What moviemaking may look like in a post-coronavirus world

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Hollywood shut down along with the rest of America in mid-March. Films slated for release were delayed or pushed straight to streaming. Things in pre-production may never see the light of day again. Projects in the middle of filming halted production, which is why Robert Pattinson, star of forthcoming flick The Batman, is sequestered in London making exploding pasta balls instead of at home in Los Angeles.

Like so many industries, Hollywood is desperate to do business again, however. With many states loosening social-distancing guidelines and opening back up, studios are working out how to resume filming in a massively altered world. Variety interviewed dozens of studio executives and filmmakers on how they’re preparing for the future and what sort of changes there may be on set. Essentially, it’s going to cost a lot more money to produce even scaled-back projects.

Tyler Perry will be among the very first in the business to resume production in early July, at his Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia. “I’m excited about being able to make sure that people can take care of themselves and support their families, but also excited about setting a template here that I think could work everywhere,” Perry told Variety.

The studio is on a decommissioned US Army base, and everyone involved in Perry’s “drastically” scaled-back productions will be housed on site. Cast and crew will be tested for coronavirus when they arrive, and again four more times during each two-and-a-half week shoot. Everyone on set will wear masks.

Other studio executives echoed Perry’s precautions, adding that extra medical and cleaning staff would have to be hired, and time out for temperature checks, COVID-19 testing and cleaning would lead to longer production timelines. Small casts will be favored over large ones, with CGI replacing extras in crowd scenes. Shooting will probably be confined to sound stages, with shoestring crews to promote social-distancing.

“To state what may be the obvious, I think the really big crew, lots of extras, multi-country production where you sort of are required to globe-trot is probably last in the queue,” an anonymous high-level studio executive told Variety.

Another executive told the magazine that “containable” movies will likely have a better shot at getting made in the coming months and years. “There are so many movies on the docket, but you might see one of the smaller ones get a real good shot,” the executive said. “Who wouldn’t like a nice four-character horror-genre movie right now?”

Producer Lynette Howell Taylor (A Star Is Born) echoed that sentiment, because independent productions can be more nimble. “I immediately went into ‘Okay, what can we do with five people and a camera?’” Taylor said. “I feel like independent filmmakers are going to have another resurgence again. I think it’s actually an incredible opportunity.”

Unfortunately, filmmaking in the age of coronavirus may not be that simple. The costs of production, which are already astronomical, are going to surge as studios sink money into medical supplies, insurance (if they can even get it) and other preventative measures. It’s a lose-lose scenario — spending more money to employ fewer people and make less-ambitious work. It makes you wonder if Hollywood ought to hunker down and ride the pandemic out.

“A movie can’t work with masks and social distancing — everyone is all over each other all the time,” the director of a studio movie that was in pre-production anonymously told Variety. Studios could sink millions into preventative measures and still get shut down again if there’s a spike in infections. “To not face that, either you’re in denial or you’re ignorant, or you’re pretending to not know so the company isn’t liable,” the director said.

Unless Hollywood starts up again at some point, however, it could be years before we see any new content that’s not produced remotely. And that’s just depressing. Did you see the bizarre, unsettling finale of American Idol last weekend? Nobody wants to live in that reality. But we have no choice.

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