• Australian soap Neighbours restarts production, with social distancing to protect cast and crew.
  • Cinemas closed around the world; revenues could fall by $17 billion by May.
  • Netflix and the straight-to-digital release of Trolls: World Tour have benefited.
  • When cinemas open, social distancing and hygiene measures will be needed.

As countries begin to ease lockdown measures put in place to flatten the COVID-19 curve, film and TV studios are working out how to get back to the business of show.

In Australia, production is resuming on long-running soap opera Neighbours
– with the cast social distancing on set and special camera angles to make characters appear closer together.

The ‘new normal’ will include having no more than 100 people in any area of filming per day; no intimate scenes; the male actors won’t wear make-up, and there will be a nurse on set, Chris Oliver-Taylor, the chief executive of the show’s production company Fremantle Australia, told ABC News.

“We’re going to assume if someone does get sick we don’t need to shut the entire shoot – we just close that group and carry on.”

Neighbours, which shut down production two weeks before Easter as cases of coronavirus grew, is thought to be the first English-language TV drama to resume filming.

The cost of the industry-wide shutdown in Australia is estimated to exceed $325 million, according to Screen Producers Australia, as work on more than 100 TV shows and films ground to a halt, including a biopic of Elvis that was shooting on the Gold Coast.

One of its stars, Tom Hanks, confirmed that he and his wife Ruth Wilson had coronavirus symptoms and were in quarantine for more than two weeks before flying back to the United States.

Bollywood and beyond

The impact of coronavirus on lives and livelihoods is being felt around the globe. As of 29 April, Australia had just over 6,700 confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the US, the figure was over 1 million.

With California still under strict lockdown restrictions, filming in Hollywood has also stopped and release dates of major films have been pushed back – including No Time To Die, the fifth James Bond film to star Daniel Craig – as the doors of cinemas remain closed.

In an unprecedented step, next year’s Oscars will see films that have not been able to have a theatrical release, but have been streamed, qualify for Best Picture and other categories.

Normal rules around eligibility require a film to have been shown in a cinema in Los Angeles County at least three times a day for seven consecutive days.

Academy President David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson said: “There is no greater way to experience the magic of movies than to see them in a theatre. Our commitment to that is unchanged and unwavering. Nonetheless, the historically tragic COVID-19 pandemic necessitates this temporary exception to our awards eligibility rules.”

In mid-March, the global loss in box office revenue stood at around $7 billion, according to the Hollywood Reporter, in part due to the 70,000 cinemas that were closed in China. As the virus spread, that estimate has grown and by the end of May, could be as high as $17 billion.

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Global box office losses could reach $17 billion by May.
Image: Statista

It’s a similar picture in India, where Bollywood has also come to a standstill with lockdown measures in place until 3 May.

Some of the country’s stars, including Deepika Padukone, whose latest film, 83 – the tale of India’s cricket World Cup victory – was due to premiere on 10 April, have refocused their efforts on raising money for the millions now out of work.

As media analysts struggle to gauge the true economic impact of COVID-19 on box office and TV advertising, some countries have been weighing up the cost of lost production spending.

Counting the cost

In Canada, an estimated CAD $2.5 billion (USD $1.8 billion) could be lost from a shutdown that lasts until the end of June, with an impact on more than 172,000 jobs, the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) said on 21 April.

“COVID-19 has brought media production in Canada to a screeching halt,” said Reynolds Mastin, President and CEO of CMPA. “These numbers should serve as a wake-up call for what’s at stake, and motivate us all to work together to ensure the industry can get back on its feet as quickly as possible once this crisis ends.”

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The economic impact of COVID-19.
Image: CMPA

In the UK, the British Film Institute (BFI) has launched targeted relief programmes worth £4.6 million ($5.7m); including £2 million to help independent productions resume filming when measures are lifted, and a £500,000 contribution to a £2.5 million fund to help the industry’s self-employed and freelancers.

“We are working with colleagues across the industry to support those who have been hardest hit, and ensuring that we thrive as we recover,” said BFI Chief Executive Ben Roberts.

In France, the Cannes Film Festival – due to take place in May – was originally postponed until June, but organizers have now abandoned that idea while vowing to explore “all contingencies” to enable the festival and the lucrative Cannes Film Market to go ahead in some form.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

The strict stay-at-home rules have benefitted some entertainment streaming services, with Netflix more than doubling its target for subscribers in the first quarter of 2020 and seeing its shares soar to record highs.

There may be some disruption to its programming schedule later in the year, however, as filming on its original shows, including The Witcher and Stranger Things, has come to a halt.

When WarnerMedia launches its streaming service, HBO Max, in the US in May, it’s unlikely to feature its highly anticipated Friends reunion episode – another COVID-19 production casualty.

Seizing opportunities

Some in the entertainment industry have been quick to react to the ‘new normal’, with visual effects houses moving to work remotely.

In the UK, long-running satirical panel show Have I Got News For You returned for a 59th series – with no studio audience and no studio. The host, two presenters and two panelists were all linked up via video.

YouTube has unveiled new originals designed for the staying-at-home audience, including Celebrity Substitute, where stars and teachers collaborate to engage children in homeschooling.

In a groundbreaking move, DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls: World Tour premiered straight onto digital. The sequel to 2016’s Trolls has made more money for Universal Pictures in the three weeks it’s been available to stream than the original made in five months in cinemas, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Towards a new normal

Cinemas could reopen as early as July, according to the International Union of Cinemas (UNIC), but it depends on each country’s measures to ease lockdown restrictions.

When cinemas do open their doors again, it might be a very different experience from what we’re used to.

British theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose musical version of Cinderella is currently stalled, told New York’s Page Six that he doesn’t think theatres on Broadway and in London’s West End will reopen until the end of September.

And when they do, social distancing and greater hygiene measures will need to be in place, just as they will in cinemas. In turn, this may have a knock-on effect on box-office revenue, depending how many people can attend one performance or one screening.

Lloyd Webber said: “In South Korea, they take everyone’s temperature. We’ll self-clean handles, wipe doors, utilize every safety measure. People won’t wish to crowd into small clustered seats again. But we must reopen. Some, with leftover money to spend, need the theatre.”