By Khalida Sarwari
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it sweeping changes to seemingly every facet of life, from the way we work to the way we shop, and in some cases, disrupting entire industries. The film industry hasn’t been spared, and in many ways, the way we watch movies will soon change, too, says Bobette Buster, a professor of the practice of digital storytelling at Northeastern.
The pandemic has forced movie theaters across the world to close, pushing some to the brink of bankruptcy as a number of film studios have had to postpone scheduled releases, including “No Time to Die,” “Fast and Furious 9,” and “A Quiet Place Part II.”
Universal Pictures decided to go in a different direction. The studio is making some of its new theatrical releases, including “The Invisible Man” and “Emma,” available on home streaming platforms for $19.99 per movie.
“Once we get through this self-isolating era, I think that the future is that more films are going to be made for streaming, but that means less money because you don’t make as much money from streaming, and they’re not going to put as much money into marketing,” she says. “You might have a great film, but if they don’t advertise it, you won’t know where it is. And so, it’s a huge sea change in the marketplace.”
Buster, who wrote and produced the 2019 documentary “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound,” says she is especially worried about the immediate and long-lasting impact the pandemic will have on indie films. The success or failure of a lot of these comparatively lower budget films is tied to their exposure and reception at film festivals, many of which have been postponed or canceled.
“What that means is that a whole range of films that would have gotten screened and reviewed by critics this year and progressed through the international festival pipeline around the world, they’re simply not going to be able to,” she says. “And those filmmakers, a lot of them took out loans, borrowed money, live on grants, and now they have to try again in a year to see if their films will get into other festivals. I fear that this will be a lost generation for American filmmakers.”
Buster points out that Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” the critically acclaimed black comedy which won four Oscars, including for Best Picture and Best Director, in addition to the prestigious Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival, would not have enjoyed the same success, or even recognition, had it been released this year. The burden of producing Oscar-worthy films has fallen on independent or foreign filmmakers, she says, as the major film studios have shifted their focus to financing and producing the superhero, fantasy, and animation genres.
“We would not have ever known of this film and there would not have been the knock-on effect of Parasite playing in all the major international film festivals and developing such huge word of mouth,” she says. “Those kinds of films will not get any opportunity in this environment.”
Adapting to a world shaped by COVID-19 will require the film industry to reassess how studios distribute movies, Buster says. Will streaming theatrical releases become the new normal once theaters reopen? And what will that mean for multiplexes?
“I see this as a major contraction moment for the industry, and the whole industry has to figure out its business model again,” Buster says. “But they’ve done it before, such as when the industry tanked in 1962, and I believe, they’ll do it again. But it will take time. After all, we all still love to go out to see the movies together.”