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Five experts reveal how Hollywood is being transformed by COVID-19

Leaders at Netflix, IMAX, Participant, award-winning VFX shop Framestore, and the startup studio Solstice share how Hollywood is being transformed by COVID-19.

Five experts reveal how Hollywood is being transformed by COVID-19
[Photo: iStock]

For Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.

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Lisa Nishimura is vice president of independent film and documentary features at Netflix, the world’s largest subscription video streaming service. The company’s original films and TV series include Roma, Tiger King, and Stranger Things.

I think what’s interesting for us is that the totality of the creative process has many, many stages. So once we got everyone safe—meaning staff, cast, crew—when the outbreak first hit, then there was this desire in the creative community to keep creating. Being a tech-supported, creative company, we were able very swiftly to mobilize the entirety of our team to work at home. We found that the creative community really was eager to keep talking, to keep pitching, to keep collaborating. Our ability to move writers’ rooms to be virtual very quickly allowed us to continue to take pitches.

In a weird way, writers tend to do their work on their own at home. They’re incredibly well adapted to this environment. So it’s a wonderful place to say, “Hey, now you have a little bit more time to lean into the rewrite or the concept or the idea.” Just spending a lot more time on that front end of talking about the development, the writing, is one positive result of the pandemic. 

There is something magical about sitting in the same room, and I’m sure everybody is eager to return to that experience. But this process has really helped to buttress the thing that we already knew, which is that technology can really be an incredible tool when it comes to access: access into the conversation, access into the collaborative experience.

A lot of the innovations that are being put forth with safety as the primary concern, around shooting, we will take them forward. If they prove to be things that allow for more efficiencies, more collaboration. The community is trying its best, broadly speaking, to share best practices on how we can work together. It’s going to be a very interesting process when we start to see more productions of different sizes get up and running again. The shared learnings, I think, are going to be incredibly important.

What was fascinating was that when COVID first really became the reality for the world, you had some folks seeking to come to Netflix for comfort. They were looking to go with the big, epic movies. Then other folks just wanted to dive into what was happening. They were watching Outbreak and Contagion. Our documentary limited series Coronavirus Explained, which is part of our partnership with Vox, really helped people understand what was going on. People were trying to learn and cut through the noise to understand what was fact. For that series, we did a very innovative and safe shoot to get that information together for folks so they could access it.

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We knew that we could cut together current and modern-day experts, leading epidemiologists, and doctors on the front lines, to do COVID-safe interviews. We did that either by sending cameras and self-instructions on how to shoot, or doing them through safe-distance studio conference, and then pulling in used footage and archives—interviews that we had on the matter. So we tried to be as innovative and savvy as we could in order to put something together that was current, contemporary, accurate, and timely. Because people were very, very hungry for information. So we’re just trying to meet all those needs as well as possible.

[Photo: Florian Wehde/Unsplash]
Mark Gill is president and CEO of Solstice Studios, an independent film studio formed in 2018 that develops, finances, produces, acquires, and distributes films. Solstice’s first release, Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe, is currently slated to be released in theaters on July 31. 

What’s fascinating is that on June 24, I’d describe it as the apex of changing news. Everything was going haywire. State governments announced they were going to tighten up mask wearing, bars were shut down. But the same day there was a survey done, and it was fascinating because it said there was no change amongst moviegoers and their desire to go see a film in theaters. Eighty percent of moviegoers still want to go see an actual movie, and 20% said they won’t go or are unsure. So if you’re in your seventies and you have health issues, you probably ought to stay home. But for those who do want to go, that number didn’t change. People said they trusted state health departments and theaters owners to get safety right.

So I thought, “Okay, that’s actually pretty helpful. We picked the right way to do it.”

As for the overall effects of COVID, on the development side, it’s been super easy. Not a problem at all. What I’ve found is we’re getting far more scripts on time than is normal. My theory is that the writers are unable to go out to bars, so they’re sitting down and doing the work—unbelievably so! People are meeting deadlines vastly better than before. It’s not even close.

But on the production side, it is really challenging. We had a film with Ben Affleck, directed by Robert Rodriguez, called Hypnotic, that was scheduled to start on April 27. It got shut down on March 13. We’re going to try to get it going again this summer or fall. But everything around it is hard. The insurance is hard; the COVID precaution measures are expensive; and there’s uncertainty about what conditions are going to be like on the ground. It’s going to film in Austin. As though filming wasn’t hard enough already.

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Normally, if you have a scene with a couple hundred extras that you need to put in a frame, they’d be milling around on the set in between takes. But nope, you can’t do that now. So we’re going to shoot maybe 20 or 25 separately, and then use digital effects to tuck them all in together later. You just don’t want that many people exposed. For safety reasons, you can’t put that many people together. So a lot of things are going to have to be different.


Fiona Walkinshaw is global managing director of film at Framestore, the British visual effects house that won Oscar and BAFTA awards for its work on the film Gravity.

We went into lockdown in early March. London and Montreal, which are our big offices, were about a week apart. We had about 1,600 people to get working from home, which we did over three weeks. I think it was the week of March 20. I’ve blocked it out, it was so traumatic. My first thought was, Oh my God. We’re going to have to get everyone working from home. How are we doing to do that? Very quickly, you go into operational planning mode. Okay, we’ve got 1,600 people. We set them up on systems where they could work remotely because security is such a big part—it’s the most complicated aspect—of people working from home, because we work on IP. We had to set up systems where they could get remote access into their desktops at work but not actually download material to their computers at home.

We very quickly set up different meeting platforms. We started doing all of our production meetings on Google Hangouts or Zoom. The production team suddenly found that they were all in different houses, but they were operating in the same way, really. Everyone was quite clear on their role. Though everyone had to work very hard on communication. It wasn’t instantaneous, it wasn’t easy. The biggest challenge was honestly the logistics of it all. When people got set up from home, all kinds of technical queries came up. People were logging on and then finding they were logged off. Their internet was going down. There were a lot of individual issues that had to be resolved. So managing that whilst we had more shows that had to be delivered. It was a big jigsaw to try and sort out.

There have been some changes (in procedure). You learn from all experiences. In the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk and focus around pre-production planning technology, virtual production, LED screens—a lot of stuff we did when we did Gravity has become more commonplace. During lockdown, a lot of our clients want to do a lot of development work on scripts so they’re really ready to shoot once that’s possible. Certain things can be difficult, like big crowd scenes or choreographed numbers—how do you do those? So there’s more pre-production planning and pre-visualization sequences so you know exactly what you’re going to shoot. Before, you might not have had time to do pre-vizing on a film digitally; you might not have thought it was needed. But now there are questions like, Could you get some drone footage of an environment? Can we shoot the characters against green screen? And plan out all the scenes.

We have lots of work at the moment—The Suicide Squad and Tom and Jerry for Warner Bros.; A Boy Called Christmas and The Midnight Sky for Netflix, among others—but material is not being shot that was planned to be shot, so there is a definite gap in capacity that will hit us. We all need material to be filmed so that we have work to do, so that we have a revenue stream. What keeps me up at night is, When will filming recommence? At the moment, we have a lot of clients who say that their plan is to start shooting in August, September. Or do pre-production in August, September, October, then shoot in November. But at the moment, all the plans (are tentative), and studios need to get insurance in place, plan travel for cast and crew—it’s very complicated. Once we have some confirmed work, we can start planning against a very concrete revenue stream. The recent L.A. spike in COVID-19 was not good news. We are being very cautious in terms of our financial planning, but it is a very simple equation: We need a revenue stream in order for people to have jobs.

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[Photo: Thea Hdc/Unsplash]
Richard Gelfond is CEO of IMAX Corporation, an entertainment technology company that specializes in motion-picture technologies and large-format presentations. The company has over 1,500 IMAX theaters in more than 80 countries around the world.

Someone asked the question, “Well, aren’t you like a restaurant where at 50% of capacity, you would have difficulty being in business?” The answer is no, because a good capacity utilization for a movie theater is around 20%. So if you distance and you have 50%, you haven’t killed your business. The more nuanced point, though, is that a lot of your utilization comes on Friday and Saturday nights when people go to the movies, and then you’re usually empty on a Tuesday night. But I believe that the same factors that will lead you to need social distancing will also change people’s work habits. So the reason they go on Friday and Saturday night is because they have work. But if you’re going to be working from home until the fall, and you’re sensitive to health concerns, instead of going to a movie on Saturday night, you might decide to go on Wednesday at four o’clock. There will be a natural spreading out of the audience that will somewhat compensate for the capacity changes.

We’re definitely stepping up our in-home efforts, including IMAX Enhanced. We’ve been working on both the technical side through this as well as the relationship side. So discussions with streaming services about how we could be integrated on their platforms and that sort of thing, we’ve accelerated. Then on our live business, we’ve been in discussions about trying to figure out, because it’s going to be a while before concerts and other massive live events open up, could we help be a bridge in that area? For example, if you had a concert and someone couldn’t go on tour, could you do it by showing it live at IMAX theaters around the world that were appropriately socially distanced during this period of time?

The movie business, both on the studio and from the exhibitor side, was already moving more to blockbusters, even before COVID hit. If you chart out their changes over the last few years, being more dependent on blockbusters and less dependent on midlevel films, I think that will accelerate and continue. I also think the battle over windows (i.e., release windows, or the time between when a film is released in theaters and when it is released digitally), especially for small and medium-size films, is likely to intensify when theaters reopen.


David Linde is the CEO of Participant, a multimedia company committed to producing entertainment with socially relevant themes. The company won best picture Oscars for the films Green Book and Spotlight

In the first month (after the COVID crisis deepened in the U.S.), we worked with the filmmakers who made Contagion, which we produced. We created five PSA videos with the stars—Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, and Lawrence Fishburne—just about the very basics of how you prevent getting or spreading COVID-19, social distancing, washing your hands. Kate Winslet did a great one on washing your hands. We did them really quickly. We got them out there and without a dollar of paid media behind it, I think we had 5.5 million views and something like 3 billion impressions. Impressing on people the urgency of what was going on and the tools that existed to slow the disease was really important.

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Increasingly, our organizational focus—or our focus around impact—is often around community and building community. Historically that has not just been about people seeing a movie in a movie theater but about advocating together: being together, discussing issues together, deciding to do things about issues together in person—whether or not it’s attending a panel discussion about a specific subject or actually going out and working with legislators around a specific issue. All that has ground to a halt. But the advantage at Participant is that we have a very robust following. We have about 9 million people who follow the company in various ways on social media. We have this digital studio that can transition to creating short-form material for our impact partners very quickly, which we’re doing.

Everything that people have been doing up to now (digitally) has been relatively rudimentary: Zoom. But what we’re seeing already, very quickly, is the ability to convene people, for instance through large Facebook events. For John Lewis: Good Trouble (a documentary Participant produced with Magnolia films), we had a virtual screening experience, where in addition to seeing the film in theaters and on VOD on all the streaming platforms, you were also able to organize what we’re calling virtual screening experiences. People who may not have wanted to go into a theater right then could still have the experience of watching it online together and then discussing it and engaging around the themes of the movie together. So that I think is transformational, that ability actually to expand wildly upon our level of engagement with people.  

Through challenge comes opportunity. I’m not being flip at all. The responsibility of any executive right now is to take a look at how their work is changing in the short term and applying what they’ve learned to the long term.

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