Hollywood must adapt to remote work or suffer the consequences

July 1, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC
Hollywood remote work
Hollywood and the box office have been hit hard by coronavirus. Peter Jackson and Kenneth Williams write about how the film industry can adapt.
Photo-Illustration by Fortune; original images: Andrea Samaritani—Archivio Andrea Samaritani/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images; Sebastian Reuter—Getty Images; Ricardo DeAratanha—Los Angeles Times via Getty Image

The coronavirus has significantly impacted the entertainment industry—with virtually all film and TV productions halted in mid-March and thousands of crew members temporarily furloughed. California recently green-lighted film production on June 12, and New York last week entered phase 2 reopening for limited pre- and postproduction work. Big movie studios are still weeks and months away from actual film shooting, but these moves are big steps toward reviving the entertainment industry after more than three months of shutdown. The box office could still face up to a 60% loss compared with 2019, with global loss in box office revenue projected to be as high as $17 billion. At the same time, the demand for streaming services continues to surge as people seek new content to be entertained at home. Further, the release dates of major movies have been pushed back, from the latest James Bond film No Time to Die to Top Gun: Maverick.

It’s challenging enough to film with traditional methods while social distancing. But for many studios, the virus has also made it difficult to make creative decisions before the shoot, such as casting, set, and costume design. The same goes for postproduction tasks. These are all highly collaborative processes involving hundreds of professionals—from editors to sound engineers, Foley artists, colorists, and more during the marketing and promotion stage right up to distribution. Last-minute editing or approval change in one small scene could impact every version of the trailer and movie poster that follows. 

Until recently, many movie studios have never made these types of decisions while working remotely. Now they have to. 

It’s time for Hollywood to innovate 

The entertainment business has been one of the last industries to fully leverage the shift to remote collaboration, which is now being dramatically accelerated by the coronavirus. There were good reasons for Hollywood’s reluctance. High-definition video and audio take up a lot of bandwidth, which can stall or freeze while working over the Internet. Collaboration tools are good for messaging and virtual meetings, but for visually complex development exercises like storyboarding for film sequencing, there were few quality options available.

As a result of past practices, Hollywood, for all its global reach, has frequently worked like a small town. While certain contributions to content creation have begun to be performed on a global basis, creative teams have tended to cluster in Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, New York. And even when creative teams cluster in these production hubs they often endure commuting in hours of traffic, resulting in more Los Angelenos quitting their jobs because of commute times than residents of any other metropolitan area. They see less of their families and have heightened feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Hollywood is embracing digital transformation

We’ve seen what happens when filmmakers embrace digital transformation. Previously, teams used to spend time in one room for months on some of the simplest tasks. New virtual workspace technology is enabling leading Hollywood studios to make progress toward the goal of working 100% remotely, allowing them to complete preproduction, postproduction, and marketing and promotion at rates that are significantly faster than the prior way of working. (Peter Jackson’s company Bluescape is a visual collaboration platform that could benefit financially from increased remote collaboration in the film industry.)

Here are some other shifts that may significantly change how Hollywood works post-coronavirus:

  • The studio will increasingly be a mindset versus a physical location, as talent becomes less tied to geography. This will result in talent that is more dispersed, more productive, and cheaper to hire. We’ll also see more low-touch workflows, in contrast to studios who have people lined up in a control room doing the traditional editing and post processes.
  • New video storytelling forms will emerge. People are already getting creative with video, whether it’s virtual concerts or episodes of Saturday Night Live filmed completely at home. Even top TV shows are adopting videoconferencing. For example, NBC took it a step further in creating a Parks and Recreation reunion using Zoom.
  • The model for seeing movies may change, as demand surges for new content. Even before COVID-19, the industry was having heated conversations about video on demand and its impact on theatrical distribution. This will continue as Hollywood seeks more flexible solutions to adapt to increasing stay-at-home consumption. Universal Pictures, for example, recently launched Trolls World Tour online, grossing $200 million in retail fees without a theatrical release. 

The pandemic is posing significant challenges for Hollywood, but the opportunity for creative industries to work differently will endure. Technology will solve broader challenges related to talent diversity, proximity, and inclusion, and usher in a new era of creative innovation—one with collaboration at scale. Those achievements are the type of movie magic we fully applaud.

Peter Jackson is CEO of Bluescape. Prior to Bluescape, he cofounded Ziploop Inc. (acquired by Snipp in October 2017); served on the boards of Eventbrite, DocuSign, and Kanjoya; took Intraware to IPO; and was president/COO of Dataflex following its acquisition of Granite Systems. 

Kenneth Williams currently serves as executive director and CEO of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California. He spent 18 years with Sony Pictures Entertainment—as treasurer of Columbia Pictures Entertainment and executive vice president of Sony Pictures Entertainment—culminating in his role as president of Sony’s digital studios division.

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