Of Our Time

The Impact of COVID-19 on Cinema – Production and Distribution

The COVID-19 pandemic has put an undue burden on the film industry and its productions. Many productions were forced to halt filming completely, operate with skeleton crews, or put strict, costly precautions on set. Its impact on the workforce has caused productions to hire inexperienced workers, which raises another set of safety concerns. Due to the delays in production, distribution schedules have been altered to allow for wider, safer releases of films. While the pandemic has created widespread safety concerns on set and disrupted distribution schedules, it has also created a new and exciting period of cinema.

Most film productions require up to hundreds of people all working in close proximity together. With the onset of the pandemic, it made film sets dangerous and possible super-spreaders of the virus. There were a lot of safety risks on a set, especially for immunocompromised individuals. The new Batman film had to halt filming because star Robert Pattinson had contracted the virus. A lot of sets had mandatory testing rules, requiring that crew members return negative tests. If any positive tests were returned, the set was forced to shut down until it was safe to operate again. Masks and other forms of personal protective equipment were required on set. From the set of the latest Mission Impossible film, a video of Tom Cruise emerged, berating the cast and crew members for not following the safety protocols. To allow for film sets to operate safely, there needed to be these safety precautions.

One of the most striking impacts that the pandemic had was on the labor movement. The world is in the midst of a massive labor movement stemming from the pandemic. Starbucks and Amazon workers are unionizing. IATSE voted almost unanimously to strike nationwide before a deal was reached to avert it. Crew members were often forced to work long hours and when the pandemic forced crew members to work fewer hours and have shorter days, they were able to enjoy themselves or spend more time with loved ones. Ben Gottlieb, a lighting technician wrote that “as restrictions were being lifted, pre-lockdown hours became the norm again” and how many crew members began feeling burnt out by the long hours again, “I just think a lot of us got a taste of what life could be like if we got normal hours, if we could come home and spend time with family or friends for a few hours before going to bed.” He created an Instagram account, where IATSE members can anonymously share their stories of being overworked and exploited by the industry. Steve Dayan, the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 399, said that “because of COVID-19, people are starting to recognize that working yourself to the bone isn’t a viable way to live.” Due to many crew members going on strike and refusing to work the long hours, productions have been forced to either shut down or find cheaper, non-union, workers. When productions use cheaper, non-union workers on set, the quality of the work might not be up to par and there might be a lot more safety concerns on set. The fatal incident involving Alec Baldwin and cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust, illustrates this. The production on the film started in the midst of the proposed IATSE strike. On the day of the incident, several unionized members walked off the set and were replaced. The prop guns used on set were also not checked properly before the fatal incident. Serge Svetnoy, who was the gaffer on set, has said that Hutchins death was caused by “negligence and unprofessionalism.” He continued, “To save a dime sometimes you hire people who are not fully qualified for the complicated or dangerous job, and you risk the lives of the other people who are close and your lives as well.”

While the pandemic caused a lot of delays in production, there were also quite a few delays in distribution, which has caused many films from prominent directors to be released around the same time; it has also given those directors secluded time to write and direct, creating an embarrassment of riches for cinephiles. The 2020 Cannes Film Festival was canceled, yet it allowed any film due to premiere at the 2020 festival to come back and premiere at the 2021 festival, as was the case with Wes Anderson‘s The French Dispatch. Now there is another Wes Anderson film, Asteroid City, to be released soon. Just this year, 2022, two different films by Claire Denis have premiered, one at Cannes and one at Berlin. When it comes to other delayed releases however, there have been several. The latest Batman film was delayed almost 9 months. The Green Knight was delayed over a year. Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho was delayed over a year and Top Gun: Maverick was delayed for two years. The pandemic deprived us from going to the theater and supporting our favorite filmmakers for over two years but as theaters have opened up, we have been flooded with films from them and provided us with nearly endless amounts of excellent films to work our way through. 

The pandemic created a wide range of safety issues on set and massively disrupted the production and distribution schedules of many films, but has also created an exciting period of cinema with new and veteran auteurs alike releasing interesting and challenging films. However, to continue having this torrent of new films being released, we need productions to be safe and secure for the cast and crew that make them. Although we have reached a “new normal”, there are still a number of immunocompromised individuals on film sets. Testing and other safety precautions such as masks may still be required to ensure the safety of every person on set. We need to solve the labor dispute and take the occupational hazards of film sets seriously. Is that enough to make productions safe again and to allow them to bounce back to a normal distribution schedule? The story of cinema never ends and in this new age, it will be interesting to see where the story heads next.

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