by Steven Sanchez
Film productions are known for its size and scale of people working together. Have you seen the end credits to a film? You just see hundreds and sometimes even thousands of names scroll up the screen, people representing different departments to make one complete project. You got the director, writer(s), producers, make-up department, casting director(s), production designer, cinematographer, composer, visual effects, special effects, and the list goes on. It’s an art form and business that has prided itself on being collaborative. Communication and interaction is key to coming together, sharing the same mindset to achieve what the director wants, and in the end to not only complete the film, but make a good one as well. Then the coronavirus happened.
Just like that the world was turned upside down and one of the first professions to take a hit was the film industry. Because of the lockdown and shelter-in-place, that meant all productions were to be shut down, and films who got the green light were not to commence. Nothing, nada, zilch. Thousands of employment opportunities gone, movie theaters closed, one of America’s biggest exports was no longer, and how long this lockdown was going to go on for was uncertain. There’s been studies suggesting that the global film industry can lose up to $5 billion dollars. In 2018, the global box office was worth $41.7 billion, and with the inclusion of box office and home entertainment revenue, the global film industry was worth $136 billion in 2018. And both big and small screen platforms altogether surpassed $100 billion in revenues for the first time in history, with earnings reaching $101 billion in 2019. That’ll be a substantial loss. A craft, an entertainment outlet that looked and felt essential, and for the first time it felt anything but that.
It didn’t just impact the movie world in Hollywood, its effects were felt here in the Central Valley. You really can’t make a movie when you’re trying to practice social distancing. People in the area commute from here to there for entertainment opportunities, and that was no longer a possibility. Surprisingly, the filmmakers here saw the silver lining and made the best of it.
George Ohan, filmmaker, teacher, content creator, financial advisor, and one of the most recent forerunners who’s making big moves and efforts to help put the local scene on the map, has kept busy. “We had eight films already produced, and we started releasing it as the Financial Literacy Film Festival online in April. We made an adjustment to stream the content for free instead of the physical event,” announces George. “Also, with our feature film in Laos, we have been blessed with an extended pre-production.”
Lianna Manibog, filmmaker and actress from Clovis, definitely had her work cut out for her when the virus hit. “I teach college-level English and writing at Snow College in Utah. I’m blessed that I have a career that allows me a steady and dependable income as I work on my filmmaking endeavors.” But to actually teach over the internet, a whole class population, that doesn’t sound easy it all. Lianna reveals, “I taught my classes using FaceTime, Zoom, did updates on Instagram, and used Canvas, and it was hard, a lot of students weren’t ready or equipped for it, but it got done.”
And from an actress’ perspective, we featured Alena Gerard on her acting pursuits last year, and the Covid-19 didn’t slow her down at all. “I actually looked at it as an advantage for multiple reasons. I was brought in for pre-production for a feature film (which takes months of preparation), so it gave us the opportunity to really narrow everything down, and when we start filming on June 15, we have everything set in place,” Alena reports. “Then I was brought in for another position for a feature film that is also giving us the opportunity to be fully prepared when we leave the country. Now as an actress living in Fresno and driving back and forth to auditions and class to Los Angeles, I have been able to do auditions through Zoom and classes through Zoom which is more convenient for the time being.”
Zoom and other programs have been very useful for people to still correspond with each other like Skype, FaceTime, and Vmix, and of course, the familiar social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. The locally famous, Sparkle Soojian, actress, trainer, and show host of Everything Sparkle, benefitted from these tools to expand on her already stellar online presence. “As a personal trainer, I started FaceTime training sessions. I lent my clients exercise equipment and worked out with them on FaceTime,” says Sparkle. “I moved to KP1 Studios where I can now interview people from all over the world because we exceed beyond ‘in studio’ interviews. We also get to go on location. I just went to the Castle Air Museum where we got to explore President Clinton’s Air Force One. Anyone can tune in every Thursday at four p.m., and it’s free to subscribe. The second is the show Strange Files which Michael S. Rodriguez (Kings River Life has also featured him before) created for Avail TV since the pandemic. It premieres June 12 on Avail TV.”
When it comes to online entertainment, that’s where the majority of people have been leaning towards for their movie and television show fix. What else can we really do with this shelter-in-place? With Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, the variety is out there. It seems like people would rather stay indoors and watch a movie from the comfort of their own home, even before they were actually told to by the government. It’s been this way for quite some time, but there’s been debates on whether film distribution in the digital age is considered a good thing or not. AMC Theatres is forever cancelling Universal made movies because they prefer to release their films on digital and on-demand formats. A few films that were set to premiere in theaters got moved to being shown online with equal success. Director Steven Spielberg feels that films released on streaming platforms shouldn’t be considered for nominations at the Oscars. Is this quarantine time showing proof that this is where the film industry is going inevitably, and in the end, is this what the people want? If anything, streaming services aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
So, it makes me wonder, since everybody is binging right now, what movies and shows are these storytellers viewing during this lockdown? “I’m watching season three of Killing Eve! Such an amazing show on so many levels,” Lianna says excitingly.
Sparkle admits, “I’ve been watching a lot of old stuff during this time. I can’t stop watching oldies like Little House on the Prairie. It was funny to watch an almost fifty-year-old show based on a couple hundred years ago and apply it to what’s happening today.”
Right now, casts, crews, entertainment interviews, and auditions are being done through Skype or Zoom, etc. We can communicate with producers and casting directors without having to set foot in Hollywood. If that’s the case, if you have a passion to make movies or act, then what’s the point of even having to go down to Los Angeles if the process of being cast or pitching an idea can all be done online?
“Exactly. Most people make excuses for why they can’t do something. If they used that same energy to figure out how to do something, it would be a better use of their time. If you’re an actor, and you have not auditioned 5-10 times during COVID-19, I think you missed a good opportunity. There has been a lot going on online,” George expresses.
And then Sparkle chimed in and informed me of the benefits for this new way of communication from the personal toll it used to take on hopefuls back then. “There is so much talent all over the world that we can now discover. Think about the days when you had to uproot to LA or NY with a few bucks, and you had to choose between college or pursuing your dreams. With education, you can receive it online. You know how much gas I burned in my 20s driving from Fresno to LA? Then even when I moved to LA driving from the Valley to Wiltshire Boulevard during rush hour? The more possibilities we have that are accessible, the more we can achieve. Not to mention this is better as it can be environmentally/financially effective.” That is true.
So basically, wherever you are, if you have the passion to want to make a film even though you can’t go out…you can. If you want to get a role without the possibility of meeting casting directors in person…you can. So, it is possible.
Film distribution has been digital, filmmaking has already made that transition. The film Tangerine was shot on an iPhone and so were the films Unsane and High Flying Bird, both from acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. Nobody can get expensive cameras and a big crew to shoot anything right now if you have the creative urge to shoot something. If you have a regular camera, a camera on your phone, or an iPad, you can do that. Heck, David F. Sandberg, the director of Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation, and Shazam, is still doing the very thing that got him discovered in the midst of his prominence, he’s making home films. That’s right, with his own home equipment and his wife as the main and only actress, and so far, he has released two short films on YouTube with thousands of views. This may become the norm in the future where the traditional methods of filmmaking like Panavision cameras, 35 mm, with big crews, will be replaced by portable equipment for a new wave of independent filmmaking. George loves this and says that the transition is over, and that independents are here and they’re everywhere.
One thing that I’ve been hearing a lot lately is the word “essential.” During the Covid-19 outbreak, it’s been doctors, nurses, grocers, etc., that’ve been considered essential. For me being a filmmaker myself, it made me wonder, in the grand scheme of things with the inevitable question…are movies essential? It depends on how you look at it and from what perspective.
The process of filmmaking, and is it a big deal as people make it out to be…
George believes, “No. We are not essential. People create great content with a cellphone, from their homes. There are many films available to view online.”
The impact of films and how they can educate the people…
In Sparkle’s opinion, “I interviewed two amazing human beings, Matt Macedo, who wrote and directed a short film about transgenders this past year called TRANS: The Movie. I also interviewed director Harley Wallen, who is working on a script-based on a true story about human trafficking that is taking place as we speak. If we do not get back to making movies, we are going to lose sight on important issues.”
Alena sees it for its escapism and how it can bring people together. She explains, “Since the lockdown people have been relying on the film industry to give them something to do and to keep their spirits uplifted. A lot of families are looking forward to spending more time together and to watch certain shows together. So, I definitely think filmmaking is ‘essential’ and directors and producers being able to put their beautiful work on television for the world to see.”
Either way, no matter what happens, when this is all said and done, the world will change. We will either go back to the way things were or propel ourselves into the future by doing things differently in society. The film industry faces that same outcome. Obviously, how things were done in the past can’t continue on for long, so how will the business adjust going forward? For starters, and probably the most important, the conditions of working on set. George specifies, “There will be a bunch of weird language in the future agreements. Stipends will be paid for lunches brought from home. No community eating. Small crews all around.”
Since we’ve discussed the fact that Tinseltown isn’t the end all or the only destination for movie making or on-screen employment, the biggest change happening in the industry from my take will be the fact that local film communities will rise, find their own voice, and tell their stories without Hollywood’s involvement but by being successful without them. And when I mean film scenes, I’m speaking about the Central Valley. It’s our time now. My subjects agree.
“The Central Valley has a very tiny group of serious filmmakers, whereas Los Angeles has a much higher number of trained professionals who take their craft very seriously. You can make ‘Hollywood’ movies in the Central Valley,” George divulges. “Find a person with a budget, and you can hire any Los Angeles filmmaker that you’d like to, as long as they’re available, and you meet the union demands. What will it take? Find a person who would like to invest money in a big budget film. There is your answer.”
Sparkle is optimistic about our future and our place in the business. “I see the Central Valley growing leaps and bounds by the moment. We’ll have respect in our own right. When people want a specific movie-making experience, they will come to Fresno. I’m so excited to see where the Central Valley is heading.”
Lianna believes our location is vital toward our recognition, and the strength lies with the people involved. “The Central Valley is uniquely positioned between two big locations that cater to film and production. We have a lot of talent here, as well as aspiring filmmakers. We need humble storytellers and directors who are good leaders to create work that speaks for itself. We have to show the world that we aren’t a small, podunk community making slipshod films for egotistical purposes or just for fun. That we take our craft seriously, and likewise care about community. This is key.”
That’s the denouement to this story. No matter where you are, if you have the ambition to make or act in films, your residence or a virus should not stop you from pursuing your goals. Whether if you’re like George who singlehandedly put together a film festival dedicated to the theme of financial literacy; marketing The African Film Festival with over fifty films directly from Africa that’s produced by African filmmakers and available on Rootflix; or communicating with representatives from the country of Laos so American filmmakers can go over there to shoot their films with an affordable budget. Or if you’re Alena where you’re juggling motherhood, traveling, and being an actress. In the end, go and make it happen.
Lianna’s production company: