With Hollywood under orders to stay out of the office, away from theaters, off the set and especially at a safe social distance from those most germ-friendly of mass gatherings — film festivals — coronavirus suddenly has clarified a change that crept over movie culture in the decades just past.
As recently as the late 1980s, perhaps into the 1990s, releasing a motion picture was something a studio could do without getting too sticky with people. To oversimplify just a bit, the process involved a few test screenings, a trailer, some billboards and bus posters, an expensive wave of television advertising, a celebrity appearance or two on the late-night shows and a whole lot of prayer. Win or lose, a producer or executive might get through it without having shaken a customer’s hand.
No more. For all but the most expensive, media-driven blockbusters, film marketing and promotion has become a markedly tactile business. To get a movie into the marketplace, you touch each other, sometimes quite literally. You jostle through crowds and meet in overstuffed auditoriums at festival after festival — Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Berlin, Venice, New York, even L. A. With the press and corporate sponsors, you share drinks and finger-food in close gatherings at surrounding bars and restaurants. Red carpets, once reserved for the Oscars and Globes, point the way toward endless post-screening panel discussions, while you, your stars and their admirers nod in agreement and breathe the same air.
And this doesn’t even begin to account for the penumbra of media events, large and small, that routinely cross with the movies. Comic-Con(s), TED talks, Zocalo Public Square sessions, university conversations, you name it.
It’s hard to say precisely when movie promotion became quite so — to use an antique term that seems appropriate in the age of COVID-19 — touchy-feely.
Personally, I sensed a paradigm shift around late 2000, while working as an editor for doomed media website Inside.com. As we burned through funding, one of the founders, Kurt Andersen, by my vague recollection, launched a brief campaign to save things by getting Inside into what was called “the event business.” It seemed counterintuitive, and a bit quixotic — how could the future of digital delivery hinge on dozens or hundreds of people paying to meet at a resort or convention venue? But Andersen and his fellow founders weren’t wrong. (He now confirms the effort, but says it was not so much to save the business as to supplement it before things went bad.) Before long, many digital ventures, Deadline included, would be anchoring their online presence with very tactile events at which industry players, and sometimes the audience, could meet, greet and, yes, shake hands.
The big festivals, of course, had been around for a while — Cannes since 1946, Telluride and Sundance since the 1970s, and so on. But festivals exploded in the 1990s as a newly vibrant indie film culture substituted relatively cheap, media-friendly presence at events for broadcast and cable advertising that no small company could afford.
A significant marker was laid down in 2002, when the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, in response to the 9/11 attacks, as a way of getting thousands of movie lovers and filmmakers together in crisis-damaged Lower Manhattan. It was all about closeness, film-centric camaraderie. “I had always wanted to create a product called Festicide, which would prevent the weed-like growth of new film festivals,” Tribeca’s artistic director Peter Scarlet told The New York Times in 2004. But that changed with Tribeca, Scarlet said. Now it was time to reach out and touch someone.
Touch we did, for the past 20 years. Almost anyone involved with the making of or reporting on movies learned to live with a credential dangling from the neck. Only half in jest, promoters gave out bottles of Purell and packets of Advil at San Diego’s madly compressed Comic-Con International. Toronto would be demanding clips of this year’s coverage and an application for next year’s press pass from reporters who were still contending with newly established get-togethers like the film Academy’s Governors Awards.
Even as social media rose, the circle of contact never broke. At SXSW, screens posted tweets from and about the milling crowds, while media mavens like the late David Carr talked film and Twitter in rooms that have now been emptied by the virus.
For the moment, Tribeca, SXSW, CinemaCon,and no one can be sure how many other film gatherings are off, victims of a sudden need for “social distancing.”
Presumably, the crisis will pass. We’re surely not going back to the ’80s, when mainstream Hollywood’s idea of a get-together was a drink at Nicky Blair’s. But it might be a very long while before movie people and their fans become as comfortably social as, in recent years, they have been.