Filmmaking: The financial & creative implications of the pandemic
Shaun MacGillivray
Issue: May/June 2020

Filmmaking: The financial & creative implications of the pandemic

As Hollywood gets ready to reopen production after the global pandemic put filmmaking on a months-long hold, directors and producers are faced with tough questions: Is it safe to go back to business as usual? What will production in a COVID world look like? As filming is slowly starting to pick up, many are worried as to how they will keep cast and crew safe in an industry that thrives on collaboration, and what implications these mandated changes will have on the industry. Here, we’ll explore ways that the film space has changed in these unprecedented times: 

On-set differences 

While we figure out what this new normal means, film sets and production companies need to navigate ways to keep actors and crew members safe, and are in the midst of developing social distancing, sanitation, and health & safety guidelines in order to produce new content as on-time and on-budget as possible. 

Now that SAG-AFTRA has released its official guidelines on working with actors, we know that testing will be widespread across film sets, some even after a two week quarantine period if production is taking place in New York or Canada. The Bachelor, Songbird and Jurassic World: Dominion have also announced the precautions they’re taking to preserve safety on-set. Once the industry moves forward with production, the goal is that no cast or crew member becomes ill, and that all involved on-set stay healthy and safe.  

With these new guidelines and safety measures in place, come a list of potential risks: 

Financial implications: The cost of consistent and frequent testing and quarantining on location could make or break a production. The films produced by large-scale studios can easily incorporate this added cost, which could potentially mean budgets have to grow upwards of 20 percent. However, independent studios might not fare so well. The extra time and cost of generic safety precautions could easily mean the end of a production that doesn’t have the means to receive extra funding. For a smaller independent production, the addition to budget could be as great as 30 percent to the production budget. 

Timeline implications: Some sets are experimenting with less people all around. The fewer the number of people on set, the less likely coronavirus is to spread around a film set. This could mean working with a bare-bones crew, with just directors, camera, sound and actors on set, while others work remotely. However, in the film environment, having large amounts of crew work remotely could add extra time to tasks that would be completed quicker in-person, running the risk of further prolonging the time needed to put all of the finishing touches on a film and make it theater ready.

For the first time ever, filmmaking is on pause 

The pandemic has affected every aspect of filmmaking, not just filming. Post production has been paused as well. Some scripts have been put to the back burner. Disney, for instance, had major announcements in early 2020 surrounding upcoming films, however, many of those projects are now at a stand still, including the highly anticipated live-action Little Mermaid, which has been cast, but not started yet. Making a movie is a huge collaborative effort and with social distancing, the work becomes much harder.

We (Macgillivray Freeman Films) went from 40 films being shown in 300 theaters around the world to none being shown anywhere by end of March. These are the same issues Hollywood is facing. Since then, certain theaters have opened in certain markets with reduced capacity restrictions. From a production standpoint, because we film documentaries, with most not having SAG/AFTRA talent except for narrators, we have been able to continue production. Many of our films are wildlife, nature or outside of dense crowds, and many contain interviews. Throughout this time period we have continued with social distancing, face masks and additional precautions. 

Documentaries trending up? 

Over the last five years, documentaries have been green lit by broadcasters and streaming partners more than ever before. There is a hunger for authentic, real storytelling. With fewer Hollywood/narrative products being shot because of COVID, we could see an acceleration of this trend of unscripted content being funded. 

Delayed releases 

Many studios have delayed releases of highly anticipated films, such as Disney’s live-action Mulan, which was scheduled to be released on March 27th, but has now been delayed indefinitely. Also Candyman, A Quiet Place Part II, Wonder Woman 1984, and West Side Story have been pushed back. Currently, only 15 pilots have been picked up for the fall TV schedule across NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and The CW, a decline of 58 percent from the 36 new shows ordered in 2019 and 2018.

Also, some films that were supposed to be released in theaters have been released as VOD or on streaming platforms instead of in theatres, starting with Trolls 2 World Tour, which reportedly generated over $100 million in online rental revenue. Other films like Emma, The Invisible Man and Birds of Prey have followed suit. Tribeca darling The Half of It was set to have a theatrical release, but was picked up for Netflix release on May 1st, along with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which was picked up by Hulu to stream months ahead of its scheduled release. 

This is an unprecedented shift for the film industry; we’ll have to keep an eye on how this will affect box-office proceedings and revenues in the future, as well as how films are released. Will audiences continue the trend of demanding premium experiences in a luxury theater that has food and drinks brought to their seats? Will they want the best seats and the best experience money can buy? I believe the pandemic (and a post-pandemic world) will accelerate this trend of premium theatrical experiences, or watching at home. And the theater windows will continue to be experimented with as more titles are brought to SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand) closer to the release date. 

We may also see SVOD services, like Amazon, have exclusive screenings where only Prime customers are allowed to watch them in theater. Would a theater chain be sold to Amazon? If the price is right (or if a portion of locations that were too strategic for Amazon were up for sale) we could see them make that buy. This would serve as an additional benefit to their members, while also providing a location for other avenues of service. No matter what, the future will be very interesting and exciting to see. 

Shaun MacGillivray is the President of MacGillivray Freeman Films (, based in Laguna Beach, CA.