Film and television involves people travelling around the world, gathering in groups of new acquaintances, then going home again. Few groups, except airline cabin crews, are better placed to help a virus infect the world. It might not be completely unreasonable that a lot of film production has shut down, but it does create a pretty rough situation for a lot of freelancers.
Much as it would be tempting to heap the blame for this on overcautious producers, it’s sort of hard to argue. Regardless of how bad the current health scare becomes, any production starting up now – such as the third Fantastic Beasts production, reportedly due to start in the next few days – would risk being in production right through the worst of it, whatever the worst of it looks like, with all the attendant issues of cast and crew becoming unavailable. Even if we ignore the need to slow down the spread as much as possible (which is a reasonable, even essential goal) it’s probably not smart to start a feature film or TV show over the next few weeks.
So this is not about productions which have shut down. If that’s happened to you (and it’s happening to everyone, including yours truly) then there is at least the comfort that you are not alone. What’s interesting is what this reveals about the gig economy. Freelancers, self-employed individuals, casual workers – call them what you will, these categories encompass an awful lot of film and TV workers, and this has created a group of people, particularly those at the beginning of their careers, whose personal circumstances are already on a knife-edge of sustainability.
UK citizens are lucky that a budget was due last week in any case. It included measures intended to help out people forced off work by sickness, although sick pay is generally at derisory levels compared to almost any freelance income. There is often no recourse other than state unemployment benefits for people who are fit and well but whose work has dried up. In many countries, rules about the qualifying period of unemployment make it difficult to claim those benefits on the basis of work which may be patchy and inconsistent to begin with.
Some measures advised for delaying the spread of infection, intended to spread the load on healthcare resources, are difficult for people who may be living three to a two-person apartment in a subdivided house in a big city. Isolating one member of a household is difficult when things are overcrowded to begin with, and isolating a whole household is a very, very big ask for a young film worker asked to refuse work, risking unemployment and homelessness. A camera trainee in London in 2020 might view not living on top of his or her housemates to be a longed-for benefit, let alone an anti-contagion measure.
These are not just problems of the film industry; they’re issues of a wider economy that leaves a lot of people with very little financial wiggle room for emergencies. To be clear, it’s far from obvious just how much of an emergency we currently face. Governments may be preparing people for a reasonable worst-case, and SARS-CoV-2 might be viewed as causing not much more than a particularly nasty variant of existing diseases if the population had a normal level of resistance to it. The problem is everyone getting it at once. The specific concerns of film and TV people are of course trivial in context, but the next few months may be a good time for a little community-mindedness, regardless what we do for a living.