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Corona Chronicles: Director Paolo Sorrentino Leaves L.A. for Italy and YouTube Chef Rents a Hotel for Ramadan

coronavirus hollywood
Cheyne Gately for Variety

When it became clear that coronavirus was becoming a global issue with the potential to decimate the international film and TV industry, Variety reached out to prominent figures to hear how the pandemic and the lockdowns it prompted in short order were affecting them personally and professionally — and what they were doing about it.

Read the stories of how their lives were put on hold in Variety’s ongoing series, The Corona Chronicles.

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Director, “The New Pope”

I left Los Angeles because I thought the whole situation was getting very alarming. Perceiving the danger, I felt this need to go back “home” (as it were), mainly because I wanted to be with my daughter, who was alone here in Rome.

I felt this urge even though I was very happy in Los Angeles, and would have gladly stayed there. However, this sort of ancestral instinct prevailed. My domestic routine now is quite similar to when I’m not shooting. I’m lucky. It’s not such a great trauma for me.

When I’m not shooting or editing — which is what I do most of the time — I stay home and write, watch football on TV, read. What’s different is that under normal circumstances I’m more dynamic because I know what the future has in store. I know that if I write a film, after a certain number of months I will be able to go and make it. Now, instead, the future is very uncertain, and so I work slower, with less impetus. “Mob Girl,” the movie I was supposed to start shooting in the U.S., is still a standing project — it’s just on pause due to the virus. We will start shooting as soon as we can.

I think I’m lucky that this forced lethargy we are all going through is happening to me at an age when I can shoulder it well. Since I’m pushing 50, I no longer have the legitimate anxieties of my kids, with their unrestrained lust for life. They are suffering more than I am. I will turn 50 next month at a time when I no longer feel the itch to move around that much.

If I can move around, I’m happy. But if I can’t, I’m still happy. I can afford the luxury of slowing down a little to do all the things you always tell yourself you want to do but never get around to: like maniacally re-ordering my books, records and clothes. I’ve been transcribing in notebooks all the phrases I’ve liked from books.

This is what I’m doing. I thought I would do these things when I was 70 or 80. Instead, I’m doing it now.

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Adeel Amini

Founder, The TV Mindset

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued his order that people should work from home, it’s safe to say that every freelance film and TV worker had the same lurch in their stomachs. I’m lucky that the production I’m working on has survived, but my heart broke as I knew what was coming for my peers, and how badly it was going to hit their mental health.As freelancers, our jobs are uncertain at the best of times, which is why I set up The TV Mindset, based on my own experiences. In the absence of centralized support or body for freelancers, it serves to remind an often fragmented and discarded workforce that they’re not alone, by organizing events, bringing together resources, and campaigning for meaningful change in working practices. Right now, an already anxious workforce is subject to a three-pronged attack: personal, professional, and financial, all of which could send them down the same dark path I once went down myself.As I heard about more and more productions being canceled and jobs being lost, I knew that I had to use the (admittedly limited) power I have to remind freelancers that we’re here to support them, and that our biggest strength lies in our unity. I woke at dawn one morning and fired off some emails to contacts that had collaborated with us before, and by lunchtime I had confirmed a tremendous panel of industry greats: talent managers, former execs, wellbeing coaches, and a finance expert to help ease the uncertainty in every area.

Through Zoom and Facebook we’ve now reached out to nearly 1,000 people through the webinar (with more watching on demand) and dealt with as many questions as possible. We’ve also set up a buddy system for our group with the help of the wonderful humans at Share My Telly Job, an industry job-sharing initiative.

We’ll definitely be doing more to keep people afloat, though we’re not the only ones helping freelancers. The Film & TV Charity have an invaluable helpline and relief fund, while Donna Taberer and Gilly Cohen of ScreenSkills Indie Training Fund organized six weeks of free training with senior names who are volunteering their time. All of this gives me some heartwarming reassurance: this industry is strongest when it pulls together, and no one in it should feel like they’re going through this alone.

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Christopher Sean Larsen

Director, “The Long Walk”

Ninety minutes before the stay-at-home quarantine started in Laos, my husband and I split one last beer at the tiny outdoor bar around the corner from our house. We sat appropriately social-distanced from the old uncles singing off-key YouTube karaoke, and debated how bad things would have to get here before we’d consider abandoning our dogs for the $1,900-per-person evacuation flight the U.S. embassy was offering.

After unanimously agreeing to stick the pandemic out in the developing world, we dropped three bucks on the table and headed home. I curled up with my dog in bed and Chris fell asleep on the couch playing “No Man’s Sky.” That’s a pretty normal Sunday night in our house.

Two weeks earlier, I was in Los Angeles devouring complimentary snacks at production offices under the guise of pitching a new film or two. My biggest worry at the time was figuring out how to secretly wipe Cheeto dust off my fingers before the firm handshake part.

Even though I was born in Orange County, I’ve spent a third of my life living abroad. L.A. was a serious culture shock, nothing felt familiar. Why was everything served with quinoa? How do you milk an almond or an oat? Asia had been wearing face masks forever, but it seemed taboo in the U.S. I went to Disneyland to wait for some producers to decide whether or not I’d be jumping directly into pre-production on my first American movie, then I learned I’d been rejected while riding a Mickey Mouse ferris wheel, so I took my flight home.

It’s funny how a few weeks can totally change the perspective on a lost job that would’ve ended up indefinitely separating me from my dogs. What would’ve happened if I hadn’t made it back before Asia closed its borders? Watching the news from the other side of the world, America feels like it’s a breath away from “Mad Max,” but fighting over toilet paper instead of petroleum. Would I stain my face with bread flour and scream “WITNESS ME!” as I jostled my way down the aisles?

Instead, I’m in Laos and it’s not more “Mad Max” than it normally is. We had a handful of COVID-19 cases, and with all the practice from SARS, bird flu, swine flu, dengue etc., our contact tracing was top-notch. Restaurants transitioned to takeaway and delivery. My pizza once came with free masks and a pandemic discount. The government fined hoarders and price gougers, so our supermarket shelves stayed relatively stocked and everything costs basically the same as it always has.

I thought I’d get some street cred for surviving plague times in the developing world, but I’m currently sitting in an inflatable kiddie pool on my driveway drinking a glass of wine, waiting for the sun to set over the dirt road and trash canal that runs past my front gate. In the evenings, I Zoom call into a ballet class from one of my former teachers from Rome.

I wish I could do more from here. Instead, I patiently continue training with a community of dancers online and quietly wait to see how our film stories will change once we’ve globally weathered the worst of it. I’m itching to making movies with all of you again, ’cause I suck at ballet.

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Basil Al Haj

YouTube Creator and Chef, “Ramadan Hotel”

My food-focused YouTube channel and content, which I run with my friends, largely depends on being abroad, but following the outbreak of coronavirus, we quickly realized that was no longer an option.

Our original Ramadan plan had a variety of new, original content lined up: a mix of exploring abroad and home-cooking, as well as various challenges and new cooking techniques. However, due to the restrictions, we had to change those plans as there was nowhere to go. Every place we had booked for filming had turned us down.

Naturally, we redirected our attention to the local food scene here in the U.K. where I’m based. We wanted to visit restaurants close to home and new places we can explore in and around London. However, that option didn’t last long either, and after visiting the first restaurant on our list, the country-wide lockdown hit.

After several brainstorming sessions, it was time to explore ideas that had been parked for a while. Historically, our channel mainly focused on content that includes tasting and discovering food made by other people. But perhaps now it was time to go ‘back to the kitchen’ and create our own recipes.

As things were looking bleak and Ramadan was closing in, we heard of a small hotel in an English town called Scarborough. Our plan was to commit to the same program, where we explore indoor versus outdoor cooking, but upon arrival, the outdoor area was closed off, so we had to rejig the backup plan to our back up plan.

Ultimately, we had to work with the resources at hand, so we came up with the idea of filming a short reality show with a comic twist, following a few friends who live together under the given circumstances – and thus, “Hotel Ramadan” was born.

Our audience is used to factual videos from our YouTube channel so when we created content for entertainment purposes only, it came as quite a shock to some of our viewers as they were anticipating more traveling, restaurants and food exploring.

COVID-19 didn’t immediately impact us, and we were still able to film and create content for our viewers on YouTube and social media. However, it was something new for our audience and time will tell whether this experiment is successful or not.

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Producer, “Roma”

This is a time of momentous change globally, and the crisis has had a great impact on the film industry too. All the cinemas are closed, and shoots and festivals have been postponed. Production in Mexico has grown exponentially in recent years, but now decline is inevitable. There will be companies unable to survive, freelancers facing bigger challenges, productions unable to restart, and acting and craft unions will be debilitated.We at Pimienta, the production house that I founded in 2008, have worked from home in recent weeks. During this time we have bolstered ourselves as a team and have been able to demonstrate our love for cinema and our great fellowship. We are bracing ourselves for the challenges ahead. The company is in the development stage of several projects. And despite the great uncertainty we are experiencing, I have been able to validate, now more than ever, the importance of making sound projects.

The fact that our projects have solid scripts and that they are led by extremely talented and rigorous directors, among other things, reassures us that they will fare well. We are even more driven to make films that are moving, that will endure, and will generate change.Now more than ever, I think about movie audiences and what they will want to see after going through this pandemic. I would not underestimate them and assume that they would only want to see unchallenging content with happy endings. Audiences will want to reconnect, recover public spaces, feel, flee from emptiness, and will want depth. Most of us will be more concerned about our health, seek meaning in life, move away from social networks, empathize more, and care for the environment … Because of this, audiences will look for stories in which they can identify themselves, and where they can connect as human beings in a profound way. We will understand that “we’re all waves from the same sea.”

As a producer, as someone who has the power to influence the type of stories that are told and how they are told, I cannot afford to make films that do not seek to make change. We need a better world, and the power of cinema to create one is enormous.

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Anurag Kashyap

Director, “Gangs of Wasseypur”

I was shooting my as yet untitled film in the mountains of North India when the lockdown was declared and we had to pack up with only three days of shooting left.

We hurried back to Mumbai and into quarantine. Most of my filmmaker friends have been in touch with each other on WhatsApp. During this period, I’m using my time to edit my film as well as do some writing work for a project I am supposed to start at the end of the year for Netflix.

This is also time I am using to read, and watch a lot of web series. We filmmakers have gotten together to push for a fund for daily-wage workers in the industry, who are the worst hit because of this pandemic. I’m also connecting a lot of my friends who want to donate food to the various NGOs overseeing the distribution of food.

In addition to doing a lot of cooking, this has also been a time to reflect and reconnect with family. I have spoken to my father a lot more than I have in the last two years. I spend a lot of time talking to my daughter. So far, it has been good, though the pandemic has been scary and we hope it’s over soon.

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Krishan Arora

International Content Consultant, SBS Australia

When it seemed the bad news of canceled documentary festivals and markets just kept coming, we were told to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ because market screenings could be maintained online, alongside pitching and one-to-one meetings. But what I really missed was the festival ‘Happy Hour’ — the lift from a chance encounter, the lure of a co-production offer, the memory of a connection made.As event after event was called off or postponed, we needed something to keep our documentary spirits up, so I teamed up with my co-conspirator Britta Erich, who works for the European Union’s Media program in Hamburg, Germany, to open a virtual bar. With Bobby McFerrin’s tune in our ears, we christened it the ‘The Don’t Worry Be Happy Hour’ bar.A Zoom account and some Facebook posts later, and we had our first ‘Happy Hour’ during CPH:DOX. MIP and Hot Docs provided other avenues for our pop-up bar — quick to set up, and you don’t need a license. You never know who you’ll bump into, either: filmmakers, commissioners, funders or distributors. Zoom is a great leveler, and the sense of community was palpable. The Californians may join with juice in the morning, the Europeans with something a little stronger. To attract the punters, we’ve tried karaoke (fun but tricky to keep in sync), the game ‘trailer trash,’ and most recently a documentary quiz.

What I love about documentary festivals is the easy internationalism of it all. Stories travel in a conversation from filmmaker to funder or buyer (mind you, getting the money to travel the other way takes a lot longer). Now, time zones permitting, anybody can be in the room, and at a time when little is being filmed, face-to-face conversations have stopped and the cinema screens are largely dark, a sense of community is more important than ever.

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Xavier Henry-Rashid

Sales Agent, Film Republic

The impact of the virus on sales is quite brutal for international sales agents. With cinemas closed, and distributors on hold, unable to release, the effect has been immediate, especially for those who rely on theatrical releases, rather than larger TV-friendly films.

Some estimates suggest that 80% of the European seller workforce have been put on some form of leave. In other cases it’s evident to me that sales companies will only be able to cash flow themselves by not paying producers their overages – which is problematic because there will be a period of catching up – and nobody will be releasing more films in 2021 to make up for the loss. When the market is restored, there is already a backlog – and it’s very difficult to think about how or where to launch a film without the gravitas of a good festival or film market – the online festivals simply don’t make up for it.

I’m not entirely sure what it means for the long run, but I think many will re-evaluate the value of physical markets. I think both sellers and distributors will think twice about the responsibilities that are attached to high-minimum guarantees.

At the same time, I can say the health of distributors in Europe these last years have not been great, with many majors falling drastically behind on payments and I hope this won’t be used as an excuse. VOD companies have also been particularly aggressive these last few weeks – I know and have heard from a dozen sales companies that many were offering excruciatingly poor deals. So for now it’s still business as usual, albeit in a sluggish, skeletal mode.

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Rosie Greatorex

Cinema and Program Director, The Lexi Cinema

All across the world, cinemas are going dark. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience out there, eager for the feeling of community that cinema offers. The Virtual Lexi is an attempt to keep our audience engaged, even though they can’t visit the cinema in person.
The Lexi is a single screen, volunteer-run filmhouse in Kensal Rise, North London. We’re a cornerstone of the community and a lot of people rely on us as a social hub. So even in the face of Covid-19, the initial decision to close was difficult: there was very little clarity from the government, with customers just being told to avoid our business.

In the end, it came down to a question of safety, for our customers and our team. There was never any question that we’d keep paying our team their full wage for as long as possible, but the government’s decision to offer a retention scheme obviously came as a huge relief!

Even before this latest crisis, film habits were changing, with streaming and VOD becoming increasingly competitive. As an independent programmer, it’s been my job to embrace that change, and find ways that streaming can work in conjunction with the big screen experience. Our regular ‘neighborhood film school’ is one example: a program of classic movies with a live intro from a filmmaker or curator plus in-depth notes emailed to every audience member encouraging them to explore related films online.

This meant that when the cinema was forced to close, we knew right away what our next move would be. The Virtual Lexi was launched within 24 hours, a lovingly curated selection of free-to-view films from classic and new features to docs and even an artist video strand, in conjunction with curators Cole Projects. The program is refreshed each week and we host online watch-along screenings every Monday, with a discussion afterwards. We’ve also added a Community Hub section to our website with local news, advice and updates.

The closure has come at a tricky time for the Lexi: we’re nearing the end of a major fundraising campaign to build a second screen, a project that has only been possible with the enthusiastic support of our local community. The Virtual Lexi is our attempt to give something back, a way to keep in touch with all our customers despite the lockdown. The cinema may be closed but it’s only temporary, and we’ll soon be back better than ever. In the meantime, this is how we’ll keep the Lexi alive.

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Albert Lee

Executive Director, Hong Kong International Film Festival
Hong Kong

We were preparing for the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival and the HAF project market when the pandemic started in earnest here. In February, we decided to postpone both events.

This virus is scarier than SARS in 2003 — this is a global pandemic — but I think that Hong Kong has learned the lessons better than elsewhere, and that things here are still reasonably under control.

I’m still going to the festival office to wind things down, and staying in touch with the producers of the films we’d selected. And because we are an NGO with government finance, there is a tremendous amount of paperwork still to be done.

After the postponement, we had to put the temporary and contract staff on hiatus, though if we are successful in relaunching in late summer, we will have most of them back. We’ve encouraged permanent staff to take their annual leave, and will review the situation soon.

The industry is falling to pieces. All productions are on hold, and those already produced are not coming out. That then has an impact on real people. Many people.

We were running a very conventional festival, but will now have to look at different ways of operating things, and how we move on and schedule things.

I’m not sure we have the technology to implement an online festival quickly, though we think that with HAF and Filmlab it would be possible to go digital, and had already been looking at that possibility.

I’ve been using my time in the office to watch a minimum of one film per day on screeners and our servers. At home, I’d hoped to read more, but there, too, I’m watching more films. I’ve watched several by (Japanese master, Mikio) Naruse, 10 Czech films, and as many comedies as I can to try to lighten the mood in these dark times. I rewatched “A Fish Called Wanda” and several by Mel Brooks.

And at home with my wife, we’ve tried to keep up with the trend and screen as many Korean TV dramas as possible. They are very well produced. And when I see Netflix full of Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese shows, but so few from Hong Kong, I feel that Hong Kong is missing a trick.

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Donovan Chan & Jocelyn Little

Creative Directors, Beach House Pictures

At Beach House Pictures, COVID-19 is a harsh reality we’ve been facing since January. As a business operating in both Asia and the U.S., we’ve experienced a double dose of the pandemic shutdown — first with the crisis in China, and again as it spread to the rest of the world.This time has been marked by some heavy disappointments. 2019 was a very productive year for us, and we headed into 2020 energized and excited about opportunities ahead. In the blink of an eye, everything changed. Within a month, we had about 10 projects put on pause or shut down indefinitely. The results of years of effort were suddenly in question. But there was no time to be rattled — we had to act quickly.

When the pandemic hit Asia in January, we organized a task force consisting of HR, production, post and technology to help us tackle multiple challenges simultaneously. We pushed to find workarounds to help keep our team intact and quickly implemented guidelines to manage postponed production timelines. We made sure that we had the right technology to keep communications smooth and to ensure that post-production continued. We kicked our creative discussions into hyperdrive as we worked to fill holes in our slate and develop new “pandemic-proof” content.

While the impact of this crisis continues to be heartbreaking, it’s also taught us a lot about our resilience as a company. In many ways, this pandemic has become an intensely productive time for our team. We’ve found new partners and potential new projects we wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. We’ve been unafraid to take big swings with ideas, and have reached deep into our network to secure new opportunities. We’ve taken in the disappointments and tried to move past them gracefully. In the context of what has been going on in the world, the rest feels like small potatoes, really.

As the industry looks to take steps to reopen, the conversations we’ve had with our platform and production partners, as well as internally with our colleagues at Blue Ant Media, on best practices have instilled a lot of hope and confidence. It has been inspiring to witness how our team and the industry have come together during this difficult time, and we will emerge from this a stronger company. And while we’re not past this yet, we will remain vigilant and keep pushing ahead, and know that we are set up to handle whatever comes next.

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Fabia Bettini

Artistic Directors, Alice nella Città

When our children asked us why Rome was so different and “silent”, we decided to fight the unnatural silence of our city. Using a projector, simply placing it outside our home window, we started projecting the images of the films we love most, sharing them with our neighborhood to illuminate our city. This is how Cinema da Casa was born.The first day, we projected scenes from François Truffaut’s “Les Quatre Cents Coups” and the next day we thought it would be nice to also project sequences from the great animation films and the great classic movies dedicated to children and teenagers, such as “E.T.,” “The Aristocats,” “Billy Elliot,” “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso” and “Dead Poets Society.”

After sharing these images on our personal social networks and on those of Alice nella Città, online activity evolved into word-of-mouth buzz.

Today there are many windows projecting alongside us each night. In addition to Rome, Turin, Palermo, Catania, Pisa and Bari, people and friends — such as our friend, Belgian director Eva Cools — from other parts of the world have started to write us and participate themselves.

We have been amazed to see screenings in the Philippines, Vietnam, Brazil, Bulgaria and Poland. And the images of our films have gone as far as America thanks to reposts on social profiles of Trudie Styer, Penelope Cruz and Kendall Jenner, just to name a few.

A moment of joy for our family has turned into a moment of joy shared with many other people, in which everyone can participate. The images projected on the walls of our city, which are bouncing to all continents, show us once again how cinema can bring people together even in difficult times like this.