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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLACampus Safety

Creatives continue to create through entertainment industry’s pause amid pandemic

With premieres canceled and set productions ground to a halt, Hollywood has gone silent. But alumnus Silas Howard said much of the work continues behind the scenes with industry meetings and writers’ rooms occurring virtually. (Jintak Han/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Alyson Kong

May 14, 2020 4:12 p.m.

Halting film and television productions have cut the industry deep – but not enough to stop content creators in their tracks.

As of now, the timeline for productions and premieres to start again is shrouded in uncertainty, complicated by social distancing protocols and concerns regarding safety on set. Meanwhile, industry professionals are trying to adjust to a new workflow at home, from holding Zoom writers’ rooms to launching their own streaming sites. But alumnus Silas Howard, who directed on the Emmy-nominated series “Pose,” said the negative impacts of quarantine should not be understated for a large population of workers in the entertainment industry.

“People’s careers are just being put on hold or getting their momentum just swept away,” Howard said. “That can be very devastating in terms of the years it takes for people to bring their stories out into the world.”

[Related: Transition to online class poses unique challenges for TFT students, instructors]

As added context, he said he was anticipating a busy year with many directorial positions underway, but now most of his upcoming productions and location shoots had to be canceled or postponed. To compensate for the lost time, Howard said he’s been keeping busy by remotely working on screenplays and continuing to meet with executives digitally to raise funds for future projects.

In addition to reorganizing his workflow, he said he is also taking the time to introspectively evaluate his priorities. Having lived through the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Howard said the coronavirus evokes a similar sense of awareness in the affected communities, who learned to value their lives and the limited time they have to act on matters they care about. There is a sense of greater urgency now for storytellers – especially from marginalized groups – to make their voices be heard or else fall off the map, Howard said.

“Taking risks is a really amazing part of storytelling, but we live in a very risk-averse society,” he said. “When you think of the amount of time we have to do the things we care about, we have to prioritize the stories and the voices of (people) who haven’t been heard before.”

(Jintak Han/Daily Bruin senior staff)
The stay-at-home orders are an equalizer for Hollywood, Howard said. Multiple levels of the industry are in limbo, but it would be a mistake to say that the weight of the negative impacts is the same across the board. (Jintak Han/Daily Bruin senior staff)

In a way, Howard said the stay-at-home orders act as an equalizer for people on multiple levels in the industry who are all in limbo, but the ability to continue on with his creative process is a privilege. As part of the Directors Guild of America, he said the institution helps members file for unemployment, which is not a benefit that is granted for all independent contractors.

He said individuals who are not unionized were facing sporadic work before quarantine and are now even more vulnerable to the financial burden imposed by the forced shutdown of productions. Alumna Noga Landau said there is also no definitive work loss compensation – which depends on a variety of factors such as the production company and its budget – for independent contractors and crew members across the board.

As a writer for The CW’s “Nancy Drew,” however, Landau said she has fared relatively well given the circumstances. The writers’ room has been transposed completely to Zoom, and she said they’ve been meeting during regular work hours every day with few hiccups. Despite having to finish the first season prematurely, Landau said they were able to provide an organic ending rather than forcing it, which may not be the case for other television series.

[Related: Theater students improvise virtual methods to replace in-person productions]

But Landau said there is only so much content they can portion out beyond what was filmed prior to the lockdown. There have been hopeful talks of starting production in the summer to bridge the content gap, but this timeline is susceptible to changes and delays depending on how the pandemic plays out and what the industry’s response is, she said.

“A lot of people are going to have to figure out how to sort of pick up the pieces of what they were working on when the pandemic hit and production ground to a halt,” Landau said. “Crews may be switched around, and I think it’ll probably take a lot of flexibility (and) ingenuity.”

Heather María Ács, an independent filmmaker and one of Howard’s longtime collaborators, said there is a silver lining for content creators even during the pandemic. She said the diversity of content being published by drag queens and performers of all kinds demonstrates the artists’ resourcefulness and vitality. Inspired by online performances, she said she is starting her own “queerantine” streaming site to specifically showcase LGBTQ+ films and shorts, using the creative freedom of the internet to promote the voices in her community.

(Jintak Han/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Howard and alumna Noga Landau might be able to continue their work behind the scenes on Zoom, but Heather María Ács said she lost her job as an on-set intimacy coordinator. (Jintak Han/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Beyond her work as an independent filmmaker, Ács said she also works as an intimacy coordinator whose job is to ensure that safety protocols are being met during intimate scenes on set. Although the pandemic has directly affected her job because of its hands-on nature, she said one potential upside now that the industry is facing increased safety concerns is that jobs such as hers may be reevaluated as an essential part of the set.

So while the short-term consequences of the quarantine can be detrimental to casts, crews and productions, it can also serve as a long-term learning opportunity for everyone, Ács said. The hope is for communication and feedback to be integrated at all levels of production in order to create a safer work environment for everyone, she said. Despite the industry’s prospects still being very much in the air, Ács said the passion for their crafts will remain deeply rooted in how industry professionals are moving forward.

“Whether it’s independent or mainstream industries, we’re going to keep telling stories,” Ács said. “And I hope that we will keep telling stories with as much respect, care and safety as possible for the cast and crew above and below the line.”

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Alyson Kong | Alumna
Kong served as the Theater | Film | Television editor for the Daily Bruin from 2020-2021. She was previously an A&E reporter from 2019-2020.
Kong served as the Theater | Film | Television editor for the Daily Bruin from 2020-2021. She was previously an A&E reporter from 2019-2020.
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