The COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the global film industry, with cinemas being closed, film festivals being cancelled, and production being interrupted for months.
Sebastian Sauerborn, executive producer at Alamo Pictures, the London-based production company behind the Factual America podcast explains that everything that is in the back end of the filmmaking industry, such as distribution, production and media, was also stopped.
With the recent news that Cineworld is shutting down UK screens after the Bond film delay, which is terrible for many communities and for those who will lose their jobs, we take a look at how the past few months affected the whole sector from one end to another while discussing the impact it had on the people from the creative industry and what the future beholds.
The film industry is dominated by freelancers, and as projects were paused all around the globe, a lot of them fell through the cracks, not being able to opt for the government support, or not being paid if their projects were not financed. Additionally, we have to take into consideration that these people working in this creative industry are not motivated purely by money, but they are following their passion and are doing this with great conviction. So not being able to work anymore and being surrounded by uncertainty affected primarily their mental health.
As we come out of lockdown, we can observe that projects are starting to come back to life, and although it is not going to be easy after almost six months of insecurity, standing by and starting to make a living doing any other job, we are expecting that freelancers will be able to get back on track with the same drive as before.
You can always view a crisis in two ways. There are those who are sitting on the fence, wondering what is going to happen next and when they could resume their former activity, while others are seeing this as an opportunity to stand out and adapt to the new context. That is what we are doing at Alamo Pictures, our documentary production company based in London. Although we have not been able to film until recently in many locations, this did not stop us from working on new concepts, finetuning our production processes and doing project development. As we focus on American stories for an European audience, we also started forging relationships with local freelancers and production teams.
My colleague Matthew Sherwood, who is the host of our Factual America podcast, had the opportunity of interviewing many documentary filmmakers during the lockdown, and observed the industry up close. He reckons that over 80 per cent of the ones he spoke to have been most fortunate in their projects, as when the lockdown commenced they were already in post-production. But he also came across a few directors who were still in the process of making their films. Even though they had to put cameras down and stop filming, they discovered solutions to get around the new problems which tested their resilience and optimism. For example, some of them resorted to doing online interviews to get the materials they needed for the documentaries.
Aside from not being able to film, there are also challenges with regards to the channels available to promote finished work, as cinemas were closed and film festivals were cancelled. In this context, independent filmmakers are required to come up with innovative ways of promoting their picture, despite not being experts in marketing or PR.
On the other side, the younger filmmakers’ generation seems to have more business acumen and are more realistic. We recently interviewed on the Factual America podcast two young filmmakers, Yemi Bamiro and Will Thorne, who are behind the documentary One Man and His Shoes about Air Jordans. They did not plan it this way, but their film came out the same year as Netflix’s popular The Last Dance. We were impressed with their way of thinking in terms of distribution models and how to get the best deal for their film that will then finance further films. Although previous generations understand the business behind the projects and are aware of how important money is for production, the younger generation tends to speak the language better and has the advantage of being intimately familiar with all the benefits the online world has to offer.
In terms of business, the pandemic is accelerating trends that were already in place and it is also disrupting the whole film industry, from how the projects are being made to how they are distributed. You could notice that in the way Tiger King was a significant hit during lockdown, when people had more spare time and contributed to its popularity.
While it’s true that podcasters and commissioners are going to be starved for content because there is little production at the moment, many have very high expectations and are looking only to invest in the next cultural event, being more selective with the films they associate with.
This is definitely just the beginning, as there are still many challenges out there and changes to come. We might still see consolidations at the top, with the Netflixes of the world pushing their projects through big budgets, and a larger stream of independent filmmakers having to struggle to have their voices heard. These are likely to pave the way for a generation of filmtrepreneurs, where making films is a business as much as it is an artistic project, covering all aspects of sales and marketing themselves. We should also expect the filmmaking industry to look totally different in a year or two. Until then, as some of the filmmakers and production houses already did, the whole industry should start to see the pandemic as a new normal and find their own opportunity.