Smoke and Mirrors

By Rebecca Green

I am not a natural writer. It takes a lot out of me to put my thoughts on paper. You haven’t seen a monthly digest from me lately because my energy, motivation, and focus have been slowly depleting as the pandemic continues on, and let’s be honest, laying out all the industry news in one place is depressing. Case in point… 

This month, all 542 Regal Cinemas locations in the U.S. temporarily closed once again, in addition to all of Cineworld’s locations in the UK. It’s been reported that AMC theaters may file for bankruptcy “for real” this time. NATO called on Congress for aid saying that 70% of the theaters in the country could file for bankruptcy or close permanently by the end of the year and top media investors and advisors warned of years of pain still to come in the U.S. theatrical movie business. 

What’s that? You’ve had enough? That’s what I thought. 

Rather than list all of the ways in which the industry is struggling (and failing) right now, let’s talk about FOMO. If you scroll through the trades every day like I do, you’re made to feel that everyone is in production except you.

In the past three months, I’ve clocked only three articles from U.S. publications which highlight the production struggles filmmakers are up against: IndieWire’s ‘Doing the Best We Can’: Filmmakers Justify the Risk of Shooting Movies During COVID, Vulture’s I’m an On-Set ‘COVID Person,’ Whatever That Means and No Film School’s How is the Industry Adapting to COVID-19 Safety Protocols? And there was a recent article from The Guardian, ‘I don’t sleep. I’m afraid to open the post’: Covid’s continued effect for film industry workers. There were no articles that focused on the struggles of raising financing for independent film. 

However, the trades have published countless articles about actors attaching to projects, books being optioned, writers and directors being hired, and television series being picked up. Reading the headlines, it’s easy to forget that our industry is paralyzed by COVID-19, but I’m here to tell you that it’s all smoke and mirrors. That feeling you’re having that everyone has something in the works except you is not born out of reality. Not every filmmaker is in production right now or prepping for production or even close to prepping.  

Yes, there are films that had to shut down in March that have picked up a few final days of shooting. Some low-budget films with very limited number of people on set are shooting and short form content is being created. A few television series are shooting in Canada and some documentaries never stopped filming. There are shoots happening in other parts of the world where COVID numbers are under control. Tyler Perry has created his own compound so his projects can resume and big movies such as Batman have had fits and starts, proving that even with studio franchise money, you can’t keep your lead actor from testing positive for COVID-19.  

If you stop reading the trades and get on the phone with producers, what you’ll hear is that nearly everyone’s projects are stalled. You’ll hear that projects are being set-up at studios, but no one has a start date. You’ll hear that while some financiers and agents are reading, very few are engaging while the festival and distribution pipeline is so uncertain. You’ll hear that even the big streamers are not green-lighting production. You’ll hear that COVID-19 protocols are too expensive to bear on an indie budget. And you’ll hear that scripts not tailored to shoot with minimal cast and crew are being put on the back-burner.

If you get on the phone with producers, you’ll also hear about “election fog” and worry that once that fog lifts, we will then be in that dead space in Hollywood that starts just before Thanksgiving and goes though the New Year. A time when no one is focused on anything indie unless it’s premiering at Sundance. But with Sundance now a largely virtual festival with “extremely limited” in-person screenings, what will snap everyone out of the holiday/pandemic/election slump?

So yes, the anxiety you are feeling is real. The worry you have about your future is warranted. You are not alone. I’m here to tell you that it’s okay that you’re not highly (or even moderately) productive right now. That it’s okay if you don’t want to answer emails, or return phone calls, or join another Zoom meeting. And that it’s okay if you need to take a nap or turn on a Hallmark Christmas movie (they started last week FYI). Independent film is suffering immensely and we are all feeling the pain. 

It’s important to look back to September when Netflix bought the Sam Levinson-directed Malcolm & Marie starring Zendaya and John David Washington for $30 million dollars while dozens of titles from Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca are still without a distributor. Given that Malcolm & Marie was self-financed by Levinson, his producers, and cast and shot in one location with two actors, I think it’s safe to say that they did not need a $30 million sale to recoup their investment. I can’t help but think about all the ways in which that money could have been spent to keep the independent film community afloat during the pandemic. If that acquisition tells you anything, it should tell you that there is no white knight coming to save independent film.

And while the headlines said that Netflix missed its subscriber and earnings forecasts for Q3, don’t be fooled, Netflix added 2.2mil subscribers in just one quarter. Meanwhile, I read an article titled The Great Okay about how Netflix has conditioned audiences to accept mediocre filmmaking. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Netflix can’t become the only place to make a film. Audiences deserve better. The craft of filmmaking that we all love down to our core deserves better. 

If you get on the phone with producers, you also learn that we still have a long way to go. As the months have ticked by, it’s become clear that not only are we going to have to find the energy to get our projects back in motion, we are going to have to pick up the pieces of a broken industry. The cracks in the system are now canyons. We are going to have to be innovative and bold. We’re going to have to challenge the gatekeepers who tell us ‘this is just how it is’ and forge a new path.

I know empty bank accounts are starting to cause a panic, but during this unwanted downtime, I encourage you to be kind to yourself. Don’t compare your slate of projects to what you see announced on Twitter. Don’t sit at your desk and shuffle papers to feel you’ve accomplished something today. Step back and think about the future of independent film, not just the future of your own projects. Think about how we as a community of brave and diverse storytellers are going to preserve the artistry of film that drove us to do this work. Think of big, bold, and new ideas.

The dust has not even begun to settle and there is a lot of disruption yet to come. We have a long road ahead and each of us are going to have to decide if we’re in it for the long haul or not. Use this time to chart your course. 

Keep going,