A leading UK film sales company is calling for public intervention to support the industry as it scrambles to deal with the fast-changing and various impacts of the coronavirus outbreak.
“BFI, Screen Ireland and all these bodies have a huge amount to do. This is the biggest moment they’ve got to make a difference. They should be looking at producers, filmmakers, sales agents and distributors - the whole business,” Tim Haslam, a founding partner at Embankment Films told Screen.
“I would ask them to look at the long-term effects, the medium-term effects and the next 18 months. With productions getting hurt, we know distributors are getting hurt and between that are the sales agents.”
Asked whether an emergency public fund should now be set up, Haslam replied: “Yes, but with a flexibility to help all forms of film.”
“The medium-term cash flow for filmmakers, producers, whoever, is something everybody recognises,” Haslam stated. “It’s important not to differentiate between sales agents, producers and distributors. We are all in it together. We’re all in the same business. There is no differentiation between who it is hurting. It is just who it is hurting first. That is obviously the cinemas and those who are shooting right now because shoots are losing their crews.”
As of March 13, there is no official social isolation policy in place in the UK. Instead, those with a high temperature or a new, continuous cough are being advised to self-isolate for seven days.
However, Screen is hearing reports of bond companies not covering coronavirus incidents. It is understood an increasing number of productions are therefore being put on hold.
Exhibitors are also facing “an unprecedented challenge” according to UK Cinema Association CEO Phil Clapp. “The decision by a number of US studios to delay the release of several of their upcoming major films presents an unprecedented challenge to many UK cinemas, and is something which may genuinely call into question the survival of a number of sites,” he said.
“While we are following government advice closely, current guidance is that there is no reason for the public to avoid visiting the cinema. All UK cinema operators place ensuring the safety of their audiences and staff as the top of their list of priorities, and will each take their own view on the measures necessary to achieve that.”
There are some measures in place: the UK government is providing support for small businesses impacted by the virus, including sick pay for those self-isolating, and access to coronavirus disruption loans.
“We welcome help from any quarter that supports our member companies’ business continuity planning,” said Charlie Bloye, CEO of Film Export UK (FEUK), of the new government measures. “Resilience and flexibility are characteristics embedded in the independent film sector but we need those qualities more than ever now,”
However, although permanent employees at UK film companies will benefit from these measures, they are understood to not be enough to help the large number of freelancers working in the film production sector. Government official support so far only allows for freelancers and the self-employed to claim universal credit with no “minimum income floor”.
A BFI spokesperson confirmed the organisation was assessing the support for self-employed and freelance workers impacted by the new coronavirus outlined in the Budget and what support that could offer the industry. ”We will continue to work closely with the DCMS, advocating for the sector and passing intelligence in both directions,” they said.
”The situation is obviously a rapidly evolving one but we are working at pace to understand the impact of COVID -19 across the entire ecosystem,” they continued. ”As a financier, we are obviously supporting our productions with advice on a case by case basis as they encounter any issues with regard to coronavirus, including insurance - obviously each case is different and complex. They are all different projects, with completely different variables, so there isn’t one size fits all guidance, and we are advising them through this challenge, as we would with the many other unexpected challenges that productions encounter.”
As for advice for the wider film community, the spokesperson explained the BFI was providing that on a case by case basis and “signposting to Government and Public Health England advice”.
Many productions ongoing… for now
Production at the UK’s major studios is mostly continuing as normal for now, with productions such as Warner Bros’ Fantastic Beasts 3 still gearing up to shoot. However, Disney announced a production hiatus of live-action titles including The Little Mermaid which is filming at Pinewood, late on Friday (March 13).
“We are monitoring the situation and following government advice but all our studios across the Pinewood Studios Group are fully operational,” Andrew Smith, corporate affairs director at Pinewood, told Screen.
Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission, also confirmed the studios are carrying on as usual as of today.
“All of the studios, to my knowledge, are operating as normal. There is a lot more hand sanitiser being used and everyone is following WHO and NHS guidelines in the way they absolutely should,” Wootton said. “We haven’t heard of any extreme decision being made by anybody. Obviously, that situation could change but not [for] now. Until the government advice changes or we are instructed or advised to do otherwise, the UK film and television industry is carrying on.”
Embankment’s Haslam discounted the suggestion the film market might suffer from a glut of films after the virus is finally contained. “If the film satisfies the audience, it is going to play on whatever platform. It is never a question of having too many,” Haslam said. “The demand is there.”
“We will see where there are opportunities at the same time. We are highly positive people because we believe in storytelling and entertaining audiences,” he added.
One Embankment title, Peter Cattaneo’s feelgood comedy-drama Military Wives opened on over 650 screens by Lionsgate in the UK last Friday (March 6).
“The first weekend, we felt the effects of the virus,” Haslam claimed. “However, fortunately, we’ve got really good midweek figures. If you’re releasing a film at this stage, all the media campaigns [are already] spent.”
Embankment’s employees are now working from home. “Number one, health is wealth. We have to be responsible to our people and to each other - and to put health first,” said Haslam.
He warned companies will now be “very cautious with their cash flow and [will] predict forward for the next year and a half. It is not just about now. It is about the next 18 months.”
Advice for UK film and TV freelancers affected by coronavirus
UK broadcasting union Bectu advises that if an employer cancels a contract because of coronavirus, members should find out if the production is covered by a Bectu agreement in ”feature film, TV drama, the construction sector of film or as a supporting artist, or in the advertising production sector”. If so, workers will have some rights if covered by one of these agreements.
Bectu also advises workers to ask employers to offer at least two weeks of notice payment instead of the one week; press employers for early written confirmation of a job; and agree a cancelation fee in advance of starting a job.
Freelancers advised to self-isolate will not usually be entitled to any Statutory Sick Pay unless they are on PAYE contracts, where the payments will be very small. Because of this, Bectu is urging members to seek a fairer level of compensation for this scenario. Employees at the BBC will be receiving 100% of their salary for any period of self-isolation as a result of Bectu negotiations.
Previously, Bectu head Philippa Childs said she was asking the government to lobby insurance companies to cover freelancers for self-isolation, establish a system to cover lost earnings and guarantee support for businesses that cannot afford this emergency cover.
Directors UK, the professional association of directors, has urged its members to check employment contracts for any work that is cancelled in case there is any protection offered, however it admits this is unlikely. They added: “The likelihood is that you will not receive any actual support from your contract in the event of suspension due to the coronavirus outbreak, or you may only receive a notice period payment in the event of termination.”
As part of a detailed FAQ for members, there is also advice on the next steps for those who have lost income due to COVID-19, sick pay, insurance and travel.
Finally, The Film and TV Charity said it is “concerned about the potential impact of coronavirus on people working in film, TV and cinema, particularly in relation to freelance workers and those on limited hours contracts,” and point those affected towards their 24/7 support line at 0800 054 0000 or live chat service on their website.