From Hollywood to Albert Square, the global film business and domestic TV schedules have been blindsided by COVID-19. With sets reopening and shooting restarting, Ben Gilbert examines what happens next and how this reconfiguration will influence the music composition, supervision and rights community.
As befits a mutant monster-hunter, there is little that can stand in the way of Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia: “I’m dusting off my lute and quill, I have some news, some mead to spill: After all the months we’ve been apart. It’s time for production to restart. The Witcher and his bard – who’s flawless. Will reunite on set 17 August.” In an eloquent dispatch, albeit via social media rather than the scriptures, the makers of Netflix’s supernatural epic announced plans to emerge from the pandemic that shut down the entertainment world in March.
No doubt less concerned about the realities of herd immunity than a fantastical herd of two-headed Mesozoic velociraptors approaching on the horizon, The Witcher’s hulking lead character is exactly that. A fictitious incarnation watched by 76m households and brought to life at London’s Arborfield Studios. Other, rather more human, figures remain palpably fearful of the real dangers and potential cost to life that the production of film and TV could yet present during the coronavirus era.
“I don’t know if I personally will go back to work anytime soon,” Charlize Theron told Vanity Fair recently. “I have two small kids. I’ve had these recurring dreams – or terrors, I should say – that I somehow stupidly got it and brought it back to my kids. I don’t want to mess with this stuff.” But this is not, as the magazine points out, “about being a diva”, rather in recognition of the remodelled landscape that saw global production halted and blockbusters like No Time To Die and Top Gun: Maverick postponed.
Coronavirus will reportedly cost the global film industry $10b
“Coronavirus Is Killing The Box Office” declared Forbes as the pandemic hit, a statement that might seem histrionic until you try to swallow the $10b loss reportedly felt by the global film industry. Vox continue to update an article that documents this seismic impact. Indeed, there can be few components of entertainment that are unaffected, from Hollywood to the comparatively homespun British TV soap. Programmes such as Eastenders and Coronation Street were also forced to stop filming and ration episodes, coming perilously close to running out before they too returned to a forever changed world.
In assessing how this sector of entertainment has responded to the initial blow of COVID-19 and has managed production under lockdown and will do so in the future, Alicen Schneider, SVP, Music Creative at NBCUniversal Television, admits the broadcaster’s content pipeline is now dry. “We had a few series that had quite a bit of content that was already in the can so we were able to finish those”, she explained in a recent webinar held by the Production Music Association (PMA).
“I’ve been checking with my team every week because collectively we probably oversee about 60 or 70 shows. I’d say in the last week I’ve been getting notices from all of them that they’re nearing the end. We weren’t able to complete any pilots. When this happened, we were just days out from going into physical production on a majority of our pilots. It hit us at the worst time,” she explained.
“I think the hope is that at the latest we’ll start early August. They’re trying to get everything up and running as soon as possible, but they have to assess across the industry what will be deemed safe practices.”
– Alicen Schneider, NBCUniversal Television
The network is now gearing up to resume filming but must, according to Schneider, “reinvent the wheel”. “I think the hope is that at the latest we’ll start early August. They’re trying to get everything up and running as soon as possible, but they have to assess across the industry what will be deemed safe practices. They have to really reinvent the wheel as far as how they are going to approach productions going forward,” she commented.
“Film Festivals Aren’t Just Surviving Online, They’re Creating a Better Future”
In a matter of months, there is already much to learn from the evolution of this landscape. In June, the Midem Digital Edition hosted the largest music industry event to be held online, following similar initiatives from SXSW and Tribeca. The sense of scale of YouTube events like We Are One: A Global Film Festival, which took place across 10 days in May, featuring contributions from comparable gatherings in Berlin, Cannes and Sundance, prompted IndieWire to declare: “Film Festivals Aren’t Just Surviving Online, They’re Creating a Better Future”.
An even more compelling and tangible trend has emerged in the accelerated demand for content via streaming services. In April, Netflix announced its biggest quarter ever, after adding almost 16m new subscribers. Meanwhile, Disney+ has recruited 50m paid members worldwide in the less than six months since launch. The conceptualisation of viewing habits in this period has been termed “pandemic planning” by MIDiA Research, who calculated that lockdown has provided consumers with an extra 15% viewing time.
A definitive pivot to online and subscription models has been further bolstered by digital-only releases, such as Trolls World Tour. Originally intended for cinemas, the movie made more for Universal in three weeks on demand than Trolls had done did in five months at theatres, according to CNBC. But what patterns do figures within the industry see emerging in terms of employees? Deborah Mannis-Gardner, a global music rights expert who has promoted remote working to her staff at DMG Clearances, Inc since its 1986 formation, says this is now the new normal.
The media industries must refocus on “health and well-being”
“The advancement of technology has made it that much easier. So COVID-19 did not affect my staff’s ability to get work done; it was our clients who needed to catch up with us to keep the production flowing. I believe March had a huge impact, but by April, the hiccups were being worked through, and May was almost business as usual. I understand why some prefer in-person setups but I hope this makes everyone a little more open to the idea of remote work,” Mannis-Gardner told Synchtank.
Schneider struck an equally optimistic tone: “Everybody’s learning to adapt. What you’re going to see, at least on the production side, is a limited number of essential people on site. You’re going to have a much smaller staff of people and it’s going to be a more contained environment,” she explained, welcoming the way working practices are being reconfigured. “I think people’s health and well-being are going to be protected in ways that probably should have always been in place,” she said.
“Physical proximity is vitally important for human beings but it doesn’t mean we need to be together as much as we were before the pandemic.”
– Adam Taylor, APM Music
Adam Taylor, President of APM Music and Chairman of the Production Music Association (PMA), agrees that things have to change in the pursuit of “a more balanced human experience”. Speaking during the PMA webinar, he commented: “Physical proximity is vitally important for human beings but it doesn’t mean we need to be together as much as we were before the pandemic. I used to want everybody in the office all the time but I’ve shifted my view on that.”
Does Tyler Perry’s Camp Quarantine document point to a way forward?
Of course, there are many aspects of this process that still require physical interaction. During the PMA webinar, Joel C. High, Chief Executive of Creative Control Entertainment and Guild of Music Supervisors President, explained how collaborator Tyler Perry is envisaging a way forward for visual culture. In a 30-page document, Camp Quarantine, the cinematic polymath listed as the highest-paid male in entertainment by Forbes, outlined the elaborate production protocols that will allow him to safely resume filming at his Atlanta studio in July.
“If he’s got to quarantine his cast and crew and keep them isolated for a few weeks for pre-production and shooting, that shows a model of how it can be done. Enough of that and you’ve got a whole series and then editors can work in isolation cutting the shows and putting them together,” High explained.
“If he’s [Tyler Perry] got to quarantine his cast and crew and keep them isolated for a few weeks for pre-production and shooting, that shows a model of how it can be done.”
– Joel C. High, Creative Control Entertainment
A more formal model for the future of the entertainment industry was submitted for approval to officials in New York, California and Los Angeles County earlier this month by The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Meanwhile, Hollywood was officially reopened to filming on June 12. The California Department of Public Health approved the move, subject to a range of rules and restrictions agreed with entertainment studios and unions.
While the actual response might be described as tentative, question marks also remain around a multitude of issues affecting both content and audience. How will more intimate acting scenes be filmed? Can we expect a rise in the use of CGI and other animation techniques? Similarly, should we anticipate a flood of storytelling around coronavirus? How will consumers feel about seeing crowds onscreen, let alone returning to cinemas and encountering vast groups of people in-person?
American Federation of Musicians warns of “catastrophic job losses”
There is no question that these changes will impact the financial health of the industry from top to bottom. Within sync, there are major concerns about the likely effect on the music composition, supervision and rights community. Anecdotally, some report being busier than ever during the pandemic’s initial phase, while others have seen their livelihood completely disappear. Indeed, the American Federation of Musicians has warned of “catastrophic job losses” in Los Angeles alone. Looking more long-term, there is uncertainty about both demand for music and the economic models that underpin these processes.
“Any decreases will be detrimental to those making movies and TV shows, as high-quality music is a huge part of creating atmosphere and heightening scenes.”
– Deborah Mannis-Gardner, DMG Clearances
“Unfortunately, music budgets are always shrinking, so there is definitely potential for them to go down even more as production companies look for ways to offset new and increased expenses. It’s something I’ll be discussing with my clients. Of course, any decreases will be detrimental to those making movies and TV shows, as high-quality music is a huge part of creating atmosphere and heightening scenes,” commented Mannis-Gardner.
“We have to protect the value of music and, more importantly, we have to protect the value of our lives. I think we’ll see people trying to gauge how much somebody is willing to take a risk.”
– Adam Taylor, APM Music
Taylor called on the sync community “to be careful” in future negotiations. “We have to protect the value of music and, more importantly, we have to protect the value of our lives. I think we’ll see people trying to gauge how much somebody is willing to take a risk. And I’m concerned that the work will be going to the people who will be more willing to take the risk, rather than having a set of standards and practices in place that are accepted by the industry across the board.”
Could budgetary constraints alter business models around sync?
There are fears that these budgetary constraints could result in a more pronounced reliance on royalty-free music. Not according to Schneider, whose work at NBCUniversal Television also covers production on Netflix, Amazon and Apple shows. “We have to take into consideration all of our clients, but we also hold the line and we see the value,” she commented.
This will come as some reassurance to the music media community, already spooked by the successful recent campaign, led by more than 11,000 composers and musicians, to oppose a plan by Discovery Networks to impose a new business model intended to reconfigure performance royalties on its networks.
“Library music will become increasingly key for productions affected by budgets and also on a time crunch due to shifting production schedules.”
– Sasha White, West One Music Group
Downward pressure on budgets is also likely to bring more opportunities to the production music sector. “We’ve definitely seen a push to go towards production music as much as possible for promotions,” explained Schneider. Sasha White, Music Supervisor at West One Music Group, predicts that library music will become increasingly key “for productions affected by budgets and also on a time crunch due to shifting production schedules.” She added: “Music supervisors will be thinking about the smartest way to make the best of shifting music budgets.”
Additionally, the process of recording film and TV scores will remain a challenge moving forward. Though scoring stages and recording facilities have been given the green light to re-open, strict distancing regulations will make it a complex and painstaking undertaking, not unlike the remote-recording processes that have been relied upon during the pandemic. This could lead music supervisors to seek out licenses from pre-existing major film scores, a service offered by Cutting Edge Group, through their Music.Film platform.
End of lockdown soundtracked by “exuberant, upbeat and uplifting” music
Head of Music at Cutting Edge Group, Michael Kurtz, who manages a catalogue of 500 scores, including Drive, Whiplash, Hacksaw Ridge, Carol, Sicario and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, explained: “We actively support and invest in film music and are consequently in a unique position to revolutionise how movie soundtracks are licensed for secondary use in TV programming, advertising, games, trailers and other commercial contexts.”
Within this space, despite the overriding significance of contracts and deals, economics and politics, members of the entertainment community are empowered by a belief that everything they work on is shot through a prism of creativity. 5 Alarm Music’s Christy Carew speaks of the end of lockdown being soundtracked by “exuberant, upbeat and uplifting” music balanced against a “sombre” tone and the memories of the people “we have lost”.
Schneider, meanwhile, recalls the “heroic” efforts displayed by members of her team during the pandemic to somehow score a full orchestra of people working remotely on Zoom. The media shutdown has been described by one film studio executive as “like tranquilizing an elephant”. While we might consider what happens next as progress, they are still baby steps, set to leave a massive, everlasting imprint on this industry.