In praise of the film industry: how creativity kept the lights on during its toughest summer yet

The future looks bleak, yes, but the scrappy way studios and filmmakers have kept us entertained deserves applause

The seasonal shift leaves behind a summer that no one will ever forget, least of all Hollywood. In the middle of a global pandemic from which even Batman wasn’t safe, film and TV productions of all scales shut down their sets indefinitely, cinemas closed their doors (with some never to open again), and blockbuster release strategies became more mind-boggling than most of the plot of Tenet.

Commendably, at a time when the world needed entertaining more than ever, the film industry pulled up its socks and worked hard to keep the show on the road. A-listers, in particular, became a source of much-needed catharsis as they dreamed up new ways to connect with fans: Sam Neill walked us through his sneaker collection. A stoned Seth Rogen tweeted along to his first viewing of Cats. Henry Cavill built a computer from scratch with his (very large) bare hands in front of some fabulously kitsch curtains. Arnold Schwarzenegger went for a mindful bike ride. Through these often mundane yet charming home performances, we got a unique insight into lives that often seemed far away from our own.

Shudder Horror
‘Host’ stars Emma Louise Webb in a cast of real-life mates. Credit: Shudder

At the same time, a very-American kind of hero returned to fame. More popular during the previous century, when movies were less accessible from home, drive-in cinemas filled the void vacated by cinemas. With theatres closed due to tightening restrictions, small, often family-run outdoor screens thrived. Suddenly, less than a dozen drive-ins were determining box office sales across the whole of North America, with premieres and film festivals taking place under the stars. Across the pond, British entrepreneurs soon picked up the trend – and new drive-ins set up shop in parks, arenas and stadiums.

Elsewhere, filmmakers found innovative new ways to shoot movies during quarantine. Euphoria creator Sam Levinson called upon his now Emmy-winning collaborator Zendaya and John David Washington to shoot Malcolm & Marie, a black and white romance that was shot socially-distanced in California. Financed in part by Levinson and Zendaya but bolstered by its dazzling star power, the film has already been scooped up by Netflix for a cool $30 million.

Zendaya
Zendaya and John David Washington shot a film entirely in lockdown, ‘Malcolm & Marie’. Credit: Alamy

Back on British soil, indie filmmaker Rob Savage used Zoom to make Host – a lockdown-set horror about six friends who hold a seance via video call. Savage’s resourceful approach to special effects – which included rope pulleys and pillows – worked terrifyingly well. Host became a cult hit and launched Savage to a three-picture deal with Blumhouse. Of course, bigger-budget productions still had to rely on face-to-face contact – and crews devised new ways to minimise contact on sets. The long-running American soap The Bold and the Beautiful deployed mannequins for its more intimate scenes, hailing the launch of the ‘latex kiss’ for actors – and mainstream hits like Riverdale and Dynasty soon followed suit. Crafty staging is also being implemented to make characters seem nose-to-nose face on, when in reality they’re standing metres apart.

However, when it came to actually putting movies in front of punters, major studios did slightly less well (see Mulan’s straight-to-digital launch in September). Film festivals, though, have stepped up to the plate. Many have paved the way for online viewing with either an entirely digital edition or a hybrid of online and reduced IRL screenings. Though the latter did mean awkwardly spaced-out paparazzi photos and lonely-looking theatres, Venice Film Festival – which took the first tentative plunge – was commended for nailing safety protocols while preserving its acclaimed programme (Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland starring Frances McDormand scooped the Golden Lion), followed closely by Toronto and New York, which premiered new material from Steve McQueen, Spike Lee and Sofia Coppola.

Film industry
Venice Film festival was commended for getting safety protocols just right. Credit: Getty

Of course, the financial black hole many cinemas (big or small) are looking into is unacceptable – and the government needs to provide further support if they are to survive. Yet the surprisingly scrappy and enduring adaptability of the film industry this summer should be applauded. From directors to marketing managers, the (often unsung) heroes who keep the movie world turning have ensured we can still enjoy a little escapism. Whether that’s by watching a world premiere from our front rooms or enjoying the company of Arnie and his pet horses as we scrolled through Twitter, it doesn’t matter. When the world outside is looking this bleak, we’ll take the cinematic silver linings where we can.

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