production stage safely amid the pandemic. Films back in production include Hypnotic, an upcoming flick featuring Ben Affleck and Nightmare Alley, a Netflix film starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett.

Precautionary steps are being taken by actors such as quarantining while filming and wearing masks in between scenes. This process may prolong production, but the resilience on the road to recovery is commendable. Through the act of reinstating artists and technical personnel employed in the industry, they are steadily getting back on track to provide content for eager consumers.

Overall, the effects of COVID-19 have appeared endless, beyond any expectations we may have assumed or imagined. Not only has the physical limitations of the pandemic affected the film industry, but our current political and social climate is also reflected in films themselves.

 Films have a way of addressing social or political issues both intentionally and unintentionally. For example, when Contagion was released in 2011, no one could have predicted a worldwide pandemic nine years later. Now, if you were to watch Contagion in our current state, it would have an entirely different effect on your viewing experience, thus altering your perception of  COVID-19.

Not only are films that were produced prior to the pandemic becoming relevant again, new content is being created to highlight the trials and tribulations of the pandemic itself, including The Curve, a documentary proposed at TIFF by Oscar-nominated director Adam Benzine. When films are released, the concept of current happenings rely heavily on how audiences interpret the meaning of certain events portrayed on screen, interlacing them with real life experiences. 

Despite the multitude of setbacks, the global film industry has persevered and prepared for the future of film. The demand for new content may be high, but the long-awaited revival of the industry is within reach, ripe with appreciation of dedication to the art of film.