Lights, camera, no action: how the pandemic forced the film industry into pandemonium

Digging through the cinematic wreckage of 2020, we examine the ramifications of Covid-19 on films, productions and festivals

James Bond (Daniel Craig) prepares to shoot in 
NO TIME TO DIE. Phoot by Nicola Dove
an EON Productions and Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios film
Credit: Nicola Dove
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If "2020 at the movies" was a film script, it would surely be left in development. Too unrealistic, too fanciful, too unlikely, they'd say, and you can understand why.

Even now, it's hard to fathom exactly how battered the film industry has been by Covid-19 in the past 12 months. A year ago, global box office revenue hit a record $42.5 billion, with films such as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Avengers: Endgame enticing audiences into cinemas.

A year on and the death knell – according to some industry insiders, at least – is ringing for the big-screen experience. This is the year all the blockbusters scattered like pins in a bowling alley. Productions such as Mission: Impossible 7 and Jurassic World: Dominion shut down, the Cannes Film Festival was cancelled for the first time since the Second World War, and cinemas shuttered and stock prices tumbled.

Of course, the film business is hardly alone in facing economic woes. The performing arts – ballet, theatre, dance, music and more – have been devastated by venue closures the world over. But there’s something disconcerting about watching the film industry buckle, a business that has previously been ultra-resilient despite the advent of television, the VHS revolution, DVDs, Blu-rays and, finally, streaming services.

Sifting through the wreckage of 2020, the writing was on the wall in early March, when Eon Productions and Universal Pictures announced the James Bond film No Time To Die was moving to November. Other studios swiftly followed suit, as the likes of Black Widow, Fast & Furious 9 and A Quiet Place Part II all began to fall.

As the coronavirus spread and cinemas closed, the hope was this was all very temporary; three months and the lights would be back on. That proved to be wishful thinking as Covid-19 provided its very own horror show.

After much deliberation, Thierry Fremaux and his Cannes committee decided to cancel the festival in May. Other dates were considered but it swiftly became apparent that France – like so many countries – wasn’t safe enough to stage an international gathering.

Some films, such as Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta and Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch, ultimately vaulted into 2021, presumably to take up their prominent berths in next year's Cannes (if it goes ahead). Fremaux also unveiled the official line-up, in the hope that the Cannes seal of approval would help to jump-start the journey of those titles now without a festival to cinemas.

Once the pandemic is over, theatres will be filled again with film lovers. That is my strong belief

The festival's Marche du Film, where buyers come to purchase movies for distribution, held its first digital version. Other film festivals took the virtual plunge, too, with the likes of Toronto and London holding hybrid events, a mix of physical and digital screenings.

Only Venice held firm, with a full-on physical festival. Audiences wore masks and had regular temperature scans. It worked, aided by the fact the festival area was a contained space that allowed for such rigorous checking.

Still, for a few days in September, it felt blissful. Brilliant films unspooled, including Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, which took home the Golden Lion. It didn't seem to matter that Hollywood stars were largely absent from the red carpet. It offered a chance to enjoy cinema again.

Some filmmakers even flourished during global lockdowns. Britain's Rob Savage made Host, a truly marvellous horror documenting six friends coming together for a spooky experience on Zoom. From this, Savage signed a three-picture deal with Blumhouse Productions, the company behind such frugally made chillers as Insidious and The Purge.

Likewise, documentarian Alex Gibney figured out a way to safely interview and film for Totally Under Control, an exhaustive account of the Trump administration's reaction (or lack of) to the pandemic.

In the meantime, streaming platforms grew. Netflix practically owned the autumn, the traditional time when prestige films kickstart the scramble towards the Oscars.

Films such as Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 and David Fincher's Mank were great, but being denied the chance to see them on the big screen was painful. Sacha Baron Cohen reprised his Borat character for an Amazon Prime sequel to his 2006 film – but without the communal laughter of strangers, it wasn't quite the same.

Studios, desperate for revenue, began experimenting with online releases. Universal pushed Trolls World Tour out digitally, leading AMC Theatres – the biggest cinema chain in America – to proclaim it would no longer play the studio's movies.

Since then, Disney has moved Mulan and Soul on to its own streaming channel Disney+, bypassing a theatrical release. Its recent announcement that 10 Marvel and 10 Star Wars spin-off series are in the works suggests just how it is refocusing its energies to streaming.

Perhaps the biggest shock came this month, as Warner Bros announced that its entire 2021 slate – 17 films in total – would simultaneously premiere in cinemas and on its streaming service HBO Max. The once-sacred "window", allowing exhibitors to exclusively play films in cinemas before DVD and cable took over, was shattered.

Filmmakers immediately condemned the move, pointing out how this will affect low-paid cast or crew who rely on residual payments generated by theatrical releases.

What will happen in 2021? Denis Villeneuve, whose hugely anticipated sci-fi Dune is one of the casualties of that Warner move, wrote in trade paper Variety: "Once the pandemic is over, theatres will be filled again with film lovers. That is my strong belief."

Hopefully, he's right. Certainly, there's a glut of glossy studio films ready to be shown. And there will always be talented filmmakers ready to make new movies. But will the cinemas be there? The whole ecosystem feels fragile right now.

AMC, just one of many cinema chains facing possible bankruptcy, says it needs $750 million to stay viable through 2021. And as Villeneuve wisely pointed out, a theatrical release is what makes expensive blockbusters such as Dune possible. "Streaming can produce great content, but not movies of Dune's scope and scale," he said. Is the Hollywood blockbuster under threat? It doesn't seem possible.

But unless we support out local cinemas next year – once it’s safe to do so – that might be the reality.