Future of film industry remains uncertain following COVID-19

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Photo Credit: Alejandra Gavilanes | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: This story is part of The Daily Texan’s coverage of how coronavirus concerns are affecting UT-Austin. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, movies that went straight to digital release were often joked about, said Noah Isenberg, chair of the Department of Radio-Television-Film.

“It was almost like the stigma that came with a self-published book and didn’t get offered distribution,” Isenberg said.

Now, after COVID-19 concerns have temporarily shut down movie theaters and halted production nationwide, Isenberg said digitally released movies are no longer a laughing matter. 

On April 10, Universal Studios did the unthinkable and released “Trolls World Tour” directly to home streaming services, possibly setting a new standard for film releases as social distancing continues. In addition, Amazon Studios partnered with SXSW to digitally release the many films set to debut at this year’s film festival. 

“We’ve got really extraordinary movies that would otherwise be distributed by a prominent distributor going straight to (digital release),” Isenberg said. “These are unprecedented and extraordinary times.”

This is just one way the film industry, a community based largely around in-person interactions, has been impacted by COVID-19. So far, hundreds of movie releases have been delayed, and even more productions have halted entirely.

Despite that, Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, radio-television-film professor, said one area of film that may flourish during this production limbo is animation. 

“Until we can gather again, now may be a great time for the animators, who can perhaps still work in their own basements,” Fuller-Seeley said. “But it’s going to be really hard on the independent films and the midrange comedies and features.”

Looking ahead to awards season, Alisa Perren, radio-television-film associate professor, said the reduction of film content and the inability to exhibit has put events such as the Oscars in a unique position. 

“(The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) made an exception for this year only that streaming stuff can count, which goes back to the fact that the industry has to protect their relationship with movie theaters,” Perren said. “It will be fascinating but depressing to see in what ways the business reorganizes itself.” 

Perren said theaters were already financially stressed prior to the pandemic, and smaller chain theaters will remain especially vulnerable once they are reopened.

“It’s sad to look at companies like Alamo Drafthouse that have developed this distinctive model for experiential, different ways of viewing and experiencing movies,” Perren said. “(Moviegoing will) never die, but there’s definitely going to be a scaling back of the scope.”

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that starting May 1, theaters would be allowed to reopen at limited capacity. Even so, Martin Jones, Austin Film Society’s director of Austin studios, said their cinemas will not be reopening anytime soon.

“Us, Alamo Drafthouse, Violet Crown — we’re keeping the doors closed until we know that we have greater safety and testing in place,” Jones said.

To keep the local film industry afloat while production is at a standstill, Jones said Austin Film Society will begin their new grant cycle this week that will be putting $100,000 into the hands of Texas filmmakers. 

The moviegoing experience outside of household streaming will still be craved by the public, Jones said, but it will have to undergo some changes following the pandemic.

“I think (the pandemic) will be an opportunity for newcomers or people on the fringes to become more mainstream,” Jones said. “Audiences are hungry for entertainment, for diversion, for laughs, for provocation, for deep thoughts, and I think there’s going to be a renaissance of production post-COVID.”