Over the last few articles, I’ve avoided the “C word”. Not that one, the Covid-19/Coronavirus words. If some of you are like me, you both devour coronavirus content, but sometimes find yourself sick of reading any more of it. (Every so often I just delete all my news podcasts that mention Covid-19 or the economic impacts. I need a break.)
I’ve been trying to strike the right balance between ensuring we cover one of the most important events of American history, but also focusing on all the other stories as well. Since my column last week was mostly non-Covid-19, let’s pull out the crystal ball to ask: how will the coronavirus impact the production of filmed entertainment?
Before we get any further, you can read my two previous analyses of the future of entertainment in a post-Covid-19 world.
Compared to many analysts, I’m very uncertain about the future. If I could predict the future accurately, I wouldn’t be writing articles. I’d be trading stocks. (Read my first article to understand my methodology and approach.)
Still, we can sketch out some details and try to separate some overreactions from the proper reactions. And since we don’t have clean “demand vs supply” issues the way other parts of the value chain have, forecasting production changes should be a bit easier. (Customers are usually the problem in forecasts.) I’ll break out my analysis into two time frames, long and short term for how Coronavirus could impact production.
(By the way, I use “Hollywood” as a stand in for all global film production in this article.)
Long Term – Somewhere Between Two Extremes
Given my uncertainty, I’ll review all the scenarios using the good old Hegelian method. I’ll explore both extremes and try to guess where the middle of “the impact on production” could land.
Thesis – Coronavirus will make “Youtube-style” the norm.
I’ve seen a narrative that since Covid-19 has enforced universal lockdowns, this somehow represents the triumph of self-produced content. In the future, we won’t need fancy set ups and teams of people to produce content. It turns out that a celebrity sitting in their home can put out a content in HD that looks pretty damn good.
Call this the “triumph of Youtube/Twitch” narrative. (Yes, I loathe narratives.)
In some cases, constraints become the style. With lots of folks watching vlogs and Youtube videos from home, and everyone staring at Zoom cameras, people are used to this style. It permeates the culture.
We’ve already this style invade traditional broadcasting. The broadcasters have mostly embraced the Youtube style for live shows. Disney’s Sing-a-longs in particular had fairly strong production quality, all from at home. Same for Saturday Night Live at Home editions. And Hollywood Game Night’s special worked really well for a remote production.
Expand this view to Instagram/Snap Chat/Tik Tok influences on video, and you could argue there is no future for traditional Hollywood-style production.
I’d emphasize why “filmed from home” productions look so good. While I’ve used the term “Youtube style”, the distribution method has nothing to do with it. Instead, the reason why filming from home looks so good is because cameras have gotten so, so, so much better than even ten years ago. Or more precisely, they’ve gotten much much smaller.
This was fueled by the push to have phones on everyone’s cameras and the push to shrink the technology down. In turn, Go-Pro made fantastic cameras that are also incredibly small. And surprisingly easy to use in production. Like an actual camera. Or to mount in different places. As a result, professional cameras have also gotten cheaper and cheaper to rent or buy.
Combined with increasingly powerful home computers, anyone can shoot, edit and produce their own TV shows or films from their own home. Even do post-production work in many cases.
So that’s that. Everyone can shoot from home and it will look great.
Antithesis – At home productions still have some key flaws.
How can you tell a production is cheaply made nowadays? Well, the sound is no good.
For all the advances in video recording, the advances in audio have been much slower. As a result, poorly made student films tend to have bad audio, but can still look fantastic.
Some of the at home productions have solved this, but a few have run into issues. (The musical ones have also likely featured a lot of recording at home separately from the video with high quality equipment. It is fairly easy to do audio recording—ADR—at home with the right investment in equipment.)
Lighting is another issue. Properly lit films are hard to do well, but make a genuine difference to the final quality. And folks can tell. Make-up is another hurdle. Folks just aren’t great at putting on “TV make up” and that shows up every so often.
Finally, and obviously, the limitations on the number of people in one place has been stark. And no one has loved that experience. It’s still really hard to overcome issues of lag, which are functions as much from computing power as they are functions of raw physics, in some cases. So while everyone is making it work, it just works even better if two people are in a room talking to each other. Or even better a whole group of people.
It also helps to have a team of people behind the camera too. Even with the advances of camera technology, having someone behind the camera to dynamically move it just looks better. That’s why productions in many cases have stubbornly held on to teams and teams of people. Reality shows taught everyone two decades ago that you could make a show with a limited crew of a producer and some cameras. Same for independent productions that have made it by on shoestring budgets for years.
So why do armies of people still exist? Because in most cases they add value. The grips get better lighting and the sound folks record better audio. Add a camera man to free up the director. Then an AD to balance the demands of the lighting and camera. Then add another AD to organize it all. Plus makeup, costumes, sets, props, special effects, actors, craft services. And producers to you know “produce”. Suddenly, you have an army of people.
So that’s that. Eventually traditional production will return.
Synthesis – The Longest Term Impact is Somewhere in Between
Likely, the future is somewhere in between. Which is the “aggressively moderate” take on it.
When studios can get people back together in the same room, they will. That’s a no-brainer. If studios decided years ago that they preferred smaller teams, they could have made it happen. Guerrilla filmmaking or independent filmmaking isn’t new. Again, reality TV has been making very cheap shows for two decades now for cable in particular.
Contrariwise, Hollywood can see change but not embrace it. Until it is forced to. (Example: streaming.) Will coronavirus cause a complete rethink for how many folks are really needed on set to make a TV show?
In the long term, maybe. Hollywood—and Bollywood, Nollywood, Hong Kong, European and anywhere that makes movies—production isn’t monolithic even now. My gut is this will further expand the divide between huge blockbuster productions—super hero, sci fi and fantasy films and TV series—and everything else. If dramas can be made with less people, they probably will be. Meanwhile, most reality production is probably about as cheap as it can go.
In most cases when production can go back to what it was before, it will. Broadcast multi-cam sitcoms will go back to multi-cam and single-cam will stay single-cam. All the folks making their own shows from home will continue to do so. And when it’s safe to go outside, the low-budget productions of the world will return too. And the blockbusters will be blockbusters. Some folks may try to innovate on the margins, but it’s uncertain if they’ll succeed.
Short Term Impacts on Production – Definitely Smaller Productions in the next 3-9 months
That’s the higher level impact, in the near term there will be some inescapable impacts on productions, whenever they get the green light. You’ve probably read about these impacts, here’s my take on who will benefit.
– Less shooting on location, which is good for production hubs. I don’t think talent will want to travel for fear of airplanes. While I mostly think worries about travel will be overcome quicker than folks expect, in this case, an over-abundance of caution will limit travel. (For instance, traveling on an airplane is actually a low likelihood of transmission.) This will be good for Los Angeles and New York in the short term, assuming demand returns. Potentially Montreal as well, but likely not as much for New Orleans, Georgia or eastern Europe.
– More shooting in soundstage and controlled environments, which is good for studios. If you’re not traveling, and worried about moving around, studio lots provide a controlled environment with centralized testing. While this is generally good for the studios, owning a studio lot isn’t a cash cow business anyways.
– Limited number of people on set, which is bad for support staff. Given the demands for testing everyone on a production, studios will likely limit the number of people to keep headcount down. This should limit costs slightly. (And studio execs/producers won’t be allowed to just hang out on set as much.)
– Fewer shows in front of live studio audience, which is bad for the vibe. Which you know if you watch any late night show. But shooting in front of live audiences will follow the reopening of live events. I’m more bullish on theaters, but could see studios being more risk averse than theaters.
Bottom Line: So When Are TV Shows Coming Back?
The question is how long these changes last. I’m more bullish in the upside case then most, but if you expect lockdowns to last for 18 months—which would ensure a depression as deep as the 1930s—then that’s how long they will last. However, like lots of things as people get used to opening up, as long as new outbreaks don’t flare up, they restrictions will gradually decrease.
Again, this is just my read on the situation, given the huge amount of uncertainty. And studios/productions will keep innovating under restrictions to get as much done as possible.
Will this hurt content output? It’s tough to say for sure.
Given how many different countries and how many different time frames for when lockdowns could be lifted, it’s tough to know when the slow down will end. (Everything being shut down is definitely delaying shows being made in America.) Meanwhile, other countries are figuring out how to restart production, which will encourage others to start back up.