Unscripted telly and sci-fi escapism: how COVID-19 will change the future of film and TV

Somewhere in Leavesden Studios, just outside London, a Batmobile is sitting under a tarpaulin, waiting for the coronavirus to end. While Batman himself (R-Patz) is keeping busy with pasta, most other actors, directors, producers, cameramen, costumers, gaffers and SFX techies are sat nervously checking their phones to see if they’ve still got a job.

Since late March, basically all film and TV productions around the world have been shut down. For an industry that runs on such tight schedules and long lead times, the global lockdown is more than just a hiccup. We don’t know yet if cinemas are even going to survive coronavirus, but if they do – we can be sure that the films they show are going to look a whole lot different.

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Cinemas around the world remain empty. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

And once we’ve sat through months of depressing news alerts on TV, are we really all going to get excited about another Chernobyl? A new series of The Walking Dead? Or will we all have an even larger appetite for grim and grimy apocalypse stories? Will romcoms have the same sparkle when we’re all just jealous of two people getting to meet up in a public space? Will sci-fi escapism hit it big – the public craving anything that helps us forget about the worldwide recession for two hours?

If anyone knows the answer, it’s history. The coronavirus might be a new disease, but the film and TV industry has seen it all before.

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Robert Pattinson is set to star in ‘The Batman’. Credit: Warner Bros.

The Great Depression saw at least one in five people unemployed. The industry collapsed. Suicide hit an all-time high. But more people went to the cinema than at any other time in history. During the early 1930s, between 60 and 80 million Americans dropped by their local theatre every week.

Clearly, people wanted something to take their mind off things. You might only have a dollar left in your pocket but why not use it to sit in a comfy chair for a few hours and scoff popcorn? That said, most of the movies made during the ’30s were a long way from dumb fun.

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A Mecca cinema during the late 1930s. Credit: Alamy

Times were tough outside the cinema but they were much tougher on the big screen, with a new wave of social realism bringing audiences gritty films about gangsters, prisoners and life on the streets. In fact, films were so hard-hitting during the first half of the decade that Hollywood had to introduce a new censorship code to stop films getting too violent. When Walt Disney released Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the film opened on the same day as a grim Czechoslovakian drama about the plague called Skeleton On Horseback. A new age of fantasy cartoon filmmaking had been born, but people were still in the mood for something really miserable.

In the late ’40s, things got dark again. America’s economy was booming but the whole world was reeling from the horrors of World War II. Worthy Oscar winners like The Best Years Of Our Lives looked back at what the world had just been through, and war movies became a staple at the cinema, but film noir was the big new trend – introspective crime thrillers about complicated heroes who didn’t give a damn about anything. The mood even rubbed off on good old-fashioned Westerns (the Marvel movies of the day), and cowboys of the late ’40s and early ’50s started shooting people in the back and spitting on the floor for no reason. At the same time, sci-fi was born out of nuclear fears to offer something a bit more fun at drive-ins and matinee shows – splitting the audience into those that wanted to forget the news and those that wanted to wallow in it.

‘Taxi Driver’ landed in cinemas in 1976. Credit: Alamy

Look deeper and we see the same pattern repeated across the whole of the 20th Century. Another scary recession in the ’70s gifted us Taxi Driver and The Godfather alongside Jaws and Star Wars – new waves of heavy-hitting social commentary surfacing right next to films that take you out of the cinema seat; bitter sips of cold coffee next to great big cartons of sugary popcorn.

Maybe the new Batman movie will offer a glimpse at what’s to come when it (eventually) lands in 2021 – another pricey superhero movie, sure, but one that we’ve already been told will be “darker, broodier and more intense” than any of the others. When lockdown eases, expect a load of weighty, worthy films about how horrible life is as well as silly action movies about something else, anything else, completely different.

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(L-R) C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the set of 1977’s ‘Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope’. Credit: Lucasfilm

But what about TV? The small screen hasn’t been around as long as the big one, and it’s only recently caught up to the same scale. Arguably, TV is now an even greater cultural force than the cinema – especially after the global pandemic has kept us all on the sofa.

The best lesson we can take from TV history came in late 2007 when the WGA writers strike put a stop to all US productions for over three months. There were some obvious victims at the time (short seasons for the likes of Breaking Bad, Lost and 30 Rock – and cancellations for others like Heroes and Pushing Daisies which never really recovered from the furlough), but the major shockwaves were felt afterwards.

Faced with empty schedules to fill, producers turned to the one new genre that didn’t involve any writers, talent, money or studio space: reality TV. The format had been around for a few years already, but the first half of 2008 saw a boom like never before – with shows such as American Idol, Big Brother and pretty much anything set on an island dominating the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic. Once audiences got a taste, there was no stopping it.

But things have changed. If we can’t afford to book a holiday to a nice sunny locale, do we really want to watch some Insta star’s ex-boyfriend walking up the beach in slow motion? If our favourite local restaurant didn’t survive the lockdown, will we enjoy seeing first daters flirt over a fondue?

The likelihood is that reality TV will get even more macro. The writers strike taught us that production companies are always keen to jump on the cheapest trends possible, and the cheapest and trendiest of the last few months has been the webcam. What started with Joe Wicks workouts and Ellen DeGeneres’ living room has finally dragged the mainstream down to the DIY level of YouTube, TikTok and Twitch – platforms that were already swallowing up younger audiences year on year. Just as in 2008, expect TV to go back to the people – only this time, the real power will be in the hands of anyone with a camera and enough followers.

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Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen and Kit Harington as Jon Snow in ‘Game Of Thrones’. Credit: HBO

The other result of the writers strike, of course, was a second boom in ‘prestige’ TV. Shows like The Sopranos and The Wire had already started the revolution, but the three month hiatus gave a lot of writers the time they needed to pen their own masterpieces. By the start of the next decade, The Walking Dead, Sherlock, Justified, Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, Black Mirror and Game Of Thrones were all in production – with many more to follow. Assuming that at least a few bored writers stuck in lockdown now are using their time to write something worthwhile, we can safely rely on another crop of great TV over the next few years. Will zombies and nuclear wastelands still be fair game? Of course they will, just ask anyone who grew up after World War II. There’s nothing half of us want more after a global catastrophe than to watch stuff about how it all could have been a lot worse (the rest can binge webcam Dinner Date instead…)

And so the pattern repeats itself again. Just like every other time in history that we’ve suffered through gloomy headlines and periods of social change, the division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ TV and film will get wider and blurrier. Great new waves of serious cinema might emerge, but only alongside equally big waves of bright and breezy movies designed to make us forget that we’re watching it over a face mask. ‘Good’ TV will reach new heights – but only as ‘bad’ TV goes downhill.

What are we going to be watching over the next few years? The same stuff we were watching in 1930, 1945, 1973 and 2008 – the very best and the very worst of what we’re all thinking right now.

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