Film industry makes tentative moves towards normality

Photo of Christopher Nolan, above, courtesy of Flickr.

David Prendeville

The Coronavirus pandemic has seen the cancellation and postponement of much of the Spring/Summer Film Festivals. Most notably, the Cannes Film Festival – one of the cornerstones of any cinematic year – was unable to go ahead in its usual May slot.
However, the uncertainty as to what would / will happen to the 2020 edition is emblematic of the uncertainty of these times in general. Like many other things, it is extremely difficult to predict when it might be safe to hold a film festival once more.
Upon the initial postponement in May, Cannes chairman Thierry Frémaux suggested that they hoped to go ahead with the festival in June or July. That, however, now has also been ruled out.
The main competition of Cannes 2020 still hasn’t been officially cancelled, although its sidebars such as the Director’s Fortnight strand, have been.
Frémaux has ruled out moving online, as other festivals are doing, as I discuss below. Indeed, given some of the titles that were rumoured to be premiering at the festival – news films by Paul Verhoeven and Wes Anderson – to name but two, it seemed unlikely that moving online would be feasible or be agreed upon by production companies, producers, directors etc.
There are rumours of Cannes combining with another cinematic behemoth, the Venice Film Festival, in an autumn extravaganza. However, Venice’s slot in September also looks far from certain at the present moment.
Closer to home, The Galway Film Fleadh, has chosen to move online. Speaking of the move, Film Fleadh Programme Director, Will Fitzgerald said: “Moving the Fleadh online doesn’t mean replicating the event in a digital space, but reimagining it to be the best online experience possible. There will be a reduced, more focused programme because we don’t want to split audience attention when we don’t have a physical event space keeping us all together. We want to give every film their moment in the spotlight and make every selected film part of a united conversation.”
People will be able to stream films online from the Fleadh website at limited times. Tickets will also be limited to the capacity of Galway’s Town Hall Theatre, the main venue used for Fleadh screenings. The festival’s online edition will also feature live-streamed film maker Q+A’s, audience participation via social media and conferencing software such as Zoom, as well as live-streamed masterclasses, panel discussions and the Fleadh’s industry meetings.
The Fleadh’s decision became inevitable upon the release of the Government’s roadmap that ruled out the reopening of cinemas until August 10th at the earliest. It remains to be seen if it will be possible to host other festivals theatrically (while adhering to social distancing). Countries have varied quite dramatically in terms of when cinemas can reopen. Some European countries have already allowed their return, whereas they are in the final phase of Ireland’s plan. The UK plan to reopen cinemas on July 4th.
The Spring/Summer cinema season has also been decimated, with inevitable high-profile release date postponements. Many smaller and independent titles have moved to online distribution.
Some have suggested a knock-on effect of the pandemic is that it could hasten the move away from theatrical releases in the long term, in favour of films going straight to streaming services. It is clear, however, that no matter how much and often some people want to forecast the death of the cinema experience, the bigger films remain determined to have their theatrical run. The people behind these pictures, like Cannes’ Frémaux, do not regard online viewing as a viable alternative.
The new James Bond film, No Time to Die, originally scheduled for release in April, was the first to postpone its release, to November. Other big titles such as the belated Top Gun sequel Top Gun: Maverick quickly followed suit, pausing its release to December.
However, Christopher Nolan’s much-hyped sci-fi action picture Tenet has stood firm in its July 17th release date. The film, rumoured to have a budget in excess of 200 million dollars, stars Robert Pattinson and John David Washington. The epic is now being seen as the film the industry’s hopes are riding on as signalling a tentative step back toward normality.
It is then followed by another blockbuster the week after, with Disney’s equally expensive live-action Mulan film also remaining steadfast in its release plans
If Tenet and Mulan are ultimately able to open as planned, it will be fascinating to see how they perform at the box office. They would have both been predicted to be amongst the biggest films of the year in the pre-Covid 19 times.
Will people be cautious about going to the cinema even if they are deemed safe to be open? How much of an impact will reduced capacity have on box-office returns? Or will their receipts thrive on the fact that they will have such little competition and by the eagerness of cinephiles to get back in the cinema?
While industry eyes will be on these films in search of some signs of what the post-Covid 19 cinema landscape looks like, even more uncertainty surrounds when films can go into production once more. The UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently announced, as reported by Screen International, that film and television productions which comply with social distancing measures can restart. Whatever about social distancing in cinemas, it seems nigh on impossible to imagine social distancing being implemented on film and television sets. And if it is impossible then realistically when can we see shoots go ahead?
As with everything else in the current climate, uncertainty and differing opinions and speculations abound.
It has been announced that the BBC soap EastEnders will start shooting again next month, while some independent American film productions are also slated for Autumn. The details of if and how the shoots intend to implement social distancing remain unclear. There has yet to be any announcement as to when filming can or will resume in Ireland.