The entertainment industry is continually evolving and has persisted – and thrived – through an incredible amount of change in the past century. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shutdowns shook the industry to its core, forcing it to rethink some of its fundamental operating practices. In Hollywood Shutdown: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition in the Time of COVID, media scholar Kate Fortmueller explores how the entertainment industry responded when nearly everyone went into government-mandated quarantine and the economy slowed to a near stop.
The challenge in writing a book on this topic, of course, is that the pandemic is still raging. A researcher wanting to analyze the effects of this crisis could hold off until covid-19 variants are no longer deadly, and then look at this period retrospectively but who knows when– even if–the pandemic will be over. Thus, the value of Fortmueller’s book is as a contemporary historical record of what’s happened to the entertainment industry thus far, and as a source of informed speculation on what might happen next.
Hollywood Shutdown is relatively brief – just shy of 100 pages – and it only covers the first nine months of the pandemic, from late March to December 2020. But the boundaries of the discussion are clearly defined and Fortmueller is forthright in acknowledging that the story is still in progress. Within that context, she makes a strong case that the pandemic simply sped up inevitable changes in the entertainment industry.
Despite its compact size, the book contains an impressive amount of information and analysis, all of it accessibly written and clearly explained. By structuring the discussion around three specific parts of the industry, Fortmueller highlights aspects of the shutdown that may have gone unnoticed in more broad-scale views. For example, in looking at production, she chronicles the unequal impact of shutdowns and cancellations on different occupations. The work of actors, makeup artists, costumers, and other occupations that require physical proximity was severely affected, while the work of digital effects artists, editors, and technical staff who worked in relative isolation or online was easier to continue. (She also points out that entertainment industry workers supporting themselves with other jobs, such as serving in restaurants or bars, suffered a double whammy when many of those employers shut down as well.)
As it happened, the initial shutdowns in spring 2020 occurred while television production companies were producing pilot episodes to sell new series to networks for that fall. The lack of pilots meant that television networks had to make alternative programming plans, and although streaming services became popular with viewers suddenly stuck at home, it turned out that the demand for those services was highly dependent on pricing and the availability of new content.
Movie theatre closures forced distributors and exhibitors to reconsider how and where films are distributed, and how audiences prefer to view them. Fortmueller outlines the industry’s traditional “release windows” – periods during which a film is shown exclusively in theatres or on streaming services – and examines how the pandemic caused a sudden re-structuring of those long-standing practices. Production shutdowns at the major studios also meant that even when movie theatres were open, there were fewer new films for them to show; that prompted theatre owners and distributors to offer screenings of independent films and “classic” films. However, like many pandemic-related changes, it’s unclear whether this broader range of choices will be permanent.
The interconnectedness of the industry caused changes in release windows and distribution structures to have effects elsewhere. For example, the structure of contractual royalty payments to actors and creators is based on standard practices around how or when a film is released; when those practices changed, it threatened the long-term revenue streams from those contracts. Indeed, since Hollywood Shutdown was published, actress Scarlett Johanssen has brought attention to this issue when she sued Disney for allegedly affecting her earnings from Black Widow when it released the film simultaneously in theatres and on streaming services.
Fortmueller characterizes the entertainment industry’s overall attitude toward the pandemic as “wait[ing] and hop[ing] for a return to ‘business as usual'” but she contends that “usual” has changed forever, and not just because of the pandemic. She reminds the reader that prior to and during the pandemic, the entertainment industry was being re-shaped by other forces. It has had to adapt to changes in US anti-trust regulation. It has had to face up to its “white hegemony” and the lack of diversity in its workforce and in its productions. And it is facing a reckoning for ignoring or silencing allegations of sexual abuse and harassment while protecting perpetrators in positions of power.
The pandemic has forced the industry to change, but these factors, Fortmueller argues, may be equally important in understanding how or why the industry changes in the future.