Survival of the Fittest

By Rebecca Green

It feels like every day I get an email from a colleague with a link to a COVID-19 think-piece asking, “Did you see this? What do you think?” Usually, I simply reply with the head exploding emoji. I have so many thoughts on how the pandemic is dismantling independent film that I have been paralyzed to write anything about it. But I’m going to try. 

Survival of the fittest. That is the phrase that has come to mind the most during the last two months. That those with the most money, power, connections, and influence will be the ones who come out the other side of this pandemic (mostly) intact. 

We have witnessed individual acts of kindness and humanity from filmmakers and organizations who are doing all they can in their communities. There has been an endless supply of emotional solidarity. However, what is lacking is cohesive leadership coming together for one common goal. I’m disappointed in the people who have built their brands on the backs of filmmakers who are now all vying to stay alive independently rather than working together to ensure the stability of the independent film ecosystem. 

Many articles have been published about how the feeling we are having is similar to grief. Perhaps everyone is stuck in the denial stage? Festivals are moving online despite most arguing that virtual festivals do not work for films seeking distribution (only four fiction features and three documentary features opted-in to the SXSW/Amazon virtual festival). IFP is accepting applications for Film Week which brings together hundreds of people in New York in the fall. The Sundance Institute and Film Independent are continuing filmmaker labs virtually. Many are offering free virtual classes to learn the craft of filmmaking. Everyone is attempting to operate as close to normal as possible. Meanwhile, the emerging and marginalized filmmakers these organizations are supporting have no idea how and when they can start creating again. 

In watching all these organizations pivot their usual programs, I have to wonder, when will everyone jump to the stage of acceptance? When will people realize nothing is what it was like before COVID-9 and that if we can’t figure out how to get filmmakers back into production safely and affordably, independent film does not have a future? Where is the lab focused on that? Why haven’t all the institutional organizations come together to launch an “Independent Film COVID-19 Task Force” made up of filmmakers and medical experts with the goal to draw up safety protocols that are protective yet not prohibitive? Did I miss that press release?   

Unlike our international colleagues, U.S. independent filmmakers do not have a national institution issuing protocols specific to our work or providing financial support. Meanwhile, Europe has stepped up with aid for entertainment workers. For example, the Italian government unveiled a €130 million ($142 million) package of emergency aid for the entertainment industry and has brought forward $110 million in government tax subsidies for cinemas, including $11 million earmarked for art house theaters. 

U.S. filmmakers not connected to money and status are being left behind and anxiety levels are rising. Gatekeepers are prophesying about the state of the industry, but very few are implementing ways in which we can ensure we have a future. Everyone is looking out for their own company. For their own festival. For their own non-profit. For their own project. But individual survival cannot be the leading agenda, the stakes are too high.  

About going back into production… 

At first, my producing colleagues and I assumed that indies would start shooting first because we have manageable size crews and can be more flexible, but I no longer believe that to be true. A few weeks ago, I was on a call with seven producers who all had their productions shut down in March. In hearing their stories, it is possible that SAG alone could prohibit these productions from getting back off the ground again.

I have read production guidelines put out by Lionsgate, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, the “Isolated Production Plan” by Automatik Entertainment and Oddfellows, which Variety made seem was for internal purposes only but has now been sent to me by dozens of producers. I read the Deadline piece where Tyler Perry discusses his plans to quarantine cast and crew on his studio lot, and I’ve even read the New Rule Book for Sweden and Denmark. On the flip side, despite all these speculative guidelines, the IDA stated that they “cannot responsibly advise people about production at this time.” And Scott Macaulay accurately wrote about how no one is going back into production until insurance is figured out. (Insert exploding head emoji here.) 

Recently, the DGA announced a committee that will collaborate with guilds and unions to determine when entertainment industry workers will be able to safely return to work. But where do non-union independent films fit into this committee? The one thing that is clear to me is that there is no way low-budget films will be able to absorb the costs associated with the safety protocols outlined in these speculative guidelines. Read the extensive safety protocols Spain just released and explain to me how to implement these guidelines on a $1 million film. I can only imagine what a committee of unions is going to come up with… 

In a world in which everyone is working to keep their own agendas afloat, independent film may not survive. Those who will survive will be the companies with the money and infrastructure to uphold stringent health guidelines.   

My call to action for the companies and institutional organizations in the U.S. whose mission statement is to support independent film is this: Don’t just focus on your own agenda. Join forces with each other. Use your combined ingenuity, money, resources, and perseverance to ensure that independent films can continue to get made and be seen. Don’t just set Zoom check-in calls every now and then to ask, “How are you surviving?” Officially come together to create a grant that covers the costs of new health protocols. Convene all the production insurance companies to draft an affordable package that protects independent films. Work with sales agents to brainstorm how to expose films to distributors in exciting new ways that trigger sales. Engage festival programmers to create a virtual cinema for filmmakers who want to self-release their films rather than wait indefinitely on distributors. Be brave and bold and daring in your work – all the things you tell filmmakers to be. 

We all have the same goal, to see independent film thrive, and great efforts have been made to support filmmakers in dire need. But we have to do more. We have to think bigger. We have to plan further into the future. We have to activate. Netflix can’t be the only place to produce and distribute films just because they have more money than everyone else. A-list talent can’t be the only people who are able to tell stories. If we don’t act now, in a cohesive and collaborative way, all the work that has been done to raise up unrepresented voices will be lost. 

Don’t go it alone. If we come together we can all survive.