[Shifting the Paradigm] Has Covid-19 changed the meaning of onstage forever?
Once-bustling cinemas and theaters lie empty or barely filled as the coronavirus pandemic continues to infect people across the nation.
The numerical data only dramatize what the struggling industries are going through. According to the Korean Film Council, the number of audiences decreased by 70 percent compared to last year.
Out of a total of 135 films currently in production or had plans for releases tallied up from local and foreign films distributors— 119 Korean films and 16 foreign films— 32.9 billion won ($29 million) of additional costs were generated as production was halted, and subsequently, from lending studios and creating sets, CGI technology and additional labor costs from working with actors and staff while sticking to the social distancing guidelines.
In the performing arts sector, according to the database from the Korea Arts Management Service, the monthly revenue in August alone fell by 42 percent compared to the year before, and theaters were left reeling as the majority of scheduled shows were canceled, delayed or had their runs end early, after another rise of daily infections of Covid-19 cases from mid-August. Total revenue from August was approximately 15.8 billion won, 13 billion of which was generated from Aug. 1 to 16, compared to last year's total revenue for August which was 26.9 billion won.
Films’ vicious cycle
“What’s most important is that more films are released in theaters,” said Cho Sung-jin, director of CJ CGV’s strategic support division at a forum titled “Emergency forum of the 2020 outlook of the film industry” hosted by the Association of Korean Buyers & Distributors of Foreign Films (KBDF) and Producers Guild of Korea last week. “Audiences have to come to the cinemas, and that revenue can spread over to the overall film industry. If more films continuously go directly over to Over-The-Top (OTT) services, the situation will grow worse.”
During the forum, film organizers active in different fields of the industry, from multiplex chain theaters to distributors, production companies and the press were invited to discuss the local industry’s future and come up with solutions for an industry reeling. The panelists voiced different opinions from their perspectives, and while no concrete consensus or solutions were reached, everyone agreed that the industry is starting to collapse, and mutual consent and teamwork to come up with an agenda to resolve the crisis was imminent.
The first item on the agenda is to draw more films for theatrical releases.
“When we conducted a survey amongst audiences on why or why not they weren’t coming to the cinemas anymore, almost half answered that there weren’t any films they wanted to see,” said Cho. “But I think another one of the major reasons why people don’t visit the cinemas anymore, or what leaves the impression that the films are dangerous, is the social distancing within the theaters. I see on social media that couples and friends who have come to watch a film together upload a picture in which they are seated separately, with a vacant seat between them, and I think that also plants the notion in people’s minds that cinemas are a dangerous place. What I think should be alleviated is that at least for the audience members who come together, they should be allowed to sit together. There have been no cases of secondary infections in cinemas, and people voluntarily prefer to not to be seated together [with strangers].”
With the government's announcement on Nov. 1 that it would drop to Level 1 of the five-tier social distancing system, cinemas and theaters no longer have to mandatorily leave 50 percent of their seats vacant as of Nov. 7, and insiders are secretly hopeful that this new system could be the first step on the pathway to recovery.
“This is a very crucial factor in [one of the] reasons why distributors are hesitating from having theatrical premieres,” Cho told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Films can be released only when they can secure enough ticket sales, and since it seems like the social distancing guidelines are eased, we are going to strengthen our voices to request the distributors to secure dates so we can [finally] enter into a virtuous cycle.”
From the perspectives of film distributors and production companies, they are hesitating to release their films when they can’t expect to even reap half of the revenues that they would have during a Covid-free era, especially for big-budget films and those with star-studded casts.
Jang Won-seok, CEO of BA Entertainment, admitted that he has no intention of releasing the film “Boston 1947,” featuring actor Ha Jung-woo and which production costs are said to have exceeded 20 billion won, until “the situation is normalized again.”
“Unless vaccines or treatment for Covid-19 come out, it’s only considered rational to withhold the film’s release,” he said.
To resolve the crisis at hand, the Korean Film Council formed a committee in September to come up with new film-related policies in the post-Covid-19 era.
“From Nov. 17 to 19, the 22 members will announce the agendas that the industry needs to cross out, and that includes the rising production costs [as distributors delay releases, production overseas is stalled and difficulties in filming in large groups within the country],” said Kim Hyoun-soo, executive director of the Film Policy Division. “It has now come to the fact that there can’t be policies only targeting the recovery of a specific sector of the industry, and after discussing them among our committee, we plan to release a report next April. As for emergent policies that can’t wait until the committee gets there, we are thinking about having another roundtable, inviting insiders to come up with alternate solutions.”
Stages are moving to online, untact
It's not only cinema seats lying empty —musicals, plays, orchestras, operas, ballets and classical music have all been impacted. In a bid to deal with the fallout of the pandemic, some of these arts are trying to earn revenue online.
Over the Chuseok holidays, musicals “Lost Face 1895” from the Seoul Performing Arts Company and “Mozart!” from Sejong Center for the Performing Arts attempted to transit the stages to online and accepted ticket fees from the audience for the first time ever. Especially for the latter, which features Xia Junsu and actor Park Kang-hyun as lead roles, the musical garnered over 15,000 online viewers, partly thanks to cheaper tickets which ranged from 33,000 to 47,000 won.
Considering that the main theater for the Sejong Center consists of 3,000 seats, the online transition could be considered to be successful.
The production company behind “Mozart!” is EMK Musical Company, which has been eyeing the possibilities in the online transition of performing arts with the recording and screening of the musical “The Man Who Laughs” in multiplex chain Megabox in 2019.
“As for ‘Mozart!,' we screened the musical in the format of real-time video editing,” said Sophy Jiwon Kim, vice president of the production company EMK Musical Company and president of its affiliate agency EMK Entertainment. “So even though we’d held countless meetings and discussions—going over 300 pages of synopses—there still were scenes where we made mistakes, such as when the music was slightly out of sync with the scene. There were also demands that they wanted to see certain scenes in a close-up or in a full shot, so we realized we need more work on such factors.”
However, what Kim realized through skimming through the responses of “Mozart!” is that a significant portion of the viewers were seeing the musical for the first time.
“There were viewers who couldn’t make it to the theaters physically, or due to their specific circumstances—for instance there was one viewer who commented that she found it so convenient that she was able to see the musical in her home with her child, when just a decade ago she saw the musical in person.”
Transiting stages to screens could also mean the creation of new genres.
EMK Entertainment is scheduled to release the first-ever untact musical “A Killer Party” from Nov. 20 to 22 on cable channel Sandbox+. Consisting of a total of nine episodes, each episode is a piece of short-form content lasting from 10 to 15 minutes. The company emphasized that the web musical was created to fit the needs of the Covid-19 pandemic. All the script readings and the music were done in an untact system, and unless absolutely necessary, the filming of the content was carried out in each actor’s home.
“The Story of an Old Couple: Stage Movie” is another representative instance of a creation of a new genre, dubbed as “stage movie” by the Seoul Arts Center (SAC). Based on a theatrical classic with the same title, the play was filmed and shown as a stage movie in the multiplex cinema chain CGV in August. The work was part of the project “SAC On Screen,” which started in 2013 and films high-quality theatrical performances to allow people who lack opportunities to experience performance culture to view them on screen. Stage movies, on the other hand, were created in hopes to provide additional means of revenue for the performing arts.
According to Shin Tae-yeon, the video director from the digital media and culture events department of SAC, in “The Story of an Old Couple: Stage Movie," the distinction between stages and video content may be blurred.
“For instance, [like the stage movie], it’s a play, but some of the scenes were filmed outside of the stages, like for real scenery. Then should this be called a play or a film? It would be difficult to place this particular type of work [in previous genres],” Shin said.
Out of all the online transactions, Shin views livestreaming performances as the best solution for the audience to not lose touch with performance culture.
“Personally, I think the audiences are more satisfied with the livestream performances,” he said. “Merits of the stages are that actors and the audience are communicating with one another at the same time, same place, and are able to feel that, [although indirectly], livestreaming the performances in a designated time period is the closest the audience can get.”
Online isn’t the answer
While distributors and production companies hesitate to confirm the date of their films in-store in fear of another wildfire of Covid-19 infections, those who can't wait any longer have turned to Netflix. “Time to Hunt,” which premiered through Netflix in April, set the precedent of a premiere through a global streaming service worldwide. The thriller was originally set to be released in February but was delayed indefinitely as Covid-19 emptied cinemas.
Other films that had already spent a big chunk of their promotion costs are also eyeing Netflix.
“The Call,” a thriller featuring actors Park Shin-hye and Jun Jong-seo is scheduled to be released on Netflix on Nov. 27, while space sci-fi film “Space Sweepers,” and Venice-invited film “Night in Paradise” are also rumored to be heading to the OTT giant.
“Four days before the theatrical release of ‘Time to Hunt,’ we [decided to] postpone the date and were putting our heads together on how to resolve this. We have barely escaped the crisis by going over to Netflix, but to tell you the truth, we were very despondent,” Kwon Ji-won, the CEO of the production company Little Big Pictures said at the forum.
“By closing the deal with Netflix, there were advantages, such as that we could present the film worldwide and we could create a little additional profit including covering the cost of our production, but all the other film-related rights are turned over to Netflix. We can’t expect other means of additional profit from the film and it would be difficult for the creator to demand any sort of copyright to his work. Moreover, the fund isn’t handed over in one go, it's given off in quarters, over one to two years, so it’s definitely not advantageous for us.”
Once the films are streamed on Netflix, they are introduced as Netflix original series.
“What kind of film production company wouldn’t want to present their films on theater screens?” said Won Dong-yeon, CEO of the production company Realies Pictures. “But it would be asking too much for small- and-medium production companies to have their films released in theaters and take all the risks.”
For stages as well, Shin forecasts that relatively “unpopular” genres such as classical music and plays would be more difficult to transit to paid online services.
“For popular works like musicals, it would be possible because of their strong fandom,” he said. “But for classics and plays, it’s more difficult to turn toward online because of the expensive production costs. For the current situation, it’s hard to expect to maximize profit through online services.”
Sophy Jiwon Kim, on the other hand, believes that the online screening of theatrical performances depends on the quality of video.
“Right now, the situation is that people have no choice but to enjoy performances via screens, whether they are of good quality or not,” she said. “The quality of the videos will decide if they will survive through the pandemic. Seeing the performances on screens provides another kind of entertainment [different from in-person] but if the video qualities remain equivalent to the purpose of recording the stages for archives, then [the videos] won’t have commercial power.”
Shin also expressed concern as audiences get more used to viewing content online rather than showing up to theaters.
“I’m worried that people would find it bothersome to actually come to theaters in person as they get too comfortable with online viewing,” he said. “If we turn the tables a bit, the online services should stimulate the audience to make them want to come to theaters, and in order for that to happen, they should be well-made. But the majority of theaters and civil organizations cannot invest that much in the videos. The revenue structure does not allow it. [There exist problems such as] portrait rights of the actors, and we can’t preserve all of those rights and keep up with the costs [for the videos to be high quality]. The best solution [that we can hope for] is for Covid-19 to go away and that everything goes back to normal.”
BY LEE JAE-LIM [email@example.com]