‘This Is the Apocalypse That Has Been on the Horizon for a Long Time’

Edgar Wright, Kris Rey, TT the Artist and more filmmakers on watching their latest movies, and their industry at large, fall to a pandemic. Photo: Focus Features

The spread of COVID-19 has put Hollywood at a standstill, as active productions go on hiatus and movies slated for release amble in a world of empty theaters. The likes of Mulan and the latest James Bond installment have retreated to release dates later in the year, but smaller titles have had fewer options available to them. Among those indie filmmakers gearing up for a theatrical run this spring, some have had to yank the rip cord for a video-on-demand release instead, while others are holding out hope for a delayed debut on a crowded fall calendar — should the theaters ever reopen. For first-time directors eager to amass some buzz at now-canceled film festivals, the prospects of ever distributing their films is looking slimmer and slimmer.

Over the coming weeks, Vulture will be conducting interviews with filmmakers whose movies were set to come out this year about the effects of the novel coronavirus on their industry, both in terms of their own work and the business at large. Their sentiments run the gamut from hope to doom (“I’ve been wondering when the next mass extinction event would come. This is it.”) and collectively form an uncertain picture of the future of film.

Kris Rey, director of SXSW Film Festival selection I Used to Go Here

South by Southwest is the ideal place for a premiere. You get to see it with an audience. [My film] is a comedy, so you get a sense of what people will laugh at. It’s a fun, satisfying way to cap off the years of work everyone has put into making this happen, but it’s also the first stop for making sure that it has a life beyond the festival. Normally, you hope that there will be buyers at the premiere and, hearing the reactions from everyone around them, they’ll make a bid after everything gets out. Since that’s not taking place, and suddenly everyone in the industry has to work from home without knowing what happens next, everyone’s unsure about what to do.

We’re sending out links to the movie to different possible buyers, most of whom are individual people presumably seeing this on their laptops along with a lot of other movies from people in this situation. No one knows what’s going to happen. I can’t tell if more movies will be bought because they need new on-demand stuff, but my instinct is that people are scared to spend money. That goes for both individuals and companies.

Everyone wants to believe this is a big blip. But every day we’re accepting that this will have an impact deeper than just a slight pause. I don’t know. It feels like it’s going to be a while. We’re going to be home and people want to see movies. And with all these work stoppages, all these films in production have to shut down, so no one can say when they’ll return or in what capacity … My most optimistic outlook is that the streaming services will be hungry for content. Finished, unreleased movies and TV will be scarce. [I Used to Go Here] could be among a group of movies that will be the last ones made for a while.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis, director of Swallow

My head is still spinning from how quickly everything collapsed. At first, it was devastating to see our dreams of a theatrical release for Swallow vanish overnight, but intrepid film journalists came to our rescue by reviewing the movie in droves. In addition, a groundswell of enthusiastic appreciators of the movie who watched it on VOD have been flooding social media with ebullient recommendations and fan art. Independent films rely heavily on word of mouth to expand visibility. A successful theatrical run in select theaters can spark that and motivate a wider release — which happened to us in France, where the film expanded to 98 screens and played for eight weeks.

I think the coronavirus’s impact on the industry is hitting the new voices of independent cinema especially hard. It’s easy for me to lament the loss of our theatrical release, but in many ways, Swallow was extremely lucky to make it over the finish line before everything shut down. The people my heart is breaking for are all those indie first-time feature filmmakers who were going to premiere their new visions at the magnificent Tribeca and wonderful SXSW film festivals. Their vibrant creations now have to sit on a shelf for who knows how long.

For me, storytelling is essential to a healthy world because it brings us together, increases empathy. At a time where a lot of us are locked into our homes, I’ve become even more grateful to the filmmakers and television shows that have given us something to fill our days with, as well as a much-needed time capsule to remind us what it was like when we didn’t have to live in isolation. My love of movies was imparted to me by my parents, who are in the most vulnerable demographic of COVID-19’s impact, and I worry about them every day. One of the things I miss most is the fact that my parents, my sister, and I can’t spend an evening together watching one of our favorite films. Movies unite us and will continue to unite us during this trying time, even if we’re not physically in the same room.

Alex Ross Perry, director of the upcoming The Dark Half

There are innumerable benefits to not living in Los Angeles. Chief among them is that I have no interaction with anybody who I technically work for. At most, I see producers or executives who I am collaborating with two or three times a year. I work from home and talk on the phone a lot. So my current writing projects are almost entirely unaffected. Timelines are the same, because drafts are going to be useful, and when (if?) this crisis subsides, the machinery is going to have to start up again. Two of these jobs are still in the first-draft stage, so any chance of them moving into production would be at least nine months to a year away.

Unlike a writers strike, which will leave screenplays only 75 percent complete and television scripts unable to be written at the speed they require, my understanding from various conversations last week is that, much like how the cultural calendar is wiped clean only for the next five to six weeks, the hope is that by May or June, everything will have to return to some version of normalcy.

Relevant side note: There is a writer’s strike threatened to begin May 1. At this moment, writers are some of the least affected people in the industry, at least compared to below-the-line crew and people currently in production. If this pandemic subsides and a strike begins immediately, the entire pipeline of available film and television product for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021 will collapse beyond repair, no question.

The biggest issue here is the extreme shock and tragedy of the delicate ecosystem that supports hundreds of my friends and colleagues totally collapsing in a matter of days. Movies that were to premiere at SXSW or Tribeca and fight for a morsel of attention are perhaps doomed to obscurity forever. Shoots that had been in the works for a year may never happen, and nothing will replace the income people are not collecting right now. Mulan and 007 will be released on 4,000 screens, someday. I do not know what future awaits [Eliza Hittman’s] Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but it will never have the momentum it did two weeks ago. I know that Netflix will properly reschedule the cast and crew of Stranger Things. I do not know how Paul Schrader reconvenes Oscar Isaac and Willem Dafoe to shoot only five more days on his new movie.

This is the apocalypse that has been on the horizon for a long time. It’s been over a decade since the financial collapse brought an end to the Paramount Vantages and Warner Independents of the world. I’ve been wondering when the next mass extinction event would come. This is it.

Edgar Wright, director of the upcoming Last Night in Soho

As a producer-director, it’s very disheartening to have to send people home on a job, but the health of the planet is of paramount importance. Just through my own colleagues, I know of so many people who are currently out of work. I can’t even imagine what the number is when you combine all of the TV and film productions that went on hiatus recently. It’s a uniquely uncertain time that everyone is pulling for to be over soon.

Despite the fact that the entire world is at home binging films, I have to remain optimistic about cinema returning to the big screen when all this is over. It’s a huge blow to the community to have screens literally go dark, and I urge anyone who is passionate about a favorite local cinema, and can afford it, to become a member and help keep them afloat so they can flicker back to life as soon as possible.

Even though I’ve made two apocalyptic comedies that are bleakly funny in places, I’d like to think they are warm and hopeful in some others. I’d like to project this latter, more hopeful outlook by doing what I can to support the arts through this. As a filmmaker and as a ticker buyer. Let’s call it an intermission, and I’ll see you back in an auditorium soon.

TT the Artist, director of SXSW Film Festival selection Dark City: Beneath the Beat

I was gonna put the film out last year in the state that it was in, after a decade of development. I was told by so many people to wait for SXSW or Sundance, but I told myself that I didn’t make this film for festivals. It wasn’t until I started applying for grants that I came around to the idea. You want to get bought, especially if you don’t have insider connections, so you’ve got to do the festival thing.

I was creating music for Insecure. I basically worked my way up to being a shadow director for season four, and that’s how I got connected with Issa Rae and her team. They saw a trailer I’d made for Dark City and told me they wanted to help me get to where I needed to go. They came in and helped us complete post-production and talked with us about marketing. Those discussions were about festivals, getting the soundtrack on Baltimore radio. The question was how we get this in front of the right people.

What’s tough about losing out on SXSW was that I never cared about notoriety or recognition; I just wanted to give Baltimore something it needs. This wasn’t about TT the Artist. It’s for the whole city, showing the beautiful imagery that isn’t what the mainstream is accustomed to seeing. That was always the goal. With SXSW canceled, I couldn’t go into panic mode. I went into creative mode. I’m solution-based. What we’re discussing now is the smartest way to get content out there. We’re thinking about going online, but in what way, is the thing. We’re still looking for distribution, from someone who can get real numbers of people to experience this. I’m hopeful.

Andrew Ahn, director of the upcoming Driveways

My film Driveways was supposed to screen at festivals and in theaters leading up to our digital release in May, but all of those physical screenings have been canceled. It really dampens the excitement you hope to experience when you put a film out into the world. On the production side, I’m left on hold, waiting to hear if projects will get postponed or canceled. It’s hard to plan for my year financially without having a sense of when things will go back to normal. Thankfully, I can always fall back on writing. It’s the only thing that’s kept me sane and gives me the belief that once things go back to normal, I’ll be ready to move forward on a number of projects.

I honestly believe that cinema’s collective experience is just so powerful. People want to be part of an audience, whether it’s at a theater or a film festival. Current brick-and-mortar movie theaters might close, but if they do, new ones will pop up. Even now, we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in drive-ins. The cancelation of SXSW and Tribeca due to coronavirus has really shaken up the American independent film industry. I can’t even predict the downstream effects; it’s massive. However, the defining characteristic of independent films is that they are made by sheer force of will and passion. The infrastructure and the system might not survive, but the art form will.

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‘This Is the Apocalypse That Has Been on the Horizon’