Blank marquees glow in the night. Theaters sit empty and silent. Sets lay stagnant. Friday nights at the movies, packed to the brim with people clutching popcorn and Slurpees, feel a lifetime away. 

From independent movie theaters to massive media conglomerates, COVID-19 has decimated the film industry—crippling production and bringing filmmaking as we know it to a grinding halt. With no decisive end to social distancing in sight, the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of industry workers across the United States—all while streaming moguls like Netflix, which gained 16 million subscribers post-lockdown in April, continue to boom. While studios fight to keep up, COVID-19 stands to change the very way we tell stories.

Even before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the film industry, nights out at the movies were already being cashed in for solitary Netflix binges. Movie audiences are getting older, and studios are abandoning less-profitable genres and investing in safe bets for box office success: superhero franchises, animated features, low-budget horror films, and movies by famous directors like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan. With these trends on a collision course, the film industry has long been on the precipice of change.

“All [COVID-19] has done is taken things that have been gradually transforming the business and put them into work,” Greg Johnson ’84 SOM—a lecturer at Yale, film producer, and an expert on the business of Hollywood—said in an interview with The Politic. “The slow-motion car crash of the theaters has become a full-fledged accident scene—a 50-car pileup.”  

This past week, Regal Cinemas shut down all of its 536 U.S. locations, furloughing 40,000 workers. Although industry strongholds like Regal and AMC are threatened by debt default and failure, independent theaters have borne the brunt of the pandemic. But the very crowds necessary to revitalize the faltering industry could cause new COVID-19 outbreaks, leaving theaters without the ticket and concession sales that are now their only hope.

To make matters worse, theaters are lacking not only audiences but also new films to showcase. Studios are reluctant to release movies both in theaters and over streaming services, preferring instead to postpone releases until after the pandemic—despite not knowing when it’ll end—in hopes of mitigating financial loss. 

The September release of Christopher Nolan’s recent film Tenet only amplified these concerns. 

“It just doesn’t look like any other Christopher Nolan release in the last 20 years,” Johnson said in reference to the film that came out earlier this month. “It dominated the box office to get 20 million on its first weekend. But that’s 40 percent of what his comparable movies would do.” 

Kim Piper ’89, an executive producer of the independent film Phoenix, Oregon, never expected that in an odd twist of fate, her film would peak at the box offices during COVID-19. 

In March, the makers of Phoenix, Oregon found themselves at a loss: They wanted people to see their film in theaters, but they did not want to endanger audiences. Instead of pulling their movie, they innovated a solution: “Theatrical-At-Home.” The producers still split ticket proceeds 50-50 with theaters but created a digital platform where audiences could enjoy the film on their laptop screens from the comfort of their living rooms. 

Because big studios pulled their films from cinemas, Phoenix, Oregon was able to top the box office and also show their support for theaters. It also helped the film—a heartwarming indie—receive publicity from major news outlets like The Washington Post and Forbes. 

“It gave us a way to distinguish our film as something different. This is a big-hearted film,” Piper said. “We were going to partner with these theaters and say thank you to [them].”

On the brink of shutting down, theaters need loyalty like Piper’s now more than ever. If theaters fail, the shockwaves will reverberate through the entire film industry. 

And this is just the beginning: The pandemic has also rendered production nearly impossible—all while the demand for new content has skyrocketed. From shot to clip, filmmakers have reimagined the entire movie-making process to accommodate their new normal. 

“Movies with smaller casts that don’t require [much] location-scouting or large crowds can be produced as long as they have proper safety protocols in place for sterilizing equipment and social distancing,” said Marc Lapadula, a screenwriter and senior lecturer in Film and Media Studies at Yale, in an interview with The Politic. But Lapadula predicts that big projects, unless they turn to computerized production methods, will just have to wait. 

Documentary filmmaker and Yale fellow Sandra Lucklow ’87 echoed his concerns. Lucklow is currently filming a documentary ⚠️ DANGER about Dr. Bandy Lee, the Yale psychiatrist who has openly criticized President Trump’s mental fitness for office. COVID-19 has made filming her project much more difficult. 

“I can’t shoot with a crew; I have to shoot alone; I have to shoot with a mask on all the time [….] It’s a whole new world,” Lucklow said of her experience in an interview with The Politic

This halt on production has affected filmmaking on every level. It has also put the costumers, set designers, electricians, screenwriters, and actors who depend on the industry for work in dire straits. Actors often supplement their performance income with restaurant work due to its flexible schedule and tips. But with restaurants and bars shuttered during lockdown, this income source has run dry, leaving aspiring movie stars struggling to get by. Without workers to support the industry, the glamour, lights, and drama that make Hollywood special will disappear, too.

“Once upon a time, if [actors] didn’t have a job on stage, on screen, or in a commercial, they waited tables in between acting gigs. Now, they don’t have either profession to rely on for income,” stressed Lapadula. 

Some of Lapadula’s students who planned to film in Europe had to cancel their plans, while other screenwriting students set to receive payments for their hard work lost that income to the pandemic. Dreams were deferred in an instant. 

And yet, despite the way that the film industry has been acutely affected by the pandemic, it has not received much aid from Congress. 

“You have theaters that are really begging for relief from Congress and bailouts,” said Johnson. 

If relief from the government or a COVID-19 vaccine does not come soon, the effects could be deadly for an already-struggling industry. Even if theaters receive aid, whether audiences will come back is unknown. 

“Will [the industry] sustain itself? I don’t know. Will people revert back to, ‘It’s pretty easy to sit back and watch it on TV, in my living room, or my television room?’” Lapadula asked. “If that becomes the case, then a lot of these movie theaters are going to just become shells and skeletons: empty spaces where once upon a time people went to movies.” 

The pandemic has also raised questions as to what stories we tell in film, especially during such profound loss and crisis. 

“How do we move forward in this new environment?” asked Lucklow. “Do we want to create content that is specifically COVID-19 related? Do we have love scenes with people [wearing] masks?” 

Even though we may see the hallmarks—socially-distant grocery stores and actors clad with face shields—of COVID-19 on the big screen in the imminent future, there may be fundamental changes to the tone and message of movies as well. 

“Are there going to be a much more sobering kind of movies in general? Or will they go almost the opposite way, [now] that we’ve been through so much [that] has been so dark and so challenging?” Lapadula said. 

It may even be that the stories we tell will be permanently changed long after this pandemic is over. 

“Once a world has experienced a pandemic, if the scripts are setting the precedent, are they going to have to be rewritten to…deal with the fact that there was this pandemic that now is behind us?” Lapadula asked.  “Are [movies] going to pretend they [exist] in a world where there was never a pandemic?” 

Even with countless questions still unanswered, Lapadula and Lucklow are certain that the need for art, for stories to be told through film, is greater than ever before. The ability to create art and learn craft is still there, and in it, there is hope. 

Student filmmaker Joji Baratelli ’24 has continued exploring his passion for film during the pandemic. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was always surrounded by moviemaking and has been making short films since childhood. Because major productions are limiting production staff, Baratelli has been spending his leave of absence shooting music videos and taking on other projects to hone his craft.

“It’s been really exciting to be working. It’s always been something that was unexpected,” Baratelli said in an interview with The Politic. “I got one job after another, which I didn’t think would happen. It’s so unpredictable, so I’m really happy and lucky to be able to be doing things during this time.” 

Even though COVID-19 has complicated the filmmaking process, Baratelli collaborated with his friends to create an anthology film about lobsters this past June. Starring their family members, Baratelli and his co-filmmakers each shot different segments of the anthology and edited them together to form an entire, cohesive piece. Although they attempted to cast some actors, they had to re-cast due to positive COVID-19 tests, a new vital safety measure during the pandemic. The film God is a Lobster was recently selected to be shown at the film festival NFFTY, which will take place over Zoom from October 23 to November 1. 

“I’m trying to make a career and a living out of something that I really love and [to find] a way to do it that’s still being an artist,” he said. Baratelli has tried to not let COVID-19 get in the way of that. 

“How lucky are you to find yourself in an unprecedented, historical moment?” Lucklow recalled telling her documentary-making film class this past March. “This is what every documentarian dreams of, and you all are living through it.” 

She urged her students to create: ousted from Yale, scattered across the country, and armed with their iPhones, they offered beautiful yet heartbreaking windows into what it has been like living through a pandemic. 

“[The pandemic] has enabled me to write more than I’ve ever written,” said Lapadula. He encourages other artists to continue their work during the pandemic: “Use limitations, always take an opportunity where [there’s] any type of imposed limitations…. How can I make something now, in this moment that I never could have made, had I not been forced to be inspired by these limitations?” 

At the end of our interview, Lapadula asked, “Do you know Waiting for Godot?”

Then, he began to speak the words of the character Vladimir: 

Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? 

Silence, then: 

“That’s got to be our answer.”

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