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2020/10/23

The film industry under COVID-19

Tokyo FILMeX director/film producer
Shozo Ichiyama

Series: Arts, culture and expression in the age of coronavirus

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought major crisis and change to arts and culture on the ground.
In this series of pieces by individuals and experts active in different fields, we hear a variety of perspectives on the realities and challenges, as well as the future possibilities.


COVID-19 has had a massive impact on the film industry as well as other sectors. The first thing to be directly affected has been movie theaters. Almost all theaters nationwide were closed when a national state of emergency was declared on April 16. With audiences simply staring at a screen, movie theaters ought to carry less risk of infection than going to the theater or a music concert. But given the risk of spending several hours with strangers who may be infected, the closure of movie theaters was probably unavoidable.

Movie theaters later reopened, and seat occupancy rate, initially limited to 50%, has now returned to 100% in many theaters. However, this does not mean that everything has gone back to how it was before. From what I hear from people in the film business, older audiences are not returning to movie theaters. True, some films aimed at young audiences have been big hits, but there hasn’t been a hit movie for older audiences. The majority of “jidaigeki” historical dramas targeted primarily at older audiences have seen their releases postponed until next year, presumably because it was decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea to release them now.

Hurting the entertainment sector even more has been the succession of Hollywood films with postponed release dates. The release of many Hollywood blockbusters scheduled for this year has been postponed until next year, reflecting the unstoppable spread of COVID-19 in the US. When Hollywood blockbusters are postponed in addition to the releases of Japanese films being delayed as mentioned before, movie theaters will have nothing to screen. The fact of the matter is that the only recourse for theaters is to show moderately successful Japanese films for as long as possible.

On the other hand, the performance of the film streaming business has improved considerably under COVID-19. With businesses and schools operating remotely, people at home have easy access to online streaming services. In a sense, this is encouraging for people involved in film production. With a bigger online streaming market, a business which up until now had not taken off in Japan, distributors will need new contents, and will probably invest more proactively in film production. Most film production was put on hold immediately after the state of emergency was declared, and many freelance film crew members experienced temporary difficulties. However, normal film production is now back on track, with anti-infection measures in place in accordance with guidelines.

So far, the impact of COVID-19 has been felt on the production side of the industry, but will the artistic side of film-making be impacted in any way? When everything came to a halt with the state of emergency, many people in the film industry held the pessimistic view that it would no longer be possible to make the same sort of films as before. There would be unavoidable limitations on the number of production staff so as not to cause crowding. However, if for example actors were also required to maintain social distancing at all times, the very style of films would have to be reconsidered.

Most of the films people can see at the present time were filmed before COVID-19. So we won’t know for sure whether COVID-19 has had some sort of impact on the artistry of films until the films being made now are finished. If I had to make a prediction at this point, I would probably say that although I can’t say there won’t be any impact, there probably won’t be any definitive changes. There are several films I am involved with in some capacity on the production side which are being filmed now, or that will be filmed this year. But reading the scripts, I can’t see the impact of COVID-19 on any of them. In all probability there won’t be any films that end up being vastly different from what they were supposed to be before COVID-19. Following industry guidelines, there are people stationed on location or on set to carry out preventive measures like temperature checks and disinfection, and on most filmsets cast and staff on the ground have to undergo PCR tests before filming gets underway. Of course, there is no guarantee that tests are 100% accurate, but at least they remove the actors’ concern to a certain extent.

However, there is one thing that has become hard to film under COVID-19. I’m talking about scenes that require a lot of extras, such as sports events or concert audiences. Many such scenes in Japanese films have depended on unpaid volunteer extras. But under the current circumstances volunteer members of the public should not be gathering on film sets or on location, and in fact industry guidelines advise avoiding scenes with a lot of extras. The postponement until next year of a large-scale historical drama scheduled to be filmed this year was inevitable.

Based on the current situation as I see it, the film world does not seem to have been as hard hit as was feared at one point. So far there haven’t been any reports of large-scale infection clusters from movie theaters or filming sets/locations. However, looking at the situation in Europe and the US, it seems that Japan, which so far hasn’t been hard hit, is maintaining a tenuous balancing act over dangerous ground. At least we can say there is demand for films even in the current circumstances, and that the filmmakers producing them are still very much around. What the film industry needs to do is to continue to exercise due caution, and not reverse this situation.



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Series: Arts, culture and expression in the age of coronavirus