The Washington Post recently published an article about how the pandemic is affecting the film industry. Their forecast of Hollywood’s future sounds like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie: “Crowd scenes are a no-go. Real-world locations will be limited. On-screen romance will be less common, sometimes restricted to actors who have off-screen relationships.” COVID-19 has affected the film industry and may ultimately create a paradigm shift in movie-making—but is it all bad news? Maybe not, according to CU Denver film professors and graduates.
Jimmy Weber ’09, who studied film and music production in the College of Arts & Media, will soon enjoy the release of an independent movie he produced titled Rent-A-Pal. Rent-A-Pal is a creepy psychological thriller about a loner who seeks advice from a progressively intrusive VHS friend (the movie is set in the 1990s). It recently sold to IFC Midnight and will be available for streaming on Sept. 11.
Weber’s hopes were ruined in March when film festivals were cancelled due to the pandemic. “We casually watched our festival dreams burn to the ground,” he said. Rent-A-Pal’s sales agent changed course in April, contacting distributors directly—and, as it turned out, they wanted Rent-A-Pal.
Desperate Need for Content
Multiple distributors got into a little bidding war over the movie, in fact. Weber admits there was an element of luck with the timing. “Who knows if the demand for our film would have been as strong without the entertainment industry’s desperate need for content? So, as horrible and as tragic as the pandemic has been, working with IFC Midnight and Rent-A-Pal’s September release has been a small bright spot in our lives and a much-needed distraction for us,” he said.
Filmmakers with finished movies experienced a serendipitous window for selling their films. With filming on hold due to safety issues and people at home due to quarantine, there was an imbalance in supply and demand. And because movie theaters are still shut down, streaming services are experiencing rapid growth. NBC News recently reported “it’s been a boon for streaming services.” For example, Netflix added 10 million paid subscribers in the second quarter of 2020 and Disney reached more than 60 million paid subscribers for its Disney+ service in only nine months.
Weber wasn’t the only person affiliated with CU Denver’s Film & Television Department who benefitted. Associate Professor Hans Rosenwinkel, MFA, sold his documentary Fresh Tracks, which is about adaptive skiing. Additionally, he recently received funding for two more projects. “I received an advance to finish a film for international distribution, and I also got a new distribution partner on board to help raise leftover financing to provide to their clients who need to fill the airwaves with fresh programming,” he said.
Post-Apocalyptic Genre During Pandemic
Chair and Associate Professor David Liban, MFA, who also teaches film at CU Denver, completed his film before COVID-19 affected U.S. film festivals. A Feral World is being distributed by Gravitas Ventures and will be released on Sept. 22. Like Weber and Rosenwinkel, Liban mentioned the issue of demand. “There’s a lot less content out there; people like me are benefiting from the lack of content,” he said. However, Liban was quick to add, “I’d rather people not get sick.”
Shot over four years, A Feral World is a post-apocalyptic movie that follows an orphan boy who bonds with a woman and her dog and helps her search for her missing daughter. The movie stars one of Liban’s sons. The long filming process echoes the technique used in Boyhood, and Liban’s son basically grows up on screen. The chronological realism is especially powerful given the sci-fi genre, because time passes slowly in A Feral World’s post-apocalyptic setting.
The timing of the film’s release also happens to coincide with a worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, which seems strangely fitting. Although Liban thinks A Feral World would have done well regardless, he admits there is a possibility the subject matter might be more relatable to viewers experiencing the world’s strange new normal. “Once the film is officially available, the pandemic may impact how the film finds further streaming platforms,” he said. On the other hand, Liban points out that filmmakers who were in the middle of filming had to stop production. Scripts that had just been completed would not start production either.
Can Coronavirus Constraints Lead to Creativity?
Another issue is that once filming restarts, independent filmmakers may not have the money to fund the health precautions and testing now required on set. Many can’t afford insurance in the time of coronavirus either. “For microbudget filmmakers like us, that means we pretty much have to wait this out in terms of shooting our next film,” Weber said.
But Weber is not completely discouraged. He thinks the constraints posed by the pandemic could be used as an advantage: “Since the dawn of filmmaking, people have found ways to make incredibly creative movies with whatever it is they have (or more importantly, don’t have). So I have no doubt we’re going to see all kinds of creative and inspiring movies that are made in a small family’s basement. Or an entire movie shot with drones. Or whatever it is.”