Harry Richards thought he had done everything right. Preparing to shoot his third short film, Santi, last month, the young indie director was convinced he’d considered every eventuality. His crew would be Covid-tested and take a safety course. Masks and social distancing would be mandatory on-set. There would be sanitisation points and a Covid supervisor.
Unfortunately, though, the Metropolitan Police could not guarantee that his production would not face a hefty fine for being an inessential gathering. A big-budget film might be able to set aside money to pay the fine, but a £10,000 charge would wipe out all of the money his team had crowdfunded. Though it is a small production, Richards points out that it could be the catalyst for something much bigger: “short films are an essential way of proving to investors that we’ve got what it takes to make feature films…If we can’t make this scene, then ultimately it is holding our careers up.”
Sidestepping The Covid Crash
It may seem like a grim time to be an independent filmmaker, but the big movie studios may well be in an even worse position. Tom Atkinson, a Film Studies master’s candidate at King’s College London, explains that over the past five years, chain cinemas have become increasingly dependent on safe ‘tentpole’ releases, often relying on a familiar brand name to tempt passive moviegoers. But Covid laid waste to the multiplex: global ticket sales in 2020 plunged 71% to $12.4bn (£8.9bn) down from $42.5bn in 2019, according to Variety.
In a normal world, Atkinson says, “something like Mulan…might well have done pretty well, because it’s a recognisable property and it’s a family film,” but persuading people to seek out these ‘tentpole’ films actively to watch at home has proved much more difficult. Yet because “truly independent films tend to find their audiences in places other than multiplexes”, perhaps indie filmmakers have sidestepped the worst of the Covid crash.
Have nimbler independent creatives, unencumbered by a backlog of titles designed for a bygone era, adapted faster? There have been significant indie success stories over the past year. The horror film Host made use of Zoom and Shudder, a relatively unknown streaming platform, to create a big buzz. Its creators went on to secure a three-film deal with the legendary director Sam Raimi.
“Punchy, edgy, extreme, genre, those kinds of films, they can always squeak through because there’s an audience looking for them,” says Ben Mallaby, senior lecturer in Film Practice at London South Bank University. His students are currently able to take out kit and shoot films, although the scope of their projects is necessarily curtailed by social distancing: “Most people are shooting in interiors…they’re not Covid films necessarily, but they are shooting really clever, interesting, inventive stories that only involve two people.”
Mallaby’s own film was delayed because insurance companies would not insure his elderly actor until the vaccine arrived. He now hopes to shoot in April. Like Richards, he brings up the extra cost of the new climate: “You have to add 15% to your budget because that’s what it costs. You have to pay people who are isolating for the time that they’re not able to take on other shoots; you have to make sure you’ve got someone on-set; and just other problems that arise.”
Yet he agrees that indie filmmakers have been shielded from many of the issues plaguing the studio system and does not believe that studios want cinemas gone: “My assumption is that we will return to the status quo with enough time, because the ecosystem is quite fragile, and everyone needs each other or else something shuts down and you lose something altogether.”
Friendly Neighbourhood Cinemas
Indie filmmakers have another champion on their side: indie cinemas. Community-driven theatres, offering better food and drink and special screenings of niche films, boomed before Covid. Although the past year has been disastrous for business, many have secured government funding to ensure they can reopen later this year. “Thanks to the BFI DCMS Culture Recovery Fund it looks like your friendly neighbourhood cinema is going to be okay for now,” wrote the iconic Prince Charles Cinema on its website in January, while South London’s Peckhamplex received nearly £600,000 from the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund.
By contrast, chain cinemas have not received support on a similar scale. In January, filmmakers including Danny Boyle and Steve McQueen wrote to the government urging them to help. Nonetheless, the upmarket cinema chain Everyman, which shows a combination of “mainstream, independent and classic films”, managed to secure new rent concessions from landlords last month.
An Exciting Opportunity
For creatives working in even more blighted sectors of the arts, indie filmmaking has become an exciting opportunity. Andrew McPherson normally works as a theatre director and playwright, but transitioned to filmmaking full-time in 2020: “Pre-lockdown I hadn’t really touched film since I was at drama school,” they said, “but very quickly [I] immersed myself in a good four or five film projects.”
One such project, Paper Cranes, was shot almost entirely by actors, and McPherson has now been commissioned by the conservators of Wimbledon Common to make a film about the history of the area for its 150th birthday. “I’ve completely fallen back in love with editing…It’s been a really fascinating journey. It’s definitely going to be something I’ll keep pursuing,” they said. Good thing, too: it is hard enough to imagine people packing out cinemas any time soon, let alone theatres.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in January, the legendary director David Fincher was optimistic about the future of the film industry: “I think [for] anyone who…is curious about how to impart their story, there’s going to be plenty more opportunities, at least in the short term. And depending on how long this pandemic goes on, there may be need for a lot more.” The flexibility, curiosity and determination shown by indie filmmakers seems to bear this out.
Despite the setbacks, Harry Richards is undeterred: pre-production on Santi will resume in May and he hopes to use the streaming platform Argo to distribute the finished film. Shooting a film right now is an undeniable challenge, but indie filmmakers are better equipped than most to respond to the changing industry landscape. As McPherson puts it, “there’s no stopping the arts…creators are going to create no matter what circumstances they’re put in.”
Words by James Riding
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