Independent Filmmakers Sidelined by COVID-19

While guerrilla projects scrape by and big-budget shoots work through restrictions, mid-level indie production has stalled.

Hervé Cohen has spent the last several years of his life filming strangers in subway crowds. The Bay Area-based filmmaker, who originally hails from France, has documented subterranean commutes around the world — from Santiago to Vienna to Tokyo — as part of an ongoing web documentary project called Life Underground. Cohen spent last October collecting the stories of public transit riders in Singapore.

Life Underground, which has been screened at festivals like South By Southwest and featured in museum exhibits around the world, is a (literal) moving study of the strange intimacy found in crowds. In a socially distanced world where trains run nearly empty (if they run at all), Cohen’s project, which he calls his life’s work, is all the more affecting as an aching portrait of a public life that no longer exists. Cohen had plans to travel next to Lisbon, Marseilles, and the Dominican Republic. Now, he wonders if his journey, and his work, have reached a dead end.

“Really the idea [is] to look at someone — and just by looking at the passenger — trying to feel empathy, and trying to also feel people’s thoughts and sensitivity just by looking at them,” Cohen says, explaining that COVID-19 has disrupted his process. “I need to speak face-to-face with these people, I need to also look at them. And if they wear a mask, it’s more complicated.”

Life Underground Trailer from Herve Cohen on Vimeo.

The pandemic has forced Cohen out of the subways and into the same boat as a number of independent filmmakers, whose highly collaborative and frequently cash-strapped industry has been upended in recent months. With projects stalled and funding scarce, many Bay Area filmmakers are entering the fall without and struggling to adapt.

Beth de Araújo was set to shoot her first feature, Josephine, in San Francisco this summer. The semi-autobiographical screenplay, about a young girl who witnesses a sexual assault, is deeply personal to Araújo, who likens the project to having a child. But given how current health and safety regulations severely limit crew sizes on sets, it would be impossible to shoot the film without making major concessions.

“I was first in denial, and we were trying to just push the production a little bit and say like, OK, well things might open up,’” de Araújo says. “And you get into this weird state of being like, OK, well we could do it this way and force it this way,’ but the truth is it’s just really not safe to do that.”

The filmmaker pauses, starts a sentence, trails off again. 

“It’s been, to be honest, like, really, really emotionally taxing,” de Araújo says finally, pointing to one particularly worrying aspect of her production: the 8-year-old actress that de Araújo has been working with is rapidly aging out of her role. “Coming to that realization, I mean, it’s basically a depression-inducing week, making it very, very tough to function, of just sort of mourning.”

Despite the pain of her shoot falling apart, and taking budgetary hits that have forced her to cut some costs, de Araújo says she still considers herself “one of the lucky ones.” Unlike many independent filmmakers, whose work lives and dies by their ability to secure outside investment, her funders haven’t pulled out of the project.

“Independent cinema right now essentially is completely dead,” de Araújo says. “Some people will not invest in this anymore. The economy has suffered, and independent cinema is a huge financial risk for investors.”

Quiet On The Set

San Francisco hasn’t traditionally been known for its film scene. But in recent years, Bay Area filmmakers like Boots Riley, whose Oakland-based 2018 surrealist comedy, Sorry to Bother You, was a critical and box office success, and Joe Talbot, who won the Directing Award at Sundance for his 2019 drama, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, have helped establish the Bay as a major character within the indie festival circuit. And San Francisco has always been home to a community of indie filmmakers, who pass through local incubators and residency programs like the SFFilm Filmhouse.

Anne Lai, the newly appointed director of SFFilm — which in addition to its residency program hosts the long-running SFFilm Festival and runs a variety of programs for artists and audiences — says that right now, those filmmakers are “biding their time.”

“It’s the interim — that is the question mark that everyone is sort of having — that’s affecting sports, that’s affecting live music, that’s affecting all sorts of arts,” Lai says. “There’s a hiccup in the way that the work can be executed, and at what point can you overcome it or circumvent that?”

It’s quite a hiccup. In 2019, the San Francisco Film Commission — a municipal office that helps develop and promote local filmmaking projects — granted permits to 252 productions between mid-March and the end of August, ranging from student projects to commercials to feature films. During that same time period in 2020, the Film Commission permitted only 42 productions. Those totalled up to just 85 scheduled shoot days in the city, compared to 426 days the previous year. And the total estimated budgets of all productions in San Francisco since the pandemic hit is about $3 million — 10 times less than it was in 2019.

The most obvious obstacle to filmmaking right now is, of course, that films require people — lots of them. A major studio production could have hundreds of crew members in addition to their cast; even an indie project, with a much leaner budget, will typically have around 25 to 50 people on set.

Currently, the San Francisco Film Commission is issuing permits to new productions, but only if there are no more than 12 people on set, total. That rule, on its own, is enough to kill plenty of projects.

“We have a courtroom scene that has 12 jurors, so right there that’s 12 people automatically,” de Araújo says. “And with a story like this, unless I fundamentally completely change what the story is, we can’t shoot it under those restrictions. So we have to wait.”

The shortage of local productions has put many in the San Francisco film industry out of work. Most of the filmmakers who spoke to SF Weekly for this story have filed for unemployment. Film industry workers often operate as independent contractors, and lack a safety net. Many work second jobs to pay the bills — but those, of course, may have been impacted as well.

Taylor Whitehouse is a Bay Area-based location scout; when a production launches, she’s one of the first people brought onto the team. In March, Whitehouse got a call from a producer looking for a warehouse space to shoot in. Then the county went into lockdown.

“And then it was kind of like, no one really knew what was going to be happening,” Whitehouse says. “And so [the producer] was like, ‘Well, I’ll get back in touch with you when we figure out what we can do.’ And then he kind of fell off the map… That was really the only thing that had come my way in terms of locations.”

Director and photographer Pete Lee took this picture while on set for a production that is working through COVID-19 limitations. (Photo: Pete Lee)

Whitehouse, who’s relatively new to scouting and previously worked as a production assistant, says she imagines better established scouts have probably been receiving more calls. Those who are just getting their start in the industry, she worries, are being hit the hardest — and are the easiest to exploit. Her roommate, a recent graduate hungry for work as a production assistant, has taken to hunting down job listings on Facebook.

“People are just so desperate to work right now that I think that they’re willing to do a lot, even if it means putting themselves at risk on unsafe sets,” Whitehouse says.

That calculation — weighing work against health — is one that director and photographer Pete Lee has found himself making this summer. Job opportunities started trickling back in for Lee in July, which he knows puts him in the minority, but the better paying offers are coming from out of state, mainly because the risk associated with flying brings a higher rate. He flew to the Midwest for a directing job in the middle of the summer, but says he’d rather work lower paying local jobs than fly again.

“Not everyone is working,” Lee says. “So I had a few people when I was deliberating who were envious of the opportunity. And so I’ve been working a few of those; I’ve been trying to be selective about the risk that each job comes from.”

Lee is also considering saving up money as quickly as possible, so he can go stay with his family in Taiwan, where the coronavirus has been almost entirely contained. As he weighs the risks of taking a gig, he also has to consider what the future looks like, and whether things are likely to take a turn for the worse.

“Is this the safest that we’re gonna be for a while?” Lee wonders. “And am I not even gonna have the opportunity to take these risks in the near future?”

Stuck In The Middle

That near future remains, in Anne Lai’s words, a question mark. For now, at least, filmmakers are doing their best to adapt to circumstances that seem, at first glance, to be definitively at odds with the demands of film production.

The first production that received a permit to shoot in San Francisco after the initial mid-March shelter-in-place order was a Stella Artois commercial. Los Angeles-based producer William Green and his team were on the phone with the Film Commission for hours over multiple days, coordinating the city’s first ever COVID-safe production. Cast members were shot in their own homes, or on empty streets in a locked down San Francisco, performing dance numbers with partners they were already quarantining with. The team figured out how to get shots with just one cameraman, using just one camera and no crew.

“It was strange because you’re so used to going to a set and there’s like 50, 60 people, and everyone’s hanging around and sitting around,” Green says. “Weirdly enough, crew members helped out in departments that maybe they wouldn’t have helped out, like the AD [assistant director] was carrying the camera gear to help… We had grip and electric there, but we only had one pair of hands, so people would after they had done their job go back and help the other person.” 

Theoretically, productions could stay safe, and even get bigger, if they were able to contain their entire crew in a quarantined “pod” for the duration of the shoot. This would, of course, be a massive undertaking, both in scale and cost — and it’s still unlikely to be airtight. 

“I’ve heard of people talking about crews in kind of work pods, where they’re quarantined together for the period of time, I think in preparation to shooting and then quarantined during the shoot,” Whitehouse says. “It’s so hard to do something like that. I mean, what if somebody wants to go, you know, you can’t control where people go. You can’t control what they touch.”

A major studio might still be prepared to shell out the funds for a fully quarantined operation like that, and a tiny “guerilla” project could pull it off with a skeleton crew, but it’s not an option for a typical indie production, de Araújo says.

“For independent cinema, if you’re working around the $1.5, even to $2 million range, you don’t have the money to pod people, it’s so bare bones,” de Araújo says. “I think people don’t necessarily always understand that to shoot an independent film, every day costs about $30,000 to $50,000. So to spend any extra money to make all these people live together, to put everybody up, is just an expense that the production can’t bear. Or the production completely has to change the story around to add that cost in… It’s a bit of a sacrifice for the storyteller basically, like if you want to sacrifice your storytelling in order to do it in a timely fashion, then that’s someone’s choice.”

A Cliffhanger

There’s no question that the pandemic has massively disrupted the indie film industry. What’s worth asking, however, is whether it was really working before.

Reaa Puri is the co-founder of Breaktide Productions, a production company entirely owned and run by women of color. Puri, who is based in Oakland, says that systemic biases in the industry — where money and connections often decide what projects get made — have always put filmmakers of color at a disadvantage. The pandemic, in her opinion, is just making clear how broken this “extractive” system is.

“I think the current model is inherently unsustainable,” Puri says. “I think it’s really gonna take a collective shift for people to be like, do we really want to support indie filmmakers to be able to create? And it’s gonna take serious work and investment, for people who have that money and power to commit to that, and so far it’s nowhere close, I don’t think.”

Lee has a similar perspective. He notes that midsize indie films, which cost between $20 million and $40 million to make, don’t exist anymore. The pandemic, he theorizes, is just accelerating existing trends in the film industry. 

“Not to sound too pretentious, but in our field like, the country hasn’t been very filmmaker friendly or independent film friendly in a very, very long time,” Lee says. “The market is already demanding more for paying a lot less, with these subscription streaming models that don’t really benefit the creators. So now, they just have like, way more of an excuse to push that and way less of an oversight to squeeze the artists.”

Looked at from this vantage, the pandemic might be more than just a short-term lull in production; it could be an existential tipping point for the indie film industry. With little to no institutional support system for self-employed artists, minimal collective organizing among industry professionals, and deeply entrenched gatekeeping mechanisms that work against marginalized communities, a long summer like this one is enough to expose how precarious the situation is. It’s certainly enough to push people out of the industry, at least for the time being, and maybe for good: de Araújo says a good friend of hers, a talented cinematographer, is now working as a private chef. And in an industry that has always been challenging to break into, those who are just getting their start may find it extremely difficult to get their first projects funded, at least for the next couple years.

The Bay Area film scene might be at particular risk, as the cost of living continues to rise and tech crowds out other industries. Puri says the Bay isn’t just at risk of losing its filmmakers — it’s already losing them.

“It’s deeply concerning and deeply heartbreaking,” Puri says. “I’m here because I am so constantly in awe of the revolutionary thinking that the Bay Area has fostered, the movements that the Bay Area has fostered, the Black Panthers and so many other movements that have been here. I’m here because this place lets me challenge myself creatively, and continue to consider how my work can engage with the political realities of our world. I don’t want to be in L.A. because it’s a very different environment in terms of the kinds of ideas that are engaged. So I’m here because I get to have these conversations with other filmmakers here, and if they’re all leaving, the place fundamentally changes.”

Keep Rolling

“Independent film has never been easy,” Lai says.

For better or worse, indie filmmakers are used to adapting to difficult circumstances. Whitehouse and de Araújo are working on new screenplays; Puri’s production company is experimenting with a pivot to more animated content. Lai, who took over as director of SFFilm just days before the decision to cancel the annual SFFilm Festival, is overseeing a transition to virtual film screenings and programming.

And Cohen, who can no longer ride the subways, has found a new way to travel: With a couple of Bay Area partners, he’s launched a collaborative project called CoVisions, in which young filmmakers around the world submit work that explores their experiences during the pandemic. The series features 19 emerging filmmakers, from 19 different countries, documenting everything from personal anxieties to civil uprisings.

“Receiving footage and being in conversation with all these people in different languages all around the world — it’s keeping me alive,” Cohen says.

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