“This Is Unprecedented”: Documentary Filmmakers Scramble To Deal With Coronavirus Impact
Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Laura Nix was supposed to board a flight to Copenhagen today, en route to the CPH:DOX festival to pitch her latest project. But the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly forced that event to shift online only, one of countless ways the coronavirus emergency is impacting the documentary space.
Nix tells Deadline, “I was working on that pitch, honestly, preparing to give it and then that all went upside down.”
Doc makers, most of whom are based in California or New York—two states now under lockdown—are scrambling to keep projects, and careers, going under dramatically altered circumstances. Nix had to cancel an upcoming shoot for a film on photography and visual memory, but she’s making progress on other fronts where possible.
“I have a video call with one of the [streaming] platforms [today],” Nix shares, “to just check in and have a general meeting about what I’m working on. Those things are still pushing forward bit by bit.”
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney was all set to premiere his latest documentary, Crazy, Not Insane, last Friday at SXSW. But since the Austin event’s indefinite postponement, he’s been weighing his next move.
“Now the trick with that film, which was done for HBO, is to figure out the best way to launch it going forward,” Gibney comments. “So we’re taking stock. There are a lot of options. Again, a lot of them depend on how long this goes on for.”
Gibney’s company, Jigsaw Productions, is perennially among the busiest in documentary, producing nonfiction feature films and series along with some fictional content.
“Thanks to really dedicated people and also a group of IT folks at our company, we’ve managed to put in place a series of systems that’s allowing most everybody to work remotely,” he notes. “But for now, we’ve put a hold on most shooting and all requests to shoot have to go through the company execs to make sure it’s okay, that everybody’s staying safe.”
Oscar-winning producer Dan Cogan and Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus of Brooklyn-based Story Syndicate are getting creative with work flow to meet the coronavirus challenge.
“Even the things that we can be working on, we’re working on them differently,” Cogan tells Deadline. “Aside from everything being remote and virtual now, we have projects that we were supposed to be out shooting material for development, and instead we’re flipping the order of what we do and doing all the archival work, all the research work, all of the work that we can do remotely so that we can keep projects going and keep people paid without having to go out into the field. But there will be a point at which we have to get back out there.”
Garbus and Cogan are completing a documentary for National Geographic about oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Looking beyond that, they’re concerned about the livelihoods of freelance collaborators.
“I worry about the folks coming to the end of projects that we’re working on and what happens for their next gig because shows are not going into production right now,” Cogan comments. “A number of our broadcaster and streamer platform [partners] said they’re putting a two-week hiatus on all production, and who knows how long that might actually extend for.”
The entire doc industry is faced with a new normal for the foreseeable future. That’s especially true for producer James Tumminia, co-chair of the PGA’s Documentary Committee, whose latest documentary, Viva Verdi, unfolds in Italy, which has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. The film focuses on a retirement home in Milan for musicians and opera singers, founded by composer Giuseppe Verdi. The retirement community is now off limits to visitors, with the whole country on lockdown.
“While we’ve been editing Viva Verdi, there was always the option to fly to Milan or to fly anywhere in Italy to do pickups,” Tumminia observes. “That was always safe and a realistic option. Now that’s off the table indefinitely.”
The Viva Verdi rough cut is proceeding remotely—on multiple continents.
“For me anyway, it’s easier to be with people in a room, especially when you’re editing,” Tumminia confesses. “But as life happens, it takes its twists and turns. You have to adjust. You have to shift. So now we’re working in three different cities. [Editor] Federico Rodelli is back in Rome. [Director] Yvonne Russo is back in New York and [producer] Christine La Monte and I are here in Los Angeles. Our music composer’s here in Los Angeles, Nick Pike. That’s [an arrangement] we’ve done for a long time but never to edit the film. Big bump, but we are adjusting.”
Nowhere is the coronavirus impact more profound than on theatrical exhibition. Documentaries are coming off two strong box office years, but the prospect of a third in a row has instantly vanished. Magnolia Pictures’ Slay the Dragon was supposed to debut in theaters last Friday, but now will shift exclusively to VOD and digital platforms on April 3. Other Magnolia titles are in a holding pattern.
“For The Fight and other upcoming releases, we’re monitoring the situation every day,” Magnolia Pictures EVP Dori Begley comments in a statement to Deadline. “Fortunately, we’re nimble and can change release strategies pretty quickly, which gives us space to consider all options.”
1091 Media pivoted on basketball documentary A Kid From Coney Island, about NBA great Stephon Marbury after theater closures cut short its theatrical run. It will now debut on VOD April 7. The Ghost of Peter Sellers was supposed to debut theatrically in New York next Friday and LA the week after that, but “that has been postponed until further notice,” per 1091. That film, directed by Peter Medak, will hit VOD June 23.
Fellow distributors acknowledge their theatrical slate is likewise on indefinite hold.
“I mean, it is what it is,” sighs Ed Arentz, co-managing director of Greenwich Entertainment. “It’s a pandemic and the theatrical sector is pretty much in hibernation, right?… There’s obviously not much of a playbook to refer to here. This is unprecedented, and I haven’t researched how distributors were operating during the Spanish influenza [of 1918], but realistically, that would be the next closest thing.”
Greenwich Entertainment has scrapped the theatrical release of Human Nature, a documentary about CRISPR gene editing technology, which was set to expand to more theaters today. It will instead go immediately to VOD and digital platforms.
“Human Nature, it was poised for a really good start.” Arentz laments. “We had sellouts in both Berkeley [California] and in New York. And I think that would’ve really put the specialty exhibition world on notice that this was a film to book.”
Greenwich Entertainment’s The Booksellers, an affectionate look at the world of rare books directed by D.W. Young and produced by Judith Mizrachy, has seen its promising theatrical run interrupted by the coronavirus. The filmmakers were eagerly promoting the documentary before cinemas went dark.
“We were planning to go to L.A. for the L.A. opening [on April 3],” Mizrachy tells Deadline. “We definitely would be doing Q&As [if not for theater closures]. One of the great things about the film, there are so many amazing subjects and they were super-onboard to do these.”
Whether The Booksellers can resume its theatrical run at some point remains uncertain.
“Obviously, being realistic, there’s a very good chance that it won’t be possible,” Young admits. “We were fortunate we even had like one weekend before everything shut down, which many [filmmakers] aren’t going to have, so [it’s] really tough all around.”
The pandemic is causing some major filmmakers to reimagine approaches to upcoming projects. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky had completed work on his new documentary Francesco, about Pope Francis, but he’s going back into edit to reflect the latest developments in Italy where the death toll from COVID-19 has now eclipsed China’s. In a videotaped message from the Vatican on Thursday, the Pontiff prayed to “the Lord so that he may free the world from every form of pandemic.”
By email, Afineevsky tells Deadline, “I finished the movie, but in the current epidemic situation we decided to add / change [the] ending.”
The coronavirus has prompted director Richard Ladkani (Sea of Shadows) not to delay but to accelerate work on an upcoming film he describes as social and environmentally-themed.
“The pandemic is going to have a massive effect on the story, because it’s going to hit the region where we were going to film and the people and our characters with severe force. So there’s no escaping for them, because they’re very vulnerable,” Ladkani tells Deadline from his home in Vienna, Austria. “The main topic is still the same but it will be… looking through the viewing glass of the virus, and how that will affect the story and their wellbeing and their future.”
The director says he conducted a production meeting by remote Thursday to discuss getting cameras into the hands of his subjects to “make sure they start to do video diaries and start talking about their life in isolation, and their life under the threat of the virus.” He adds that the COVID-19 crisis “everything changed” on the documentary project. “We’re looking straight into the light, and we’re running towards it rather than running away from it and hunkering down.”
The earthshaking importance of the COVID-19 story ultimately will spur a lot of activity in the doc space.
“I’m having several conversations with people about developing short films about what life is like during the quarantine,” director Laura Nix comments. “I can’t say too much about it, but there’s a lot of interest about documenting this moment.”
Jigsaw’s Alex Gibney sees a special role for documentary filmmakers in this time of immense change.
“We’re in a slightly different position than many businesses in the sense that part of our mission is to observe,” Gibney says. “Part of our job is to document. And so we have to be attentive to that and also the need to push forward.”