Monday, 1 June 2020

What next for UK Film & TV? - A Response to Ewan Morrison and John McVay

Crystal balls are not much help right now, as everything is in flux and could go any which way. June looks like a make-or-break month: thus far, VE Day and other bank holidays haven't lead to an explosion in cases, but will that hold true as kids go back to school and shops reopen?

On the Film & TV side, it's also very touch and go: Soaps are developing strategies to shoot and keep elderly actors off as much as possible, with Emmerdale resuming operations last month, Coronation Street next week and Eastenders aiming to do so by June's end. What's more, Warner Bros., Disney and Netflix are working with the Tory government to restart in the next month or so, with safety measures, on major productions like The Little Mermaid and Matt Reeves' The Batman. Ideas being put forward include skeleton crews for filming; actors doing self-makeup; floor markings; minimizing stunts; prioritizing outdoor shooting and favouring local crews.

But that's now - what about new productions? What kind of shows could be made? Well, the BBC ran a piece, interviewing several high-profile industry folk on that question. Among them were screenwriter Ewan Morrison (The Outlaw King) and PACT boss John McVay, who voiced thoughts and concerns. The main ones being settings for shows, as well as scale and logistics.

Both raise valid and important points: the bigger the project, the more headaches it will be to keep everyone safe. The reduction in spectacle, too, could lead to some more creative filmmaking and storytelling that isn't reliant on eye-candy to woo audiences - indeed, such a cost cut from budgets could lead to some leveling of opportunities for lower-tier writers to staff on more prestigious shows, now that you don't have to fret so much over money. Morrison's remark about seeing more shows in both smaller yet more fantastical locales like space or underwater could lead to a resurgence in domestic genre programming, which is great for nerds like me who want more homegrown sci-fi and fantasy (and even work on them...).

From my end, I think the idea that we could be entering an era of more conservatively budgeted shows that could, as a by-product, take more risks (in slight difference to Morrison's view) is a huge-plus for new talent, an issue that both Film and TV have, admittedly, not done a great job of engaging with. Apprenticeships and prizes are all well and good, but newcomers need solid, professional credits to get anywhere. That said, this is still a short-term solution: like it or not, you can only reskin a confined show so many times before people will want to see dragons and armies again. A healthy industry, regardless of circumstance, is one that produces a variety of content - too much in either high or low is bad for creatively, careers and culture. Expensive shows limit who can work on them, but cheap ones will only be able to take on so many people. In addition, depending on the show, certain people may get left out altogether: make-up artists, special effects artists, set designers, costumers, stunt people etc.

Like it or not, McVay must know that eventually, big shows will have to start up again. You're dealing with months, if not years, of contracts, deals and other paperwork behind these big-timers, and far too many types of professionals who need the work. You obviously don't want sets to become outbreak points, but this, like so much else in the Covid pandemic, is the result of various societal problems crashing into each other. I think this present anxiety is based on an idea of Covid remaining exactly as it is right now, which no version of the science, optimistic or pessimistic, supports. As discussed before, our understanding of Covid has rapidly changed, and relatively fast. Even if we don't get a vaccine by year's end, we will likely have measures, and probably treatments, in place to file off the worst parts (ala HIV).

As for Morrison's 'resurgence of big-budget animation' prediction, I'm going to have to err on no from a drama POV (though Morrison doesn't specify what age-group he's indicating: does he mean a four-quadrant British Pixar, or a return to the more experimental days of Watership Down and The Plague Dogs?) Anyone involved in animation fandom has seen this crop up many times over the years - the odds of the BBC or ITV making what amounts to British Anime (animation meant for a prime-time audience that isn't strictly comedy, to pick up the current need for drama shows) is pretty much a non-starter. Amazon and Netflix might (and have) in small doses, but by the time you could get a dramatic show animated, the live-action industry will likely have found workarounds on how to shoot, thus rendering it moot in most cases.

Plus, working from home doesn't mean the process'll go any faster in creating regular cartoons and adult animated series - material still has to be vetted, altered and given notes, in addition to all the pre-planning like designing, storyboards and animatics.

In so far as Morrison's worries over Covid being an excuse for producers to double down on adaptations - on the one hand, that's a real risk. In times of trouble, people stick with what's familiar. People who already bemoan our TV being dominated with novel adaptations have every right to feel frustrated, and that IP value is only going to increase as companies need to carefully marshal resources and pick the best project to get a return on.

At the same time, however, I do think we must be careful not to adopt a dismissive attitude (especially not after Morrison advocated a progressive stance with genre content earlier in the piece) - in times where money will be tight and people, including and especially children's, access to the arts is going to be impacted, Film and TV could pick up the slack and introduce classic works to new generations. How many of our favourite books, sometimes the very things that inspired into creative careers, came out of us watching the movie or TV version first? And, frankly, shouldn't creating quality productions matter more than where they came from?

Something which the article doesn't touch on much, but anyone active on Twitter and the like has seen, is the indie debate. There, the question is could this be a new golden age for independent films and content that can be made with few resources and people? Some seem very confident in it, and I see the rationale, but there's a flip side: these projects may be more open and able to social distance, but the lack of money also means less PPE and safety measures can be put in place. how many actors and filmmakers are going to gamble on a project which pays little-to-nothing, just for exposure? (if anything, the golden age could be for audio productions.)

It will be tough - you're effectively rewriting decades worth of habits and practices in a matter of weeks. For newcomers, it's a scary time and it seems like it could all vanish at the drop of a hat. For veterans and even for those of us who have climbed up the first couple of rungs, like myself, it's all on the razor's edge, and only by being wily and careful, can we navigate this.

But, as McVay himself points out, this could be an era of innovation, where cream rises to the top and we find ways to overcome adversity. This could, too, see a meaningful increase in diversity behind and in front of the camera as new opportunities and methods arise. Some doors close, but others could yet open.