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Quebec film industry responds to COVID-19

We reached out to people in different sectors of the film industry for a first-hand account of how the pandemic is affecting their work and lives.

As the vast majority of us hunker down and pound through whatever is offered on streaming services, the industry that creates that very content finds itself at a standstill. As one of the many non-essential industries, film has more or less ground to a halt.

Cult MTL reached out to several people who work in different areas of the film industry to take the pulse of exactly where they find themselves in the midst of COVID-19.

Are you still able to do your work? If not, are there procedures in place to help while you can’t work?

Eric K. Boulianne, screenwriter (Les barbares de la Malbaie, Avant qu’on explose)

EKB: As a screenwriter, I’m still getting ahead on the projects that I had gotten going before all this. The only difference — and it’s a big one — is that my two-year-old does not go to daycare. My partner is an editor and she also has deadlines… so we have to alternate our work periods. This necessarily means I’ve got less time to move forward in my projects. It’s not exactly the most “productive” period… and that’s not counting the major downer that is the current situation. Nevertheless, I consider myself extremely privileged in my situation since I’ve got contracts.

Mélanie Mingotaud and Dominic Sénécal, publicists (Mingotwo Communications)

MM/DS: The whole team works remotely from 9 to 5. We use Messenger Video for virtual meetings twice a day: once at the beginning and once at the end. We also have many virtual meetings  with our clients and use the different existing apps (Zoom, Whereby, etc.) to conduct them.

Mitch Davis. Photo by King-Wei Chu (Quebec film industry responds to COVID-19)

Mitch Davis, director of international programming and festival co-director (Fantasia Film Festival)

I’m extremely fortunate in that a good bulk of my programming work has always been done from home (via secure screeners, emails, phone, FaceTime/Skype etc), so the adjustment hasn’t been as difficult for me as it’s been for many of my friends. 

That said, while I’m still able to do my work, I’ve been having immense challenges with being able to do it properly. I’m just not engaging with creative works the way I normally do, because it’s impossible to stop thinking of the fact that everyone onscreen is in danger and may have their lives devastated in the immediate days to come. It’s completely doing my head in and I’m constantly getting hit with sudden waves of worry and grief when I watch submissions. That and the fact that everything feels eerily dated now, no longer speaking to today’s reality, but that’s a much easier thing to get past. I’m just so fucking scared for people right now. 

Shanna Roberts Salée, assistant director

SRS: I am actually not able to work right now. Our industry has been at a standstill since businesses have closed. As film and television sets are often small and restrained spaces, with a considerable density of humans sharing air, buffet-style food, equipment, doors, toilets… it’s a very precarious situation to be in in this current climate. There are procedures in place to help: emergency funds for freelance workers, a security fund for film technicians who are struggling financially and, of course, Employment Insurance. We are very well protected by our union.

Teejay Bhalla, cinema manager and associate programmer (Cinéma Moderne)

TB: The short answer is no. We work directly with the public, so our focus is always to do what is in their best interest. As much as we wanted to be there for our supporters and cinema lovers in Montreal, we made the decision to temporarily close. Many of our primary tasks, including ticket sales, online promotion, communications and projections, we simply can’t do.

Our directors had the impossible job of providing us with answers and options when there was no definitive direction. They helped all of us get set up with EI and did a great job of reassuring the team about our future.

Pascal Plante. Photo by Maxime Cormier, Némésis Films (Quebec film industry responds to COVID-19)

Pascal Plante, director (Les faux tatouages, the forthcoming Nadia, Butterfly)

Thankfully, before the epidemic hit Montreal and paralysed all of our resources, we were able to completely finalize our upcoming film, Nadia, Butterfly. In that sense, a huge part of my work was done in extremis just before, and I was about to enter a phase of research and writing on a new project; that part of the work, solitary by definition, isn’t affected by the present situation… In fact, in some strange way, confinement and the lack of exterior distractions is a net benefit in this step of creation!

Have pandemic conditions directly affected future projects or projects currently in production?

EKB: As I see it, those who had shoots coming up in the summer months aren’t quite sure what the future holds, but are still getting prepared — inasmuch as you can even prepare a shoot that could be cancelled at any moment. In my case, I’m writing, no shoots planned, so that’s that. There’s a big deposit period in August at SODEC… I was probably going to deposit two or three projects. We’re still waiting to see. It’s almost certain that the calendar will be shifted down, but we don’t know how yet. If all the shoots are pushed to the fall, will they still finance a dozen projects for winter shoots? I don’t know. There’ll be a shakeup somewhere down the line. I’m lucky. If projects are shot now or later… well, there’s nothing there to stop me from writing them. It’s just that, these days, everything I write doesn’t really seem to make sense… Everything seems “vain.” It’s as if I’m always telling myself, “Yeah, but who gives a shit about that, really?” But I still hold out a little bit of hope that people will want to take their mind off things when the pandemic is over, and they won’t necessarily want to binge 12 movies about pandemics and the end of the world. So… you know… a nice little comedy, why not?

I also have a very modest career as an actor. I had a big project coming at the end of the summer… but now, I have no idea what’s happening with the shoot. So I’d say that’s probably my only project that’s directly affected.

Dominic Sénécal and Mélanie Mingotaud. Photo c/o Festival du nouveau cinéma (Quebec film industry responds to COVID-19)

MM/DS: Hugely so. The majority of projects that we had been hired for are event-based and centred around a meeting of some sort, be it in a museum, a public place, a cinema etc. More than half of our events have been pushed back or cancelled.

Paradoxically, we’re still very busy. We have had to speak for every client, on social media as well as traditional.

We’re also lucky to have clients that are very polyvalent such as television networks or film distributors who adapted their distribution methods quickly, through the use of VOD, for example. 

MD: Big time. We’re still working with our July dates — though we’ve got an August contingency plan in case the city asks us to postpone — but there’s so much uncertainty as to what will actually be possible this summer. It looks like we’ll be able to do the festival in July, but will international travel be safe by then? If not, we’ve been negotiating all kinds of world premieres — even more than usual due to the terrible wave of cancellations that walloped the fest circuit — and filmmaker commitments have been key to a number of them, as always. If it turns out that we can still do the fest in July, but won’t be able to bring in filmmakers — or international press, which is also hugely important — it will drastically change what we can play and the overall scale of what we put on. So all the planning work is incredibly surreal at the moment. [UPDATE: On April 29, Fantasia announced that their 2020 edition would be happening online.]

SRS: Yes, definitely. Right now all productions are on an indefinite hold. Some productions have elected to cancel days or entire shooting blocks. And like for everything else, there is no telling when they might start up again. Especially American productions, which represent a significant percentage of revenue for thousands of film workers.

Teejay Bhalla (Quebec film industry responds to COVID-19)

TB: We had to hold off on a month’s worth of programming, which means cancelling with distributors and events with invited guests. On the flipside, we have taken the opportunity to work on things that we never had time to focus on, such as launching our tote bags and reliving some of our best memories from the cinema with our “Coups de cœur” series on social media. We have even found new ways to share our program. We teamed up with distributors to bring three films (Rojo, Le lac aux oies sauvages and Corpus Christi) online, and more are on the way. By renting them, you’re directly supporting the Cinéma Moderne!

PP: Like all completed films waiting for a commercial release, uncertainty surrounds our distribution strategy. We’re still hoping to come out in 2020, but a film like ours is also dependent on eventual festival selections, and most of these have either been cancelled or delayed. In the event that the traditional summer/fall festival season doesn’t happen, it’ll have a huge impact on the way we had planned the release. Only time will tell. It’s difficult to plan anything at the moment, and we think it’s smart to delay the release of promotional elements (teaser, poster, etc.) to a later date.

What’s strange, in our very specific case, is the very subject of the film: Nadia, Butterfly is a feature that deals with retirement in sports, set during the Tokyo Olympics, and we were hoping to line up its release with the real Olympic Games which were slated to happen in July and August of 2020, but that we now know have been pushed to 2021. The film showcases real high-level swimmers in the lead roles, including two-time olympian Katerine Savard, who was intending to try her hand for the third time this year before finally retiring. The least we can say is that her plans have been shook up. Does she still have a full year of swimming ahead of her? I don’t know… but I hope for her sake that she finishes her career without bitterness, on the best note possible, in spite of circumstances.

How do you envision the “return to normal”? Is such a thing even possible, or will the crisis inevitably change some aspects of your work and the industry permanently?

Eric K. Boulianne (Quebec film industry responds to COVID-19)

EKB: I’m very pessimistic, personally. Then again, if you read about it, most experts seem to agree that the confinement measures are going to be relaxed in the next two to three months, but that the so-called “return to normal” won’t happen until they develop a vaccine, which could take up to a year and a half. So even if we’ll be able to see each other in small groups in the next few months, go to a restaurant but keep a table’s worth of distance between each customer… The fact remains that large groups will not be encouraged and that measures might be tightened up again if there is a spike in cases. In any case, on a film shoot there can be as many as 60 to 70 people, sometimes in very cramped spaces. I have a lot of trouble imagining the authorities giving our industry the go-ahead before we figure out a solution to the propagation, be it a vaccine or medication. Maybe small shoots will be allowed. But how do you manage that? And even then, so many things will change in our social rapports. I don’t think anyone really knows how it’s going to be “after.” Y’know, I’m writing a very intimate movie where the actors would be kissing and fucking for most of the movie. Right now, we watch a movie on TV where two people shake hands and our instinct is “GUYS, WHAT THE FUCK, DON’T DO THAT.” I can’t imagine how we’ll get to a point where we’re ready to just say “fuck it” and act the way we did “before” on film shoots. And all that is just details. I’m not even touching on the economic consequences of the crisis and how it’s going to decimate all the creative programs. Are we an essential service? I don’t know. Not in the minds of many… and, slowly, not in my mind either. But that’s the depressed guy talking. I prefer being pessimistic now and being surprised afterwards. In any case, I can never say it enough: I’m fucking privileged right now. I have projects and I can think about the future without being at someone’s bedside in intensive care. So, in some way, I should shut up.

Shanna Roberts Salée (Quebec film industry responds to COVID-19)

MM/DS: The crisis will inevitably change the way we live our lives. People will be more wary of going out, of coming in contact with others. It’ll be awhile before we see the same kind of crowds at cultural events. Before we see any quantifiably effective solution thanks to scientific advancements, people will remain cautious. For us, that means an inevitable traffic jam of projects in the fall and of much smaller budgets, in an industry that’s already hurting financially.

SRS: At this point, it’s incredibly hard to say. I’m sure some common-sense measures will be implemented: hand sanitizer, wipes, masks etc. which were in any case already readily available on film sets before the pandemic. But there’s no telling how it will affect, for instance, shooting a scene that requires 800 extras in a crowd. Or whether limits of people on set will be implemented. Or whether foreign productions will elect/be forced to shoot in the U.S., which would create a huge deficit for our industry in Montreal. Travelling talent and above the line workers (producers, directors, directors of photography etc.) might prove to be an impossible task in the months to come, or the next year. In the meantime, all we can do is sit tight and wait… like everyone else!

TB: I don’t think that a return to normal should be the end goal. I believe that this is an important time to make those changes to our businesses and industries that we didn’t think were possible. We are living through an unprecedented time which proves how quickly we can adapt when everything goes out of the window. For the cinema industry, I am curious to see what social distancing looks like in a theatre setting. Will cinemas open with limited seating? How will the public perceive public locations post-COVID-19? Will there be more technological innovation to bring our program directly to our audience’s home? I am curious to find these answers in time, but more importantly, I am looking forward to opening our doors again.

MD: Once we get past this, I’m optimistic about most things returning to something close to normal sooner than later. I mean, we’re all going to have some aspect of PTSD for a while, but we’re also going to be so, so happy to be able to hang out with each other and go places again. Cinemas, concerts, sporting events and the like will almost certainly be among the groups that will take the longest time to recover because there’s going to be a period where we’re all just going to be instinctively queasy about the idea of being in large, crowded spaces, but provided that things are safe, we’ll collectively get past that over time. We’re seeing a lot of the independent cinemas struggling and there’s big worry that many will be lost, which would be an absolute tragedy. Streaming’s inevitably going to become even stronger after being sanity-savers for months of captive audiences across the world and theatrical windows are clearly going to shrink as well — they always were, but it’s all on superspeed now. Still, people like us who love the theatrical experience will invariably keep the big screen alive. Powerful, shared experiences are the very soul of cinema’s being. 

PP: From a societal point of view, I think the return to normal has to be done with a huge examination of conscience, and that it’s time for us to start really talking about scaling down the economy on a global scale if we want to even have a planet for future generations. But, well… from the extremely niche point-of-view we’re concerned with today, all the spring and summer movies that were pushed back are going to create an incredible traffic jam in theatres later this year. In a market that was already approaching saturation, it’s hard to imagine the chaos that will follow. All I know is that when movie theatres re-open, we’ll have to patronize them! On a more positive note, the present crisis pushes cinephiles to discover new viewing platforms in order to watch movies, and distributors have been very proactive and creative in response to that! I think that there’s a creativity and spirit of solidarity growing out of all this darkness, and it’s truly beautiful. ■

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