Has COVID changed culture and entertainment forever? (Has any good come from it?)
When the restrictions kicked in, everything shut down; including the entertainment industry. Films, TV shows, theatrical productions all had to be put on pause; nobody knew how long the pause would be, but I don’t think. anyone imagined it would be for as long as we have been in this mess. Fifteen months later and the industry is still not back to any kind of normal and with the announcement of the the restrictions being extended for another month, the industry now faces even more dire setbacks.
Film studio’s were forced to make BIG decisions, in terms of how to deliver the growing queue of films they had lined up, ready to be released to audience’s in various cinemas and movie theatres around the world; this is where streaming services seriously came in to their own and before we knew it, we were seeing brand new releases coming to the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Disney + and Apple TV +. We were given the opportunity to see ‘big-screen’ releases from the safety and comfort of our own homes, for a fairly reasonable one- off fee. This was incredibly appealing and, indeed, necessary to film fans who didn’t want to wait months and months to see films they had already waited months and months to see; it also meant we didn’t have to worry about other people coughing and spluttering on our popcorn or in to the warm, sound-proofed darkness of a viewing room, we could just relax and focus on the film with the people we loved… and knew were COVID free.
Not only did COVID impact the films that had already been made and were awaiting distribution, but there was a huge impact made on the films that were either halfway through production or films that were about to go in to production; if there was going to be a backlog of films that were awaiting release to cinemas, as not all studios decided to release their films to paid V.O.D, then that meant the films in the process of being made at the time were going to receive an either longer period of time before they were released. Films became like planes, lining up to land at Heathrow, which typically boasts landing twelve planes every hour; the only difference was the film runway was well and truly closed and so those films had to make a very long diversion.
So what did that mean for us, the consumer? Well, it meant we had to wait a very long time for some of the big films to have any slither of an updated release date, which, as I’ve already said, was deeply frustrating- understandable and completely justifiable, but still frustrating. It also meant that we wouldn’t be able to experience a lot of these films in the way their director’s had intended them to be enjoyed and seen for the first time; I have released a separate story about the way we consume films and how directors design their films with big screen releases in mind, but to summarise briefly, I basically talked about how it makes a huge difference seeing a film that was intended to be seen in full, glorious IMAX, for example, compared to the little 32" HD Ready box in the corner of your living room. There is also something that comes from watching a film in a cinema with a large number of people that you can’t re-create, which is another thing I talk about in the story I published; the reactions of a group of strangers to a new film is often what makes going to the cinema so exciting and enjoyable, especially if it’s a horror film or a fun comedy, or even a high-charged, adrenaline filled, big-budget blockbuster!
Of course, some directors decided to release their films with a sort of “sod it! People will come” attitude; like Chris Nolan, for example. He decided to release his latest film “Tenet”, hoping that it would pave the way for other filmmakers around the world to feel confident about releasing their films; the result was, let’s say, less than satisfactory, verging on deeply disappointing. The film took a total of $53 million on opening week end, Internationally; sounds like a fair amount, however, when you compare that to his film “Dunkirk”, where he took $105 million on opening week end, pretty much 50% more than “Tenet”, you can see the problem. I also had big issues with the film, as did many audience members, which can’t be blamed on the pandemic; I just didn’t enjoy the film, or have a clue what the hell was going on half the time…
Whilst some filmmakers and studio’s were cursing the pandemic and allowing it to be the biggest hinderance and superficial spanner in the works ever experienced within the film industry, some filmmakers, such as Michael Bay, Sam Levinson, Doug Liman & Stephen Knight, Zak Snyder and Rob Savage actually decided to use the lockdowns as fuel for their creative engines. Michael Bay (“Transformers”, “Pearl Harbour”) was the first to break camp with his film “Songbird”, a film all about the concept that COVID-19 has mutated to COVID-24, all hell has broken loose and the restrictions are beyond anything we could imagine, as well as the global death toll; a sort of “what if we can’t get a hold of the spread of infection?” Narrative, which at the time of its release was something we were seriously having to think about. Then “Locked Down”, written by Steven Knight (“Locke”, “Taboo”) and directed by Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow”, “Mr & Mr’s Smith” and “The Bourne Identity”) came along, a film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway, about a couple who decide to rob a bank during lockdown in London in order to rescue their failing relationship. Zak Snyder (“Justice League”, “Army of the Dead”) shot re-shoots for his “Snyder cut” of “Justice League” on his driveway and Rob Savage brought us the hugely successful, Zoom based horror film, “Host”, about a group of women deciding to spend the evening on a Zoom call, because of COVID restrictions, with a spiritual medium for a laugh, ultimately ending up in a very dire situation when one of the women makes fun of the whole ritual.
I take my hat off to all these filmmakers and many more who decided to make the best of a very bad situation; some of the films they produced were questionable, “Songbird” was just a little too close to home, considering we were still very much in the middle of restrictions and rising cases when it was released in December, just before Christmas- the worst Christmas ever. But, I applaud their tenacity and relentless commitment to using the things around them to fuel their work; really a sign and confirmation of the power of creativity and our human need to express ourselves, no matter what the situation is. It was also a huge step in showing the film world that film sets could continue to operate, albeit in a very different way, but nevertheless, you could still achieve results. We heard the explosive and fiery outburst from Tom Cruise on the set of his latest “Mission Impossible” film, where he ripped a part members of the crew for not following the sets COVID protocols, the protocols in place to allow filming to continue, along with Cruise’s huge generosity in hiring a ship to allow the cast, crew and creatives to bubble together safely- if that isn’t commitment, then I don’t know what is… His rant seems justified to me, if you’re one of the lucky film sets able to afford the various safety measures and ships to keep going, you better damn well stick to the rules and make the most of it! I understand his rage, given his substantial stake in the “MI” films and his overall commitment to making audience pleasing action films. This was obviously the first film to pave the way for the “blockbuster” films to continue shooting, which would’ve been greatly welcomed by the floundering studios.
But how has COVID actually changed culture? Has it altered our expectations of entertainment and creative consumerism? And if so, what has changed? What do we expect?
I think it has, in many ways. For one, it has set a new standard when it comes to being able to write, direct, edit and produce films at supersonic speeds, granted the material hasn’t always been top standard, but for the most part it has delivered. Take a film like “Malcolm and Marie” starring Zendaya (“The Greatest Showman”, “Spiderman: Homecoming & Far From Home”) and John-David Wshington (“Tenet”), written and directed by Sam Levinson (“Assassination Nation” and “Euphoria”), this was obviously a, very easy to contain, two-hander, which was shot during lockdown, and I personally found it riveting and brilliantly made. I think the pandemic has shown us what we are capable of producing, even when the odds are stacked against us and we are in a less than ideal environment to be creative. The days of excuses seem to be at an end, and that goes for business in general, not just show-business; companies and studio’s will now simply reply to any complaints or requests for deadline extensions, or even excuses for poor material with “Well, look at what people achieved during a global pandemic and a load of restrictive lockdowns… if they can do it with all of that, you can do it now!” And damn right, in my opinion!
Whether we like it or not, the pandemic has changed the way we choose to consume film and entertainment in general. In many ways, this is a deep sadness, as I do feel that going to the cinema has definitely dropped down the list of people’s priorities or favourable past times, I don’t think we will reach a point, and I seriously hope we don’t reach this point, where cinema’s will no longer be in existence, but I do believe that many people will be less inclined to do so if they know they can just watch those films in a couple of months when they are released on streaming services; even more so, streaming services have realised the money to be made from offering early releases, ans you can bet they will be pressuring studios to comntinue this trend, even after the pandemic is over. Amazon just bought ‘MGM’ ,along with its entire catalogue, including the biggest property of all, the Bond franchise; and although Barbara Broccoli, the main shareholder in the Bond property, has clearly stated that Amazon cannot release future Bond films straight to streaming, before having a theatrical release first, I do wonder how long that clause will last when Amazon start throwing HUGE sums of money her way. I mean, they bought MGM for $8 BILLION!! Jeff Bezos has money to spare, as does his company; I don’t think there will be a price tag too high for them.
The good that has come from it is the convenience, I suppose. It is often easier to chuck a film on your television at home, instead of venturing out to the cinema; but for me, the experience of going to the cinema serouisly outweighs the convenience of staying in. I love going to the cinema, it feels like a sort of event or exciting experience. When the lights go down and everyone, well almost everyone, shuts up and switches their devices to “plane” mode, I feel so much excitement bubbling up inside me; I know that I can just spend a couple of hours with no distractions, enjoying a- hopefully interesting and original- storyline, investing in different characters and trying to understand a culture or life perspective, which is completely different to my own, and that is something I want to invest my time doing. I understand that not everyone feels this way about going to a cinema, and I can see why some people would choose V.O.D over a theatrical release; but for me, nothing comes close to the old-school way. The O.G. The most authentic way.