For this case study, I wanted to explore what Hollywood and the film industry as a whole have learned from the pandemic? How did the industry react to the pandemic and how are smaller production companies coping? What has Hollywood and the filmmaking world learned from the pandemic and what could we see as a new normal in the future? Lastly, how will the job market look like for thousands of people trying to get their legs in the business? I will be using insights I have gathered from my personal experiences as an intern during the pandemic, and interviews of professionals in the industry to try and inform answers to these questions. As I am aspiring to be a professional editor and cinematographer, my analytical lens will be more focused on these areas while discussing the future of the industry.
We all know the struggles the pandemic has caused, but with struggle, there is usually perseverance. The film industry saw this struggle and was forced to change dramatically over a short period. The film industry was one of the first non-essential workplaces to open up as Dave Chameides stated during a panel about what it was like to work during the pandemic, “Other industries are looking to the film industry as the gold standard.” Dave Chameides is an Emmy-winning Steadicam operator who has worked on many large production movies and television shows, such as Ozark, American Horror Story, and Zoolander 2.
I attended Emerson College’s panel “Opening Hollywood: Making Production Safe in the Time of Covid.” Todd Marks, a computer/video playback supervisor of thirty-plus years, emphasized how big of a change the industry had to make, “We have an entire department. A department that never existed before…” According to Todd, Paramount had to create an entire department dedicated to COVID-19 safety. But this came at a cost as Todd furthered explained, “So where does that money come from? It’s a cost that productions never had to think about before.” Large productions were forced to eat the cost of either hiring a team or person dedicated to COVID-19 safety or create a department because of Los Angeles’s COVID guidelines. It can’t be strictly the jobs of the people on set to follow 12 pages of procedures for disinfecting and social distancing. For many smaller productions, they were forced to close down for a short while.
As stated by Variety, “According to federal data, about 125,000 of those employees are movie theater ushers and concessionaires — nearly all of whom have been furloughed or laid off. Another 170,000 work as actors, directors, camera operators, lighting technicians, set designers, and other production workers — a large percentage of whom are also not working.” While a large number of people in the industry were forced out of work, there were opportunities for new jobs to be created. The COVID Compliance Officer quickly became one of the most important personnel on set.
Pre-pandemic, Rose Krane was a commercial, film, and documentary producer, but because she was out of work due to the pandemic, she quickly had to find a way to make ends meet. Various courses on COVID safety quickly became available and in a matter of weeks, Rose became a COVID Compliance Officer. Rose Krane stated that the secret to the position was not being a nuisance on set, as many people could look at her as overly enforcing rules. Rose’s motto is “Killing germs, but not killing the vibe.” Rose’s position is a temporary one, but the film industry has become very aware of how diseases can be spread on set, which was a known issue with many productions pre-pandemic. Rose is part of this change for safer sets.
Being one of the first non-essential industries to open up, it made a lot of people consciously realize what capitalism thought was important. “We’re going to work to protect millionaires.” Dave Chameides stated. We all know money is what runs this world and the film industry has a lot of it. This is true to the point that during the peak of the pandemic during the summer, many hospitals in Los Angeles needed supplies and some Hollywood studios were starting production. As Chameides said, “We have better PPE than healthcare workers in our ward.” He went on to talk about the inequity in the system that gave testing priority to people working on set rather than teachers, “I am approaching 300 tests, my brother who is a teacher is approaching just two or three.”
Hollywood persevered during the pandemic and created ways to stay afloat. Sadly, in some circumstances, at the cost of taking PPE away from essential workers. It’s a reality check for many who work in the industry, and the inequities are due to how our economy works. However, looking down to the bottom of the solvent chain, what were smaller production companies forced to do when money was not in excess and what changes in how production companies operate will become the new normal?
I had the chance this semester to work as an editing and production intern at Long Story Short Media, a medium-sized production company that works with clients like The Gates Foundation, Lipton Tea, and National Geographic. When I started at Long Story Short early this January, the company was fully remote. No productions were happening in person. For Long Story Short, the business had completely changed for them in March 2020. Videos were completely being done over Zoom and company interaction and assignments were completed over Slack. For most production companies that had loyal clients like Long Story Short, they were able to keep the doors open but had to completely transfer to a cloud-based workflow.
Long Story Short Media, like a lot of companies, didn’t want to go remote for many reasons. On one hand, it is beneficial to have the infrastructure to be put in place to complete and edit projects remotely, but on the other hand, this wasn’t an unnecessary expense for many production companies and took away from having immediate access to input midway through a cut. As stated by Octavio Abea, a lead editor at Long Story Short, “Companies that were dragging their feet to make the transition to a cloud-based workflow, were forced to this last year.” Long Story Short was able to navigate the pandemic well and the infrastructure that was put in place to share media and projects will be very beneficial in the future. This experience has also forced employees to learn how to work over the cloud, something that I believe would be sort of a novelty at first if it wasn’t a necessary situation.
Currently, as vaccines are being distributed more and more, there is a resurgence in set and production work. Things seem to be going back to normal and for Long Story, Short Media things will mostly return to normal. Long Story Short doesn’t do much in narrative content, strictly commercial projects. This is very different from large Hollywood studios who are making their money off of theatrical releases and the pandemic has changed this dramatically. “Movie theaters are about to go out of business… If you were to look at the biggest chains right now, they could barely scrape enough money together to buy a big tub of popcorn and a box of Red Vines. I mean, they have gone from a multibillion-dollar business to no money overnight.” states John Horn, who is the host of The Fame on 89.3 KPCC Los Angeles. This is mainly due to the pandemic and if it was just for the pandemic, it’s fair to say that large theater chains could make a comeback; however, with Warner Brothers announcing they will be releasing all their slated movies for 2021 on HBO Max the same day that it will be released in theaters is the final nail in the coffin.
This news from HBO Max and Disney+ could affect industry professionals negatively. John Horn talks on how this could become an issue, “A lot of actors and directors make deals that involve a lot of contingent compensation… So what a lot of actors and directors have been doing is cutting their upfront compensation for a share of the revenue. And it’s almost always tied to the box office… If there is no box office, that money is gone… I was talking to somebody who works on scores for movies, and he said when one of his films goes to a streaming platform, he makes 10 cents on the dollar in terms of his royalty. His work is the same, but because it’s debuting on a streaming platform and not at the multiplex, he’s taking 90% pay cut in his royalties.” Now, this is something that negatively affects established professionals in the industry that can have that initial option of revenue share. This probably won’t affect the majority of the crew on set, just the heads of the departments. This might also affect indies more since the payout is less, but Netflix and other streaming services are budgeting an exorbitant amount of money for new content. According to Forbes with supporting data from Bloomberg, “Netflix, unsurprisingly, will dole out the most for new content in 2020, with a budget of $16 billion…” Netflix also saw a $5 billion revenue increase in 2020 from 2019, so it’s safe to say that more content is being produced now than ever and the demand for more content is ever increasing.
This is great news for film students and people trying to enter the industry. With unlimited access to content, people are more willing to watch more content. To get a job in the industry post-pandemic is still, “Just as mystifying as it was before,” stated Chameides. Kyle Seglin, who is lead Audio Engineer and Studio Manager at Crooked Media, believes that the pandemic may have put up barriers for people entering the market but the access to people online is ever-growing. “In my experience, LinkedIn is the best platform.” Kyle believes that Linkedin allows you to get a glimpse into a company’s interior rather than the exterior that you would be met with on a company’s website. “I am able to message everyone that works in that company and give them my resume,” says Kyle. “…Before I know it, HR is reaching out to me.”
For the future of the industry, hygiene onset will be a more present concern, more professionals will be working from home, more content will be produced, large stadium theaters will be a thing of the past and the box office will wither away with those theaters. I think even though we are still in a pandemic, work in the film industry is growing even for Long Story Short, whose clients that were dormant during the pandemic are coming back wanting new promotionals. As a young professional entering the industry I am optimistic for the future.