On December 11, a film that feels eerily familiar will be available for your streaming consumption. Produced by action filmmaker extraordinaire Michael Bay, and released by STX Entertainment, Songbird is a dystopian-to-the-nth-degree vision of a world consumed by a virulent pandemic called COVID-23 (a mutant strand of the more familiar strain).
There is much to relate to in the narrative: People are shut indoors for hundreds of days and suspicious of their neighbors’ coughs. But, this being a Michael Bay film, the drama is naturally amped up a wee bit. The desolate streets of Los Angeles are patrolled by military squadrons wielding machine guns. In one scene, soldiers aim their artillery at a man who falls to his knees, yelling, “I’m immune! I’m immune!”
The movie was cooked up virtually overnight back in March, when the idea of a movie inspired by COVID-19 seemed like a cool, timely thing to do. Eight months later, as countries around the world succumb to a new round of lockdowns in response to the long-predicted winter surge in COVID-19 cases: perhaps not so much. Even with its blatant Hollywood-esque spin, Songbird, which will be available to rent on premium video-on-demand platforms, feels a tad tone deaf given the number of COVID-19-related deaths being marked every day, not to mention a very un-fun thing to watch right now.
Indeed, as COVID-19 has become the everyday norm as opposed to something that at first seemed like a very scary, short-term interruption of daily life, the kinds of films and TV shows that Hollywood is making—or planning to make—have undergone a drastic shift. Today there is scant chance something like Songbird would ever get a green light. Instead, familiar, feel-good films like Coming to America 2 are being rushed to release in order to feed the hunger for escapist entertainment. (In October, that film was sold by Paramount to Amazon Studios, which will debut it on Prime Video in March 2021.)
Beyond a shift in tone, the scale of productions—those that have been able to go into production, at least—has also changed. Films that can be made with smaller crews and minimal locations are more favorable, as are productions that can more readily absorb the 20% to 30% budget uptick due to COVID-19 insurance and testing costs. So-called packages (movies that have a screenwriter, director, and talent attached from the get-go) are also being smiled upon even more so than usual.
“The theory is that it has to feel like a movie, so that when everything is back up and running again, studios can go, ‘Let’s go,'” says one talent representative.
All of this will filter down to audiences and what they’ll be watching in 2021 and beyond, as well as where they’ll be watching it. With so many movie theaters closed around the world due to the pandemic, Hollywood studios have increasingly been moving more of their planned theatrical releases over to streaming. Most dramatically, last Thursday WarnerMedia announced that it is releasing its entire 2021 slate—a lineup of 17 films that includes tentpoles like Dune and Matrix 4—on HBO Max alongside whatever theatrical releases are possible.
So what, exactly, will 2021 look like for audiences? Based on conversations with half a dozen talent representatives and producers, here are the biggest takeaways:
Streaming is reviving the $15 million star vehicle
Whether it’s a drama, thriller, or comedy, the trend to streaming has only intensified during the pandemic, a shift most amplified by the WarnerMedia news. Already the company had made the bold decision to release Wonder Woman 1984, one of the biggest releases of the year, on HBO Max on Christmas Day, alongside a theatrical release.
But as COVID-19 wears on, studios aren’t just looking to streamers for films that are already in the can but are turning to them for films they’re just starting to cook up. With their bottom lines eviscerated this year due to a loss in box-office revenue, studios have become more risk-averse than ever. They’re fine to bet on big intellectual-property-driven franchises that will one day see the light of day; no one is watching the vaccine developments closer than Hollywood studio executives. But for midbudget films whose success won’t be ensured by toy and merchandise sales, they’re more wary. This nervousness coincides with a landscape cluttered with new streaming services such as HBO Max, Peacock, and Apple TV Plus that are clamoring for content, creating a new twist to the Hollywood biosphere.
One agent says that he has had conversations with studios “where they’re telling us that these $10 million to $15 million productions, if they can package our director and our star, they’re going to take it to Netflix or Apple and see if they’ll buy it from them. Maybe they’d cofinance, maybe they’d fully finance it. But either way, it’s a major shift.”
Another source echoes: “There are a number of studios trying to actively put packages together and take them to Netflix.”
This trend may not be long-lasting but nonetheless represents a radical new order—one in which studios have become producers, not distributors—given that independent streamers (such as Netflix and Amazon) have traditionally been regarded by studios as somewhere between evil arch enemy here to steal studios’ lunches and a useful distribution platform from which to squeeze out lucrative licensing fees.
Now they are suddenly Hollywood’s biggest COVID-19 crutch.
Binge-worthy dystopian dramas are out
In November, it was announced that Judd Apatow is producing a comedy film for Netflix based on COVID-19. In the film, which he’ll cowrite, direct, and produce, a group of actors are caught in a quarantine bubble at a hotel while filming a movie during the pandemic.
The sense in Hollywood, though, is that this project is more the exception than the rule—something that is getting made because “it’s Judd Apatow,” as one person put it.
Also, it’s a comedy.
Overall, however, buyers are steering away from content that too closely mirrors the state of the world right now for fear that audiences are craving entertainment that distracts and removes them from their current reality. Roger Green, partner and head of William Morris Endeavor’s motion picture department, says, “People are shying away from stuff that is extremely dark. Anything about a postapocalyptic, post-pandemic future has less traction. The horror genre is still fine. And serious, auteur-driven fare is still getting made. It doesn’t all have to be upbeat comedies. But realistic, dark, depressing material is not what buyers think people want to consume right now.”
Another agent puts it this way: “The general theme of what people are looking for is that the more dark, dystopian thing—forget it. Nobody wants to read it. Actors don’t want to play it. We’re living it.”
Something like The Handmaid’s Tale will likely skirt this trend; i.e., a familiar commodity based on a bestselling novel. “There’s an incredible premium on well-known IP with built-in audiences, so I don’t think those types of shows are slowing down,” says Alexis Garcia, EVP of the Film Group at Endeavor Content. “That helps differentiate it and attract high-end filmmakers and stars. But an original story with unknown characters and that tone or themes—that would be harder to sell.”
Others point out that people wearing masks doesn’t lend itself to visual storytelling, and there’s a sense that the pandemic is a “blip in time” and therefore is not an evergreen subject. Yet its (hopefully) ephemeral nature also means that as time goes by, people will becomes less sensitive to the pandemic, making it more appealing to explore in films and TV shows.
Said another industry insider: “I would say with any generational or even global trauma, everyone wants a little time to process it. There were not a slew of World War II movies right after World War II. It takes time. There were not a ton of cholera books even after the world went though that pandemic. I don’t think anybody wants to see a COVID movie right now, but I do think we’ll see more COVID stories down the line, once we’ve had a little bit of time as a society to move beyond it.”
Big casts are out
The scale of productions has also been affected by COVID-19. Although big-budget tentpoles are still in the works (they are, after all, the lifeblood of the studios), there is a rise in the market in what people are calling “COVID-friendly movies.” This means projects with a limited number of actors and locations that can be shot with as minimal risk as possible.
The biggest examples are films being made by Bazelevs Studio, Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov’s production company that pioneered the so-called Screenlife film genre. The company is behind Screenlife films such as Unfriended and Searching, which were both narratives that unfolded on computer and cellphone screens, cutting down dramatically on the films’ production scale and costs. Screenlife films are shot using GoPros or even cellphone cameras and involve a minimal number of actors. The style is particularly conducive to COVID-19; not surprisingly, in June, Universal signed a five-picture deal with Bazelevs Studio.
Another factor throwing a curveball into decisions about what gets made now is the cost of insuring a production during the pandemic—a number that can increase a project’s budget by as much as 30%. “A common thing I’m hearing is, if the president of a studio looks at a project and says to him or herself, ‘Yeah, that’s a movie we want to make. I like the star, I like the director. But do we want to have to spend an additional 20% due to COVID, or would we rather just punt it a year when we won’t have to spend that extra money?'” Green says.
Studios, at least, have the choice. Independent productions that don’t have the ability or resources to self-insure, as studios and major companies like Netflix do, not only can’t always afford the extra cost, but in many cases are not being offered coverage by insurance companies. Without coverage, many producers can’t get the completion bond, or guarantee, that banks require to lend money to productions.
The result is a significant drop in the number of indie movies and TV shows getting made at the moment. It’s a safe bet that indie productions will ramp up again once the pandemic winds down, just as the COVID-19 insurance dilemma will pass on and darker material will be put back into production.
What’s far less clear, though, is how content distribution will be affected in the long term. Whatever audiences get back to watching in a post-pandemic world, where will they be watching it? With companies like WarnerMedia drastically changing our expectations as to what we are able to see first in the comfort of our own living rooms, will anyone want to go back to theaters even when it’s safe?
“It’s very possible that people will decide that, you know, they’ve had an excellent experience watching Palm Springs (on Hulu) and watching The Queen’s Gambit (on Netflix) and that it’s raised the level of at-home content so that they don’t feel as compelled to go to the theater,” says Alex Rincon, a motion picture literary agent at the United Talent Agency. “That’s the bigger question, from my perspective, that everyone will have to react to. That said, I’m personally optimistic that people will return to the theaters as soon as they feel safe.”