Creating entertainment is hard work. A successful show does not come about easily, from day to night: it takes dedication, practice and a lot of time. We can all imagine the frustration at not being able to finally open a performance, or release a film, that is almost ready, after months, maybe years, of hard work. This is what many a filmmaker, and producer, and actor, and member of the crew, has had to endure over the last sixteen months or so.
In spite of the recent reopenings – which we are all extremely grateful for – the entertainment industry has suffered a tremendous blow during this COVID-19 pandemic. In making movies, shows, or concerts, great groups of people are gathered together – even greater groups when those movies, shows and concerts are open to the public. Because of this, things had to shut down, unfortunately, at first. Then, slowly, we found a way to restart (owing to to tests and vaccines); however, the industry had already been hit quite hard by that point.
The theatrical and in-home entertainment global revenue had a sharp decline in 2020, recording the “lowest figures since 2016”. It was, of course, the theatrical revenue to suffer the most, dropping “from $42.3 billion in 2019 to $12 million in 2020.” Digital entertainment, on the other hand, went up by 31% last year; whereas “physical” entertainment (DVDs and rentals, etc…) continues to decline. Hollywood had to push back several major movies and, in spite of a return to normality (as of now), cinemas and theatres all around the world were forced to shut down for a substantial amount of time.
The same goes for the music industry. A shift in trends has brought music streaming “from 9% to 47% of total industry revenues” over the last six years, as people are finding new ways to listen to music. YouTube and TV streaming have become widely popular, together with streaming services such as Spotify. Artists too had to reinvent themselves. It appears that the vast majority of musicians (financially) feed off live music, and as this was put on a long-term hold, they had – by necessity – to find alternatives.
Technology has indeed played a massive role in all this, in that it has allowed the artistic expression – in all its forms – to continue, in spite of the temporary impossibility for human beings to come in close contact. Be it giving online lessons, or performing live in front of a camera, in addressing one’s craft to unknown streamers from everywhere, technology has simply allowed people and organizations to stay in business. But it has changed the business too. Just think of an event such as Travis Scott’s virtual performance on the widely-popular online video game Fortnite; or the significant increase in home recordings, allowing independent artists to come into the spotlight and make their voices heard. Not only is this a way to keep the arts alive and flowing, but also an interesting chance to discover and explore new paths.
When the word entertainment is spoken, though, we tend to immediately think about Hollywood, as far as cinema is concerned; Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and all those popular names and faces we see on tabloids and newspapers, on magazines and on television – as far as music is concerned. The artists standing on the top of the mountain, however, only represent a small fraction of the whole entertainment sector. There is a much larger group, a “middle tier”, hardly recognizable or heard of, where entertainment-makers (for it is not just about performers, directors and producers, but also about technicians, make-up artists, stuntmen and stuntwomen, and all the various components of army-like crews that make entertainment possible and great) are gathered: this group survives mainly on gigs. In a time like this, concerns rise easily, as to how there are hardly any safety nets to protect the work of such artists. Those who got a good grip of technology, and used it as a means to advertising and communicating in a fun, creative way, are now doing well. Others are struggling, because they had to pause just while they were finally “getting traction”, or simply because they found themselves suddenly unemployed.
There have been, however, measures to help these struggling artists. Government aid packages and donations from such giants as Amazon, Spotify, YouTube Music, UMG (Universal Music Group) and Live Nation Entertainment represent two of the major driving forces – from the public and the private sectors respectively – that provide funding support for the music industry. Actors’ Equity, the United States’ union for stage actors and managers, has set up the “Emergency Curtain Up Fund”, in trying to help all of its struggling members.
Financial assistance has not been the only point of concern though: getting back to a “normal” working routine has been a demanding task; it has required much patience and caution. The Actors’ Equity itself noisily warned theatres not to open before the virus could be safely controlled. Even so, “COVID-19 specific workplace safety and health guidelines” are as much required as they are needed, and it is always a big risk producers are taking: we all know the consequences of infecting each other within the set of a film, an office, or a classroom.
In spite of all the difficulties outlined though, it seems fair to admit that the entertainment industry has not come to a complete halt: it has been able – though not without hardship – to continue some of its activities, one way or another. Disneyland saw its parks shut down for what could be defined a long while; the channel Disney +, however, happily continued with its broadcasts, thus allowing the company to stay relatively strong. Does this mean, then, that the way we have experienced art and entertainment during this time is a good substitute for what we were accustomed to? The answer is, simply, no. Just like online lessons and meetings scarcely substitute the face-to-face encounter, so virtual concerts and readings do not at all unite performers and their audiences in that special feeling that only the live experience can offer. “Theatre is a communal experience…. What happens in a theatre and what’s magic about it is the energy between the audience and the performers, and the energy between audience members” – which is totally lost when there is a virtual screen that divides them.
We are looking at new ways to “translate the arts to digital means”, yet at the same time we know that this is temporary, that people do want to go back to the real experience. Hunger for live music is expected to increase, and so are the prices of tickets.
Contact between human beings is one of the basis of life, and it is essential when it comes to art: we do not just stare at a work of art, especially when it’s a live performance: we feel it. We need to feel it, in order to appreciate it, to live it, to learn from it and be changed by it. Emotions are at the very centre of our being; they are arguably the mean through which we feel the world and our existence. So it is from them, perhaps, that life can begin again: “it will be the cultural sector that restores everybody to some kind of normality”. Let us hope it does, and let us hope that, once again, we get to be a part of it.
Written by Edoardo Cippitelli
Edoardo Cippitelli is a columnist at DecipherGrey.