The row between cinema chains and Universal Studios over the digital-only release of Trolls World Tour is one of may crises racking the entertainment industry during the coronavirus lockdown. The challenges range from working out how to stage live performances to managing social distancing in queues for rollercoasters. Here are some of the issues they face.
Television is facing two main obstacle: programme supply issues in the short term; and, in the longer run, potentially fundamental changes to how shows are produced. ITV says, despite cuts in programme frequency, it will run out of episodes of Emmerdale at the end of May, and of Coronation Street at the end of June.
The almost total shutdown of the UK’s multibillion-pound TV and film production industry could see gaps in schedules for some genres, such as high-profile dramas, of up to two years. Kevin Lygo, ITV’s director of programming, has already flagged likely reruns of Midsomer Murders in its depleted schedule next year.
How productions are made will change too. Live TV audiences may be a thing of the past for some shows. ITV and the BBC have said they will forgo them if necessary for upcoming series of The Masked Singer and Strictly Come Dancing. On-set production will also be altered by social distancing – there will be no more mass catering or crowded makeup trucks, and the previously unthinkable prospect of stars actually driving themselves to studios and filming locations may become thinkable.
Artists face a number of lean years following the shutdown of the $27bn global live music industry. The streaming revolution has been a boon for music discovery and promotion, but the real money remains in live performance.
“A typical artist gets 65% to 75% of their income from live performances,” says Mark Mulligan, analyst at Midia Research. “But it will take ages for consumer confidence to recover and return in mass numbers to live music. Toilets, ticketing and cloakrooms are all cluster points. What are club venues going to do, those with capacity of 150 to 200 people? They won’t be viable with two-metre social distancing.”
Standup is an industry built on close-knit audiences in intimate, sometimes cramped, locations. It is a social-distancing nightmare.
“Standup has always been in rooms above pubs, or basements: it’s like an underground movement,” says Simon Lupton, a former BBC commissioning editor for comedy and co-founder of Seven Seas Films. “These are the very venues you wouldn’t want to go to with coronavirus around, but close-proximity environments are where comedy thrives.”
Comedy venues are not big moneyspinners; income from food and drink sales tends to be crucial, and decreased footfall is likely to push many to the brink.
“I hope we don’t see venue closures, but I suspect it will be inevitable as a lot of these places run on shoestring budgets,” adds Lupton. “This won’t be the death of comedy: everything is evolving and finding new ways of working. It will take time, but it will survive.”
Alistair Smith, editor of The Stage, worries that while the focus has been on when theatres might open, another question has not been given equal billing: how?
“Large communal activities such as theatre are going to be among the last to reopen,” he says. “Even then, it will probably be with some modifications: reduced capacities, temperature-testing on entrance, maybe even smaller casts due to cramped backstage facilities. And I can’t imagine too many people wanting to crush around a theatre bar in the interval.”
Reduced capacities could have a knock-on effect on expensive West End productions with high running costs – they need packed theatres to be economically viable. Lower-budget shows could afford to play to smaller houses. And restrictions might make immersive theatre impossible.
Smith adds that social distancing raises myriad questions, such as how audiences will get to their seats, and whether measures taken in theatres will be undermined if people travel to venues on public transport.
Large amusement parks operate as mini-cities: packed with rides, shopping malls, cinemas and restaurants, they face multiple issues in a virus-hit world. Guidelines published last week by Florida’s Orange County – home to Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld, all of which hope to reopen next month – make for lengthy reading. They include touchless hand sanitiser stations at all ticketing and entry areas and turnstiles, as well as markers six feet apart in queues. Mobile check-in will be encouraged at hotels, restaurants will have tables 6ft apart and bartenders will sanitise their hands after each order. In cinemas, people will be allowed in parties of up to four, with two seats between each group.
But Andy Edge, a former director of Merlin Entertainments, which owns attractions including Thorpe Park and Chessington, wonders what will happen on rides. “How do you manage seat separation and social separation with families, couples and strangers? Rides rely on effective loading, and a 50% fill will have a major impact on operations. If coronavirus is here to stay, theme parks may have to think about the long-term physical design and production of rides.”