Television and Film Production in Asia Slowly Opens Up
Art and Experience: Clocks in Asia seem to be synchronized differently from the rest of the world and from each territory.
In the last week of January, China was the first country in the world to shut down its film industry after the coronavirus was shown to be capable of human-to-human transmission. The entire city of Wuhan was isolated.
Since then, film and TV production in China has resumed. But cinemas have remained resolutely closed, meaning that exhibitors and distributors have had no income in over four months. Producers have had their costs increased by disruption, and some have made the difficult decision to sell their content directly to streaming platforms.
Hong Kong and Taiwan offer different case studies, again. Despite bordering Mainland China, and recording early infections, both territories have been world leaders in disease control: Taiwan recorded just 441 cases and seven deaths; Hong Kong tallied 1,050 cases, and four deaths. But film and TV production in Taiwan has continued, shoring up its growing reputation as a content hub for Asian streamers and pay-TV groups. In contrast, Hong Kong’s once-mighty film production industry has largely ground to a halt, despite a relaxing of social distancing measures.
In South Korea, the government has been praised for its rigorous testing and contact testing programs, but second and third waves of infections have been stoked by zealous religious groups and reckless nightclubbers. Understanding the dangers, Korean audiences began staying away from movie theaters long before authorities called a halt to exhibition. The film and TV production sector, which had been riding a wave of success due to the popularity of K-drama series and multiple Oscar wins by “Parasite,” has only now started to crawl back into life.
Geographically isolated and sparsely populated, both Australia and New Zealand have been able to lock themselves away from the rest of the world. They quickly flattened the curve of infections through strict travel bans and lockdown or stay-at- home measures, and are now considering the establishment of a bubble in which travel and quarantine rules would be mutually recognized.
But their film and TV industries have been slower to restart. That is due in part to paperwork and finance issues typical of two countries with highly developed social safety nets. It is also a recognition that the film and TV production industries of both countries are far bigger than are strictly necessary to supply the local entertainment demand. Instead, they are geared to export and co-production markets, which are not yet at the same state of health readiness.
Southeast Asia presents further contrasts.
Singapore, the Asian territory worst hit by COVID-19 after Mainland China, and Malaysia have yet to fully emerge from their lockdown periods, while film production has not resumed in any meaningful volume. Both countries have made good use of the downtime, developing guidelines or protocols for resuming production in the post-peak era.
Thailand finds itself in a similar position to New Zealand and Australia. According to official numbers, at least, Thailand’s unfriendly border controls and quarantine regimes and contact tracing successfully prevented the virus running out of control. The domestic Thai film and TV industry is now cranking up again, but the significant segment that services runaway productions has been left on the ground by a ban on international passenger flights that is set to last until the end of June.
Here’s a snapshot of how some major territories are handling production:
Australia: Struggles to Restart Production
Australia has some of the world’s most tried and tested film incentive schemes, though locally producers and facilities companies complain that they should be more generous if the country is to compete fully with other, cheaper international destinations. Right now though, the problem is not whether the federal location offset should be 40% or higher. Rather, it is how to get film production moving again in a country endowed with modern studios, stunning locations and world-class crews and talent.
While some documentary and animation projects have been able to continue production, elsewhere it has been the TV industry that been quickest to get its groove back on. The immensely popular “MasterChef Australia” is now shooting again. Long-running soap “Neighbours” is back in action on Melbourne sets and backlots specially redesigned to allow small working groups and “Home & Away” was due to restart at the end of May.
They were able to jump ahead because of their studio location, which allow tight health controls, and keep within the country’s general social distancing rules as a nationwide lockdown eases.
Much of the rest of the industry is waiting for two things: industry-standard “protocols” to be completed, and for questions of insurance to be resolved.
Protocols are being drawn up by craft guilds, state film agencies, AFTRS, Ausfilm and Screen Producers Australia. These are likely to set minimum standards and to evolve over time as best practices are implemented. At the same time, each production will be expected
to draw up its own protocols.
The insurance problem has arisen because most policies specifically rule out COVID-19 coverage. Only the largest companies have balance sheets large enough to risk working without insurance, leaving small companies and independents either exposed or waiting for a solution.
Film industry personnel have been badly hit, though many have been able to access unemployment benefits.
Federal funding and regulatory body Screen Australia has tried to inject some new capital into the industry through its Premium Plus Development Fund. This is skewed toward supporting higher-budget productions that can demonstrate commercial interest, and episodic drama over film. Public broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corp. came up with an A$5 million ($3.2 million) fund.
The federal government did its bit by suspending Australian content quotas for local broadcasters. That top-down model may help the already troubled TV broadcasters stay in business, and therefore still be around to commission and buy content. But in the near term it has the opposite effect by releasing the networks from their commitments to buy Australian shows. “A blunt instrument” and an “illogical exercise” are some of the descriptions of that decision.
Figuratively and literally, the Australian industry will get moving again when state borders are fully re-opened and airlines start flying again, bringing in foreign shoots.
Tom Hanks famously caught COVID-19 in Australia during pre-production on Baz Luhrmann’s untitled Elvis project. Federal and state funds have been committed and await his return.
New Zealand: First Out, First Back
Under the leadership of prime minister Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was tough, scientific and clearly explained. Border controls were imposed, and a nationwide lockdown and distancing program was instigated on a one-to-four sliding scale. By late May, it had been de-escalated back to level two, meaning group gatherings remain limited to no more than 10 people, but theaters have reopened.
New Zealand was among the first in the world to develop detailed protocols on how film and TV production should be carried out after the return to work — and it may be rewarded as the first in the world to get a major Hollywood shoot back in gear. Jon Landau used social media to say that the “Avatar” series (Parts 2, 3 and half of 4) that were shooting at multiple studios in Auckland and Wellington should resume by the last week in May. And indeed, Landau and director James Cameron were back in the country as of May 30.
In an Instagram post, Landau announced their arrival: “Made it to New Zealand. Our 14-day government supervised self-isolation now begins,” Landau said.
The protocol was developed by permanent government agency Worksafe, which sets standards. Productions are also encouraged to register with another agency, Screen Safe, for access to a second specifically developed protocol, which is described as a toolkit covering resources, guidelines, planning and health and safety matters.
At the time of New Zealand’s shutdown there were 47 major local productions and co-productions in various stages, including Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, and Libertine Pictures and Slim Film +Television’s TV show “Mystic,” based on Stacey Gregg’s “Pony Club Secrets” series of books. One, “Shortland Street,” is already shooting.
The international projects, hoping to return once national borders are re-opened, include Amazon Prime’s “The Lord of the Rings” mega-series; “Sweet Tooth” (Warner Bros Television/ Team Downey) for Netflix; Netflix original “Cowboy Bebop”; and Hasbro’s long-running “Power Rangers.”
“We are looking forward to welcoming international productions back as soon as practical — subject to borders —now that we have our screen industry health and safety standards and protocols endorsed by Worksafe New Zealand and Screen Safe,” says New Zealand Film Commission CEO Annabelle Sheehan.
China: Industry Seizes Opportunity in Crisis
Although there continues to be politicking between the U.S. and Mainland Chinese governments over when and how the COVID-19 virus got started, there is little doubting that Chinese authorities acted forcefully once they understood the implications of the virus outbreak.
Cancelling Chinese New Year and closing all the cinemas in the busiest week of the year is about as big a danger sign as it is possible to put up. Whole cities and provinces were put on lockdown in a fashion that would not have been possible in a Western liberal democracy.
And for weeks that had the effect of freezing the virus clusters where they were. Megalopolises Shanghai and Shenzhen suffered few cases, but the virus burned through Wuhan and may have achieved partial herd immunity.
Capital city Beijing and its surroundings were put on a separate quarantine that lasted until the end of May, not due to the city’s high infection levels, but due to its political and symbolic importance. Unfortunately, Beijing is also where most film companies have their headquarters. That created opportunity elsewhere in the country.
After six weeks, productions that had been abruptly halted were able to start lensing again. Some companies in Beijing returned to their offices, but staff were unable to travel, and provincial visitors to the capital would have had to endure 14 days locked in quarantine.
“I saw more local stuff because, yes, it’s more complicated to move around,” says Shanghai-based producer Natacha Devillers.
Not all of the business was film. “There was a huge, huge amount of advertising going on in April, because China was the only place that could actually shoot. So the Japanese couldn’t shoot in Japan, but shot all their ads in China or Hong Kong instead,” says Devillers.
Location and studios outside the capital got themselves back into the swing. These included those in Hengdian and Qingdao, as well as new local government-owned facility at Xiangshan, near Ningbo.
The facility, which has not yet been fully built out, quickly picked up three productions. But its international ambitions will have to wait until 2021 when the country is expected to be fully open.
As well as disrupting production, the virus lockdown may have changed public tastes and genre preferences — not surprising that with cinemas closed for four months, streaming content is on the rise. It is typically made at lower price points, but often done so in high-risk, entrepreneurial fashion without pre-sales. Xiangshan reported that a handful of web series used its backlot.
Although state media have reported that thousands of small film companies have collapsed, the authorities clearly wanted to appear helpful. Devillers says script-stage censorship of two of her projects was smooth and swift. But other parts of local authorities and Beijing-based administrations were not open or operating at reduced capacity. That — and enduring international travel restrictions — could crimp co-productions into 2021.
Perhaps the most positive news to emerge from China’s COVID crisis is a new emphasis on script development and remote but collaborative working. Many writers and directors used their enforced downtime to give screenplays another polish, and to build writing teams with new partners.
— Patrick Frater and Rebecca Davis
Hong Kong: Production Stutters as It Tries to Move Forward
In some Western countries, the people of Hong Kong dealt with the outbreak of the coronavirus by quickly donning face masks, smearing themselves with hand sanitizer and asking their government for stricter border controls. They had seen epidemics before — avian flu and SARS — and quickly took action. The result has been exemplary: barely 1,050 infections and four deaths, the last more than two months ago, despite living next door to the original epicenter in Mainland China. Schools and (eventually) cinemas closed, but a full lockdown was avoided.
The film industry did not get away so happily.
A ban on gatherings of more than four people between March 29 and May 8 put an end to any remaining film productions, though a small number of TV dramas continued in studios.
Crews looking to resume production need to obtain a “letter of no objection” from the Film Services Office (FSO), a government unit. This is intended to ensure that filming does not attract large crowds and that the crew would implement crowd-control measures.
The FSO tells Variety that 40 no-objection letters for filming of TV dramas, films and commercials had been issued by the third week of May. The office hopes that three to four films will actually have restarted by the beginning of June.
Emperor Motion Pictures and One Cool Film announced in May a joint plan to boost production by developing a slate of 10 Hong Kong movies (meaning not Hong Kong-Mainland China co-productions) that would shoot over the next two years.
But others remain deeply concerned by Hong Kong cinema’s prospects. Production numbers tailed off rapidly in 2019 as the city was riven by social and political strife, some of it violent. That disrupted plans and depressed investment. And now Hong Kong’s political problems are back on the streets and are as off-putting as they were before.
No wonder then that some Hong Kong stars and crew are reported to have headed across the border — even enduring a two-week mandatory quarantine — for work there instead.
South Korea: Hesitant Restart
South Korea is one of the few places where filming has restarted — albeit hesitantly — as the coronavirus outbreak has receded.
South Korea beat the virus through rigorous testing and contact tracing in a way that was held up by other countries as the model for fighting the virus. But the country is seeing second and third waves of infections, due to reckless behavior.
Among the most prominent production restarts are two Netflix original series, which both went back in front of the cameras in April. “We worked quickly to develop safety protocols so that series such as our new drama ‘Move to Heaven’ and the popular romantic series ‘Love Alarm’ could continue filming,” Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos wrote in the L.A. Times.
Testing is only available for people with symptoms. So all cast and crew have their temperatures checked regularly. If anyone were to show signs of infection, they would be tested immediately and production paused.
That pragmatic approach preceded an industry standard protocol that is still being developed by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC). KOFIC has, however, established a special safety management committee, consisting of health experts and entertainment industry workers. The committee is planning to dispatch safety management crew to film sets, as well as to provide personal health checklists.
Other TV series that have now resumed production include tvN’s “Hospital Playlist,” and “Hi Bye, Mama!” as well as KBS’ “Soul Mechanic.”
Circumstances are worse for big-budget feature films that are set overseas. After the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March, Megabox’s “Negotiations” and “Bogota,” Showbox’s “Kidnapping” and CJ Entertainment’s “The Outlaws 2” all had to cancel or delay filming, due to travel bans.
Some 90% of “Bogota” had been set to shoot in Colombia, but production stopped earlier than scheduled, and cast and crew returned to South Korea in late March. Now it is unclear when it will resume. Producer Watermelon Pictures maintains that it is aiming to restart filming in the summer, but its lead actor Song Joong-ki has other commitments, notably on “The Season of Us,” which aims to start its South Korea shoot in August.
The Jordan shoot of “Negotiations” was scuttled after the country closed its borders to travelers from South Korea. Producers have now begun shooting the Korean-set elements and may relocate the overseas segments to other locations. “We could no longer delay filming, considering the budget and the stars’ schedules,” a “Negotiations” production source tells Variety. The film stars Hwang Jung-min and Hyun Bin.
— Patrick Frater and Sonia Kil
Taiwan: East Asia Content Hub Is Growing
Although the coronavirus pandemic has brought the entertainment industry a grinding halt in many places, in Taiwan things appear to be moving forward, albeit in a different direction. New projects have been unveiled or have entered the pre-production phase, aimed at OTT platforms or are being hatched as short films that can be scaled up when funds are available.
Industry players says that more creators have been moving to produce dramas and other content for OTT platforms. International concerns such as HBO Asia and Netflix — with its increasing involvement in Taiwan’s Chinese-language productions — and growing competitiveness from local players such as Taiwan Public Television Service, which has increased its production budget, have offered home-grown professionals greater opportunity than traditional feature films.
Besides the big players, the LGBTQ-themed streaming platform GagaOOLala, backed by the Taipei-based Portico Media, is also going worldwide (except for China and North Korea) and tapping into original content production.
One of the recent hit OTT releases during the pandemic is “Workers,” a joint collaboration between HBO Asia, Taiwan Mobile’s OTT platform myVideo and DaMou Entertainment.
“Taiwan drama series streamed via OTT platforms are well-received and it’s easier for them to find investment,” says producer Chen Hsi-sheng (“Yi Yi”), who is also a “Workers” cast member.
Chen says that although investors might have to bear greater risks with OTT drama productions as they are generally only sold after the production is completed, their recent success has spawned a Taiwan brand. “I’m optimistic,” he says.
Such hopefulness, however, is not mirrored in the film industry.
The island is not under lockdown and cinemas have not been required to close, but many shut down temporarily due to poor ticket sales. There are estimates of an 80% drop in ticket sales. Theaters are keeping one empty seat in between patrons and have been advised by authorities not to sell more than 100 tickets per screening.
Even prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Chensays raising funds for film projects in Taiwan had been a challenge, due to a lack of market support. Despite Taiwan having a population of 24 million, B.O. per head is low, and local films are not well-supported.
Film director Lin Chien-ping (aka Avan Lin) decided to approach his project “Little Yellow Flowers” differently, starting with a 20-minute short film. He received a NT$ 2 million ($66,500) grant for his short film project from the Ministry of Culture and has now begun location scouting in Kaohsiung and elsewhere.
“We aim to start shooting at the end of June and the project to be completed by the end of the year,” says Lin. “Our goal is to submit the project to international film festivals while continuing to work on a feature-length version.”
— Vivienne Chow