As the COVID 19 pandemic rolls into its sixth month here in the United Kingdom, it’s become increasingly apparent that cinema is not going to tie us all together in a spirit of fortitude as it did in the last remotely comparable (in terms of scale at least) crisis, the Second World War. 1939 is known as Hollywood’s Golden Year, when cinemas were famously packed, at least in the western world, throughout the conflict, as people sought solace from harsh realities that threatened them.
Yet now it feels as though the world of cinema has drawn to a complete standstill, both in terms of production and of distribution/exhibition, with little talk of attempts at restarting the industry (compare the haste to restart sports such as football with the lethargy when it has come to easing cinema back into the picture – no pun intended).
Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster Tenet has been touted as the first major movie to be released in today’s socially distanced world, and yet even its release date has been repeatedly pushed back. UK Cinemas have reopened as of 1 August with the utmost hesitancy and with great care – in sharp contrast to the rushed, and fairly relaxed, approaches adopted by many other venues, such as pubs. But there is a feeling that this standstill is going to have a negative effect on the cinema industry – perhaps more so than any other, with the possible and sad exception of theatre, which seems to have been entirely forgotten in these times.
After all, no big film producers or distributors appear brave enough to dip their toes into the water of post-pandemic release, which is perhaps understandable given the probable immense box-office flop that will ensue – social distancing means that it is simply impossible to expect the maximum return from current releases. But what about alternatives? Movies released straight to Netflix, or to or to other streaming platforms, have long been a growing alternative to the cinema, and yet very few mainstream films have jumped ship and released on these platforms. In any case, the distanced streaming experience, as sentimental as this sounds, is far from the comfort of the cinema and its collective emotional experience.
In fact, all of the major Hollywood blockbusters due to be released both this year and next: No Time to Die, Wonder Woman 2, Black Widow, Tenet, Top Gun Maverick, Avatar 2, Mission Impossible 7, etc., have delayed their release (and in the case of the latter two films, delayed their productions, too), gambling that cinemas will soon enough be fully viable once more, and audiences are keen to fill them. With both the release and the production of films being slowed down indefinitely, what historical precedent is there for these circumstances?
Well, the obvious answer is Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote. Gilliam’s adventure film was dreamt up in the mid-eighties but only released in 2018, which gives you an idea as to the difficulty involved in the filmmaking process. While the production here was not halted by a global pandemic, that was probably the only natural disaster that spared this cursed project. Absolutely nothing went right with the production of the film: even before filming started, budget restraints and cast scheduling conflicts held back progress. When production finally began, these problems worsened tenfold, with a series of unfortunate events befalling the shoot, including, but not limited to fighter aircraft flying continuously over the set, rendering the audio unusable, a flood washing away much of the shooting equipment (also rendering previously shot footage unusable due to its discoloration of the nearby cliffs), and lead actor Jean Rochefort being diagnosed with acute prostate issues, which made it impossible for him to perform the essential horse-riding scenes. Such calamities led to the film being delayed again and again for the best part of thirty years, with the production finally being completed and the much-changed film – from the initial more literal interpretation came a more ambiguous, layered film – being released in 2018 as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Even the staunchest pessimists will surely not predict such a tortuous process for films whose production was halted by the COVID 19 pandemic.
Another problem besetting the films of today, stuck mid-production, is the inevitable financial difficulties that will ensue: expenses related to halting production, and to the fact that box office receipts will surely not be as strong as they would have been in a pre-COVID world, because of social distancing requirements and the caution of exhibitors and audiences.
What better historical precedent is there for this eventuality than Michael Cimino’s legendary film, Heaven’s Gate. Another film haunted by poor production, this time most of the blame lay at Cimino’s door, as he made a series of financially and cinematically inexplicable decisions, which not only ripped the production schedule apart but also forced the studio to take control away from him after he handed them a first cut of the movie that was nearly six hours long (he eventually groveled and begged them to give him a second chance, spending a whole summer re-editing the movie down to a moderately short three and a half hours), delaying the films planned release by eleven months. His famous errors include shooting a short shot of someone getting out of bed seventy times; a whole village set torn down because it didn’t look right (the street was six feet too narrow – rather than simply tear down one side and push it back, Cimino insisted that both sides of the street be destroyed and rebuilt); allegations of animal abuse; shooting 220 hours of footage (costing the studio 200,000 dollars a day); and, perhaps most notoriously, setting up an irrigation system under the land on which a battlefield scene was to be shot, in order to make sure that the grass remained vividly green. If the film had been a masterpiece, or even a moderate success (whether this was ever Cimino’s priority is dubious – it is rumoured that Cimino privately had ambitions of surpassing Coppola’s one million feet of footage for Apocalypse Now), then the studio might have forgiven his countless excesses, but the film was received coolly, to say the least, being branded an ‘unqualified disaster’ by the New York Times.
Both of these films were made under difficult conditions not dissimilar to those that will now beset, among others, James Cameron, who got special permission from the government of New Zealand to shoot his long-awaited sequel, Avatar 2, in that country. Even before the pandemic, the film had been endlessly pushed back and delayed, and so, in years to come Cameron may join Cimino and Gilliam on the list of directors who have overseen catastrophically and expensively long-winded productions, although as excuses go, a global pandemic is a fairly strong one.
Another reasonable recent point of comparison in recent history is the slight change that occurred after 9/11. In its immediate aftermath films even set around the twin towers became taboo – edits had to be made (the prime example being of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, heavily truncated due to an action scene set around the area of the tragedy). Will the pandemic lead to similar taboo subjects, that films will no longer deal with – films like 28 days later and Contagion would probably not be able to be released in the present climate – at least not without being labeled crass or insensitive.
In any case, we can all cross our fingers that we will finally get to see the return of films in the next few months, as fresh features finally start to be released once more, and the cinema industry will flex its muscles as it goes back to work.