hollywood north & covid-19

How the Coronavirus is Changing the Film Industry Forever, in Canada and Beyond 

Joseph Boutilier films on set at Empress Avenue Media HQ for a new factual series.

Vancouver BC is often referred to as ‘Hollywood North’ for its prolific film production. When California was still struggling with some of the highest COVID-19 rates in North America, BC was being recognized worldwide for its exceptional mitigation of the Coronavirus threat. While film production became possible again in this province at the end of June, it did so with a slew of new restrictions, both political and practical. Earlier this month, the creative filmmakers on the Empress Avenue Media team sat down to discuss how it’s affected their own work, the industry at large, and what they predict for the future of film.

“In terms of writing, my mind has shifted a bit, how we write certain scenes, and how we film certain scenes, and how to film more intimate scenes.” – Mia Golden

Mia Golden is a Development Coordinator and film producer with Empress. This month she’s doing pre-production on a documentary about sex trafficking in BC, as well as her first feature with the company as both writer and producer. Due to COVID-19, the trajectory of these projects are anything but certain. But the biggest impact to Mia’s work is on the core concepts of the projects she’s pursuing.   

creative constraints in the age of covid-19

“In terms of writing, my mind has shifted a bit, how we write certain scenes, and how we film certain scenes, and how to film more intimate scenes,” says Golden. “Do we self isolate together?” It’s hard to capture a romantic moment with two people who can’t get within six feet, let alone can’t take off gloves or masks. 

Writing for film in BC during COVID-19
Mia Golden is writing a number of narrative features and series; her goal is to write content that can be filmed whether or not COVID-19 is affecting sets.

Of course, it’s impossible to say how long COVID-19 will continue to hold such a firm grasp on our daily lives. Gavin Andrews – another documentary filmmaker and editor with Empress who is shifting towards narrative storytelling – is already thinking to the future. “If we’re writing scripts now, a year or a year and a half from now, can we expect to be shooting a normal movie?” 

“What broadcasters and distributors are going to be accepting now…I think that’s going to change…” – Gavin Andrews

Maybe so. But Joseph Boutilier – a film director, and co-founder of Empress – isn’t betting on it. “If you’re smart enough to write a script so it’s just as compelling, just as good, and you can shoot it with 4 people and 2 locations, instead of 20 people and 50 locations…there’s always going to be…a bigger potential for getting it sold and made, and that never hurts.” But, he acknowledges, small stories also come with their own challenges compared to high-flying fantasy films where the action is largely digital. “It could go the other way,” he ponders, “‘cause everyone is using greenscreens it might be on a grander scale. Less expensive, less actual interaction.”

quality vs. quantity vs. covid-19

Another change the team has noticed is the shift in QC (Quality Control) standards set by broadcasters. With journalists and interview subjects forced to film themselves remotely, there’s a lot more room for blurry visuals, echoey audio and unflattering lighting. Or even unfortunate wardrobe malfunctions, like news anchors appearing in their boxer shorts. “With everything going on, people filming so much on their iPhones, etc… it will shake up what is considered acceptable for broadcast,” Andrews points out. “What broadcasters and distributors are going to be accepting now…I think that’s going to change moving forward for sure.” 

…Audience members and Hollywood elite alike are open to reviewing lower-budget streaming content now that many ‘theatrical’ releases are indefinitely on hold… 

Man checks the news during COVID-19
Joseph Boutilier checks updates regarding COVID-19 filming restrictions during a recent video shoot at Empress.

The lack of aesthetic control over factual content can be a major frustration for filmmakers who take pride in their cinematography. On the flip side, documentarians no you no longer need to travel across the country for interview, nor actors for auditions. In theory, filmmaking is more affordable and accessible than ever. But these new techniques still leave something to be desired. “Obviously it’s always preferable to have someone in front of you,” says Golden, about casting future projects, “because you can see some of the subtle things like eye contact and chemistry.”

“It’s going to be interesting to see how long that sustains basically, and whether or not everyone is digging through their archives for old material.”

COVID-19 hasn’t only forced a kind of ‘democratization’ of video technology, but also of the entertainment industry itself. “It’s a forced pilot project for all of us,” Golden reflects. “In regards to using zoom and other platforms to stay connected…Even my parents [now use it].” And audience members and Hollywood elite alike are open to reviewing lower-budget streaming content now that many ‘theatrical’ releases are indefinitely on hold. The next Academy Awards won’t have any choice but to consider ‘home entertainment’ projects for the first time in Oscar history.

closing the ‘content gap’

Delays of big theatrical releases – plus the inability for most of the world’s crews to physically gather and film anything – has caused a gap in the industry. Distributors, platforms and online audiences alike are hungry for content. For small production companies like Empress, that can be good news.

“It’s going to be interesting to see…whether or not everyone is digging through their archives for old material.” – Joseph Boutilier

“As a company we’ve had shoots cancelled, and we’ve been able to pick up the slack in editing.” Boutilier explains. Empress has begun editing two feature films that were stuck in post production-limbo for years.  “It’s going to be interesting to see how long that sustains basically, and whether or not everyone is digging through their archives for old material.”

But perhaps nothing will have a bigger impact on any studio’s success or failure than where they’re based. Gavin contemplates: “With B.C. opening up the film industry…Is it going to be a boom for us in this immediate 2 – 3 months where it seems like we are okay compared to the rest of the filming world? Or whether it’s going to throw cold water on the whole industry, will that reflect here as well?” Adds Boutilier, “Its not just Hollywood vs. Hollywood north…It’s like, can you film in China right now, or India?”

Videography in Duncan BC at Empress Avenue Media
A factual series is filmed at Empress Avenue Media, shortly before COVID-19 put a temporary hold on production.

a new frontier

All of this begs the question, if Empress – or any other studio – knew what COVID-19 would look like when it was first confirmed in December, what would they do? 

“If I knew COVID was coming…I would set up sets in people’s houses. Give them a couple lights and a good camera.” – Peter Olivastri

Boutilier would have pivoted to more animated content. “Obviously there’s hurdles as well, to bring animation teams together, but it’s something you can do remotely,” he says. “I think over the next 6 months we’re probably going to see a massive spike in animated content for older audiences and adults. Using tools like Adobe Character Animator that automates a lot of that process to do animated talk shows, or…opinion pieces, current affairs shows, things that we haven’t really seen in the animated form before.”

Peter Olivastri is a cinematographer at Empress, and leads their technical operations on-set. He’s all too familiar with how brands and celebrities are struggling present themselves professionally without access to professional videographers. “If I knew COVID was coming,” he says, “I think I would set up a business where I would set up sets in people’s houses. Give them a couple lights and a good camera, so when they’re on whatever call on the platform they choose, it looks a lot better than their back-lit webcam.”

the creative antidote for pandemic overload 

Throughout history, challenging times have been reflected in the on-screen stories that resonate and prosper. During the Great Depression, the Marx Brothers became comedic allies for the populist movement, giving cash-strapped audiences some much-needed laughs at the expense of high society. In the aftermath of WWII, Godzilla gave a giant, reptilian face to the destructive power of atomic weapons. So what stories and themes will define the ‘COVID Era’?

The Team at Empress Avenue Media work through COVID-19
Work environments – plus the work itself – is constantly changing for Empress during COVID-19.

“Personally, when things feel stressful…I want a romantic comedy,” reflects Golden. “And what I’ve realized, [is] there’s not a lot, not like in the 1990’s and early 2000’s where there were tons of rom-coms.” She’s working on one now, although she admits that “COVID-wise that would be a challenge to film, you know because of the kissing scenes.”

Studios like Empress are built on big dreams, perseverance, and relentless creativity.

But the impacts of a the pandemic on narrative inspiration will likely outlive the threat itself.  “In 20 year of 30-40 years,” muses Olivastri, “I’d really like to see a zombie thriller, about COVID, where its just blown way out of proportion…all these kids would be like, ‘aww look how bad COVID was!’” 

dreaming big

If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that even a global pandemic won’t be able to crush the film industry in BC. After all, studios like Empress are built on big dreams, perseverance and relentless creativity. “If we were in it just for the money,” says Boutilier, “we wouldn’t be in it at all.”

“The really enterprising, entrepreneurial filmmakers will still find a way to make content…and reach markets one way or another. That agility is paramount right now, and anyone who can figure that out will thrive.”

Update: Production in Vancouver is now officially restarting, with negotiations completed between US and Canadian film unions regarding COVID-19 testing procedures.

Watch the full panel discussion on YouTube here:

Empress Avenue Media has three COVID-friendly shoots tentatively planned for September. Follow the action on our Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube!

Trying to shoot a movie during COVID-19? Empress Avenue Media Inc. can help with many aspects of development, production and post. Get in touch to learn more.