For all Hollywood is derided as a bubble, it’s worth watching how the movie and television industries respond to the covid-19 pandemic, and not merely so we’ll know when we can get back to having fun. Given what it takes to make movies and television, and how to get people into theaters, the entertainment business can give us early signs of when we might return to normal — and what normal might look like when we get there.
Making a film or a television show requires building a society in miniature. Executives (directors) work with white-collar professionals (writers, costume designers, cinematographers) to carry out plans that center around key performers (actors). But that can’t happen without people in blue-collar and service professions (workers who build sets and props, cater meals, and do hair and makeup). Traditionally, all of those people have worked in close proximity: They eat at buffets; touch each other to apply eyeliner, coordinate stunts or simulate intimacy; and come together in editing bays and screening rooms to complete a finished product.
Other industries — and individuals — might have to figure out how to resume a few of these activities at a time. Salons and barbershops need to determine which services they can offer safely and how to do it. Buffet restaurants are pivoting to new models. White-collar offices are sorting out what can be accomplished over Zoom and whether there’s a safe way to use their elevators. Single people are thinking through when to start having close contact with new partners again.
But entertainment needs to solve all these conundrums at once to get up and running again. And while studios and networks don’t have the same power as governments, they do have tremendous financial incentives to find safe, scalable solutions that both stars and support staff will accept. The rules and technologies they adopt could show the rest of us what a new, livable world might look like.
We’re already seeing some clever workarounds, both small and crazily ambitious, to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Super-producer Tyler Perry is considering quarantining entire casts and crews together on the former military base that is now his studio outside Atlanta. Some actors may do their own hair and makeup. Craft service tables will be replaced by individual trays of food.
“The Bold and the Beautiful,” in an example of the creativity that has long sustained soap operas, is substituting sex dolls for live actors in love scenes — or having actors’ spouses stand in for their scene partners. A producing team has even cast a robot endowed with artificial intelligence to star in a $70 million thriller.
Still, given the ongoing shutdown in television production, it is highly unlikely that we’ll have anything approaching a traditional fall network season, with new episodes from old favorites and new series vying for audiences. Maybe the pandemic will just mean a delay until January 2021, but that could be wishful thinking. Even streaming outlets such as Netflix, which spends staggering sums on original content, will eventually run through their backlog of finished shows and movies.
The traditional movie business has delayed its reckoning by moving the calendar for new releases back by months or even years. Yet the studios, too, will eventually have to make hard decisions as they face the prospect of restarting idled projects — and potentially shutting them down again. Will they slow the pace of releases to make sure they don’t run out of product? Will we hit a moviegoing dry spell in which theaters are open but there’s nothing new to draw us to them?
And will we return to theaters at all? Getting Hollywood’s little bubble up and running again will be a daunting task, but its full return to normalcy will depend on those of us who live outside it. Delaying movies as expensive and as hyped as “Tenet” and “Mulan” is an acknowledgment of the obvious: Whether theaters are open or not, Americans just aren’t ready to see them in the numbers that would guarantee the studios that made them see a return on their investment.
Seeing movies in a theater full of strangers and recirculated air requires us to trust one another on matters as small as turning off our phones and as consequential as wearing masks. Once we’re willing to exercise that trust and take that risk for this powerful, but ephemeral, pleasure, we’ll know that this nightmare has passed.