(Photo by Photo by Michael Loccisano Courtesy of SXSW)
The impact of the coronavirus on the film and television industry is being felt on every level. Major tentpole releases like Mulan, A Quiet Place 2, and Wonder Woman 1984 have been pushed to later dates – and could still move further. On-the-horizon blockbusters like James Cameron’s Avatar sequels have suspended production, while TV shows from The Bachelor to Riverdale have also halted or delayed production, potentially impacting their release schedules.
In mid-March, several theater chains asked that moviegoers sit several seats apart – some reduced their capacity by 50% to avoid generating crowds. By the end of the month, movie theaters across the country shuttered indefinitely, causing some studios and distributors to rush their titles from the big screen to VOD – and others to premiere upcoming titles there.
IndieWire Executive Editor and Chief Critic Eric Kohn says our new COVID-19–impacted reality hit him when South by Southwest was cancelled – it would have been his 14th consecutive year attending the Austin festival. “It was the first time I think it sunk in within our very specific space that a lot of the infrastructure we take for granted for how we do our coverage would be altered, and that it would be impacting every aspect of the industry in a way that we’d have to upend our strategy,” Kohn says.
How are critics and film and TV journalists reacting to these impacts? How are they adapting to the ever-changing circumstances of COVID-19 – when the very thing they cover has seemingly vanished overnight? Rotten Tomatoes spoke with several critics and editors – staff and freelance alike – to get their thoughts on industry-wide shifts, from closures and cancellations to production halts and release delays, as well as hear their experiences of pitching and pivoting in this unprecedented period.
Brian Tallerico is Editor at RogerEbert.com and President of the Chicago Film Critics Association. His primary concern right now is that, as time goes on, there will be fewer and fewer releases for journalists to write about – both for movies and TV. “There’s not as much out there to cover,” he says. “I think that’s the biggest issue for pretty much everyone in our field right now.”
At a certain – and as yet undetermined – point, production halts will catch up with releases across the industry. Right now, we’re looking at delays for films already completed, but in the coming months, TV series that had to pause production may have to take indefinite hiatuses. No one can predict what will be out there for viewing, let alone reviewing, in the year ahead.
This poses a particular challenge to freelance writers like Carlos Aguilar, who’s written for Remezcla and the Los Angeles Times. He estimates that his freelance work has been cut in half recently. “There’s a smaller pool of content that needs to be reviewed or written about, and the same amount of people writing about it,” Aguilar says.
With fewer new releases to cover, Aguilar has turned his focus towards international cinema, animation, and dystopian films. “I try to pitch other things that are more on the uplifting side,” he says.
He acknowledges that “it’s almost impossible to write things that are entirely isolated from the situation right now,” partially because “this is something that everyone’s going through at the same time.”
Monica Castillo, a freelance contributor to RogerEbert.com and The New York Times, told us that every corner of her work has been impacted by COVID-19–related changes. “A good portion of the stories and projects I’ve worked on were tied to theatrical releases as well as film festivals, both of which have been greatly impacted,” she says.
“A lot of the outlets that I also work for have also either frozen or scaled back their freelance budgets, and that created a really big issue. I went from having several stories I was working on in any given day to almost only having one or no stories to work on.”
Castillo has found that certain outlets are pivoting towards streaming and VOD content, while others are looking for binge guides and coronavirus-centric pitches. To compensate for once-steady gigs lost due to budget cuts, many freelancers are looking for new places to publish.
“I’m almost starting from scratch in a way and trying to rebuild the schedule that I used to have, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that just through freelancing,” she says.
A number of major film and television festivals have been canceled altogether, delayed indefinitely, or moved online. When such extreme schedule changes arise, critics and publications are forced to not only reschedule flights or cancel reservations, but also rethink their coverage and reckon with lost networking opportunities.
Freelance writer Joi Childs has contributed to The Hollywood Reporter, Paste Magazine, and most recently MTR Network. She was planning on attending SXSW before it was canceled in early March. While she’s grateful that the festival is no longer entirely canceled – SXSW announced in early April that a selection of films that would have premiered at their in-person festival will be available to stream online for a limited time – she feels that online screenings don’t offer the same level of opportunities as in-person events.
“I think the biggest thing that you lose from being an online festival versus an in-person festival is the networking,” Childs says. “I’ve met so many different freelancers and other critics and other editors at these festivals live. From the perspective of a critic, that is extremely invaluable because you develop not only the community, but you develop people that you can potentially write for.”
Robert Daniels, a freelance writer who has contributed to RogerEbert.com and The Playlist, believes there are fewer benefits to online festivals than in-person ones, and not just because “it’s just so difficult to simulate the kind of buzz that a big premiere at festival brings.” He says festival attendance can lead directly to bylines. “I’ve written for six publications and maybe four of the editors I’ve met at festivals.”
One key impact from festival cancellations will be on awards season and the prestigious fall film calendar. Festival environments are where awards narratives are born – and awards pitches get picked up – and where critics and writers begin to champion films that they then cover throughout the season.
David Fear, Senior Editor and film critic at Rolling Stone, emphasizes that, without festivals, critics might not get a sense of which films are the year’s frontrunners. “If Cannes is not happening in May, then those films don’t get that push,” Fear says. “If Toronto and Venice don’t happen, what does that mean for both a potential award circuit and just the fall film season in general? At that point, you just have to look in the crystal balls and tea leaves.”
At this stage, the Cannes International Film Festival has been postponed, while Venice and Toronto have yet to make any official call.
The unpredictability Fear references makes it all the more challenging for freelancers to determine which films to cater their pitches to for the rest of the year.
IndieWire’s Kohn echoed those concerns: “The festival usually would create buzz around a film in part because of the live event of a screening, hearing a crowd react to something, and seeing a Q&A. And the kind of word-of-mouth in that very specific environment is something you can’t replicate online. For certain films, it’s just not going to have the same kind of impact.”
At the same time, he sees online festivals as an opportunity for critics to jump on coverage for smaller movies that may have otherwise fallen under the radar at a major festival. “If you’re a journalist and you’re interested in writing about a movie that was supposed to have a premiere, that coverage has so much more currency than it used to,” Kohn says. “It’s actually a real opportunity for people who are looking to cover films.”
As President of the Chicago Film Critics Association, Tallerico has first-hand experience of making the call to cancel or delay a festival. “I actually produce a film festival in Chicago called the Chicago Critics Film Festival every May, and [this year] we had to pull the plug, of course,” Tallerico says. “Festivals feed the industry, they feed both industries, the film industry and the journalism industry. It definitely hurts that they’re gone.”
While film releases have been delayed theatrically or pushed to VOD, the television industry continues to churn out content at the moment. Physical production is universally halted, but episodes and/or seasons produced in advance of COVID-19–related shutdowns are rolling out on broadcast and streaming platforms. (Post-production continues remotely in many cases.)
Several editors told us that critics well-versed in film coverage should attempt to exercise their TV-reviewing muscles for the time being. But even the TV and streaming content will slow down at some point.
In addition to being an editor at RogerEbert.com, Tallerico freelances and is well-versed in television coverage. He predicts that, come summertime, the content drought will be even more deeply felt. “I think places like Netflix and Hulu and all them are going to empty the hopper and then have nothing to put in there because nothing has been produced,” Tallerico says.
In short, some critics anticipate dry spells in content, depending upon how long the need for social distancing persists.
Jean Bentley is a freelance television reporter for The Hollywood Reporter and InStyle, and former Assistant TV Editor for Rotten Tomatoes. According to Bentley, it’s “business as usual” for television reporters and critics – right now. “I have not really been impacted as much as reporters who cover film because all of those theatrical releases that have been pushed has not happened with TV,” she says.
However, she predicts that, when things go back to normal, production scheduling will present major challenges to creatives who may newly be double-booked.
“If someone was supposed to be shooting something now and then, say, production resumes in three months – they were already supposed to be doing something else, so now there’s a conflict there that they didn’t have before,” Bentley says. “I think it’s going to result in more [shows] being canceled or just not picked up. Pilot season essentially got canceled and it doesn’t seem like a smart proposition to me personally to do it at all, to be quite honest.”
Rolling Stone’s Fear foresees similar challenges for film scheduling, as films whose production was shut down will not be finished in time for their original release deadlines. “There are going to be a bunch of holes that are going to be filled, too, because a film that was supposed to be done with its post-production in April, and then be ready for an August or November or a February slot, is not done,” Fear says.
There are also more nuanced adjustments required during a global pandemic. It’s not only that schedules are in flux and content is unpredictable, both of which impact print publications acutely because of the rigidness of press deadlines. But there’s also an interpersonal and emotional awareness of the ways that people are coping with the new “normal” in the wake of COVID-19, shelter-in-place, and stay-at-home orders.
Bilge Ebiri is a movie critic at Vulture. In addition to producing online content, from reviews to feature stories and essays, Ebiri is involved in the print production for New York Magazine, which operates vulture.com. He spoke to the challenges of preparing print content weeks in advance, when global circumstances are changing by the day.
“If you’re doing it for online, that’s one thing, but a lot of what I try to do is work with the print issue,” Ebiri says. “There is this question, when you’re in a situation where every day is worse than the previous day: Where are we going to be two weeks from now? Trying to imagine what life is going to be like two weeks from now is already daunting…. If we have some kind of fun, frivolous, inane kind of thing to take people’s minds off, in two weeks, this is going to look totally tone deaf.”
Inkoo Kang, TV critic at The Hollywood Reporter, described a similar recognition when speaking of an article that she’d pitched before things really took a turn. “There was a review that I was passionate about, but also knew it was sort of this weird, more personal work – a trends piece, essentially, that I think was something that I knew was a little bit more on the frivolous side,” Kang says. “Then suddenly, it seems so incredibly stupid, because it just did not feel like it mattered, compared to everything else that was happening.”
She adds: “It was just one of those things where, I don’t know, 48 weeks out of the year, this could have been a viable thing to do a commentary piece about. Now people are dying, and the economy is in the toilet. It just did not feel like it mattered on any level.”
Every outlet has its own approach to pivoting away from new-release film coverage when there are fewer theatrical releases. Many are leaning into television, streaming, and VOD. Vulture writers are live-tweeting while watching previous releases as part of their “Friday Night Movie Club”; The Ringer is leaning further into streaming guides, best-of lists, and their The Rewatchables podcast; Entertainment Weekly is conducting group interviews via Instagram Live.
Like many publications, RogerEbert.com is continuing to cover Netflix and HBO original movies. “Those are getting more valuable, I suppose, because there’s no major movies,” Tallerico says. Still, RogerEbert.com’s review output has shrunk as a result of COVID-19. “We used to do about 13 reviews a week, now I’d say we’re doing seven to nine.”
IndieWire has taken advantage of actors’ availability for interviews by speaking with them via Instagram Live, where fans can comment and talent can speak to their art – and COVID-19 experiences – in a uniquely personal way. “Because people aren’t really promoting stuff in quite the same way, they’re available in a different fashion,” says IndieWire’s Kohn. “Being able to get somebody on the line because they’re just sort of hunkered down and not able to get any work done is actually a kind of a neat opportunity.”
Rolling Stone’s Fear also sees editorial opportunities when there are fewer new releases. He and his writers are writing retrospective pieces, covering movies that readers may have previously missed – or now have the time to return to. It’s a tactic freelancers are leaning into, as well.
“I would say one of the very, very, very small advantages is that because people aren’t necessarily going to the movies to see the three big things that came out that weekend… is that it’s a chance to turn people on to things that they might have missed,” Fear says. “It’s a chance to get people to catch up with something or to work backwards.”
One of the biggest challenges right now is that so much is unknown. No one can predict when production will pick back up, when theaters will reopen, or when fans will return to them (and in what numbers). What’s also up in the air is how the intense pivot to streaming will impact the ways that audiences expect to watch movies and TV moving forward, post-pandemic: Is Trolls World Tour the release model of the future?
Tallerico is skeptical of the idea that audiences will immediately return to theaters when they reopen. “I was on a call with friends the other day and asked them when they thought they’d feel comfortable sitting in a crowded theater, a sold-out movie theater, and they all said, ‘Oh man, not for a long time.’ I think that’s what the studios are trying to figure out now: When will people go back? I don’t think anyone wants to be the movie that reopens on the day the curve stops.”
Kohn believes studios are aware of that dilemma. “It’s going to take a long time before the public fully feels more comfortable going to crowded places again,” Kohn says. “This idea that suddenly the floodgates will open and people will just start going to public places and be in crowds, I think it’s unrealistic and studios seem to understand that.”
Critics expressed a mix of optimism and uncertainty when discussing the future of the industry, as well as their work.
“Realistically, this is going to last a lot longer than people thought, but it’s really hard to think forward when we really don’t know what the world is going to look like in two weeks,” says TV writer Bentley. “That is definitely the weirdest part about the whole thing, professionally and personally.”
Castillo says her productivity has changed, in light of both quarantining and the emotional toll of living through a time of such uncertainty. “This is affecting a lot of people emotionally and mentally as well,” she says. “You worry about your family. You’re worried about your own health. You’re worried about your finances when all of these different things that you thought you’d be working on for the next foreseeable several months have just evaporated. That also affects your work. It’d be impossible for it not to.”
Let us know about your experiences covering film and TV right now – or the kind of film and TV coverage you’re interested in. And stay tuned: We’ll be following this report up with some practical tips from editors about how to pitch and pivot effectively right now.