A deadly virus borne from a bat in a food market rips through the world, as scientists scramble to develop a vaccine in time to save humanity as we know it.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it reads like the plot line of an episode of Wellington Paranormal.
As surreal as it sounds, for the tens of thousands of screen and performing arts workers on the ground in New Zealand, the story is all too real.
Plans to fight the spread of coronavirus have stopped production on Amazon’s billion-dollar The Lord of the Rings TV series in Auckland for at least two weeks, and the James Cameron-produced Avatar film sequels are also understood to have halted production in Wellington.
At stake is the screen industry’s $3.3 billion contribution to the economy each year, as well as 29,700 jobs; while in New Zealand’s performing arts industry, about $2b in revenue and about 27,000 jobs are on the line.
For Wellington-based performer and event producer George Fowler, who goes by the stage name of Hugo Grrrl, coronavirus has resulted in his income going from “not much to literally negative” overnight, after his shows were cancelled at capital theatre venue BATS.
“It’s pretty scary. We care so much about what we do and at the moment it’s heartbreaking watching our work disappear. All that calendar management and admin that takes so long, you might as well be throwing all that work out the window.”
Fowler’s first solo drag show – which was due to run over five nights – was cut short after the theatre announced it was temporarily closing its doors due to the spread of the virus. Fowler won TVNZ’s first season of House of Drag.
“I feel like I’ve been dumped. My work as an independent performer was … my semblance of job security. Every single one of [my gigs] right through August-September has been cancelled.’
He reckons the lay-offs are going to have a drastic effect on the mental health of all of the sector’s contract workers.
“I’m just sad. People are really scared. We feel isolated. We’re scared for our finances, our futures. As a freelancer you work your whole life in unpaid [roles] on the promise of hope. Just when you get something sorted, watching it all fall …”
Crisis talks about the impacts of the virus on the screen industry were held this week between sector bosses, including representatives from the Film Commission, New Zealand On Air, Te Māngai Pāho and the Screen Production and Development Association (Spada).
“With a number of international productions temporarily suspending or postponing their shoots, Spada’s immediate concern is supporting productions currently shooting, or just heading into production,” the association wrote to its members in an email earlier this week.
“We need to ensure these productions have the support they need to safeguard themselves and complete their shoots.”
It came after Amazon Studios sent a memo to 800-odd crew and cast members of The Lord of the Rings on Sunday, advising them not to come in to work for at least two weeks.
Brendon Durey, president of the Screen Industry Guild Aotearoa New Zealand, says the virus is causing serious and “unprecedented” disruption across the sector.
“The restrictions on international travel and uncertainty the pandemic has created has caused all but productions at the most advanced stages to postpone production until normality returns.”
As the majority of workers are on five-day contracts on a project-to-project basis, a huge number of people have been left without work.
Sandy Gildea, executive director of Spada, says helping to support domestic productions over the line has been a bit of a scramble, as each one is so different.
Some only had a few days to wrap up, whereas others had weeks, even months. Each also had a different crew, cast, location, size and scale: as such, all help had to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
“This is something that all New Zealanders are facing. This is not an isolated, territorial issue nor it is a sector issue … There will be stresses, some people will react differently to others when jobs are on the line.”
The association has been advised that unless productions have existing cover, insurers are unlikely to offer allowance for the virus – meaning little chance for some productions to cover their finances.
News of the Government’s $12.1 billion rescue package, which includes $5.1b in wage subsidies, covering self-employed workers and contractors, has been well received by the association, but not all within the sector feel confident it will apply to them.
Performing Arts Network of New Zealand chief executive Louise Gallagher says there is often no notice period for spontaneous work, and contracts are sometimes not even in place for workers.
Having to prove work for those making an application is a burden that could lock many workers out. “That buffer is unlikely for many, especially for our very small independent artists.
“These jobs aren’t well paid at the best of times … We’re seeing how much of a big impact this is having on music, film, live performance. It’s all connected – we’re all a part of one ecosystem. If one hurts, the whole ecosystem hurts.”
While the tourism industry has grabbed headlines for the impacts it has been experiencing, Gallagher says things are “even more fragile” for the arts sector because of the way things are funded and people are contracted.
The immediate priority has been keeping workers in employment wherever possible, so they can continue creating, pay their bills and put food on the table.
New Zealand, Gallagher says, is “thin on the ground” to start with when it comes to highly skilled workers. If sector leaders don’t start to come up with concrete solutions to look after their artists and contract crews, the economic impact could be devastating.
One big fear is that, if and when the virus subsides, many workers could head overseas. “If we lose them, it’s going to take goodness knows how many years to recover. What damage will that do to us as people? It’s a creative brain-drain.”
The irony of the situation is that, for those in self-isolation, many will be staying home and watching those same workers who are now shut out from doing their jobs – in local productions, nightly news bulletins, on streaming services like Netflix.
“It’s the nature of artists. They care about society and getting across messages that need to be heard … That content is important for our collective wellness. If that’s missing, what impact will that have? I can’t express it enough.”
Annabelle Sheehan, chief executive of the Film Commission, says it is a challenging and fast-moving situation.
“Two weeks ago New Zealand’s screen industry was thriving, with a large number of local and international projects in or about to begin production, and over 1000 people employed in international productions alone.
“Without knowing the duration of this disruption, it is difficult to fully predict the impact. We are deeply concerned for the contractors and screen sector businesses who are facing such uncertainty around their livelihoods.”
NZ On Air head of communications Allanah Kalafatelis says the organisation has been receiving calls and emails since the start of the week from producers who are either anticipating or already experiencing issues with their productions due to the coronavirus.
These range from being unable to travel for overseas shooting, needing to consider shooting without an audience for shows that are normally live or recorded before an audience, to productions due to be filmed being cancelled or postponed indefinitely because of restrictions on gatherings.
Despite this, NZ On Air-funded shows are still ticking over as usual, Kalafatelis says.
“It is inevitable that some projects will have delayed delivery, and as time goes on, if restrictions on movement and gathering are beefed up, there may be other fall out … Ultimately our goal is to have the content made, but safely.”
It is a “far worse scenario” for the music industry, she says. Musicians have, for the most part, lost their ability to play live gigs, having a huge impact on the incomes of artists, live event businesses, and contractors.
If there is one thing New Zealanders could do to help, it is to stream or buy New Zealand music and/or artists’ merchandise, to ensure those artists still have an income.
“As has been acknowledged by the Government … the media environment in New Zealand is facing really challenging times, with falling ad revenues and fragmenting audiences. The current situation with Covid-19 is hurting an already-hurting industry.”
For Paul Yates, producer of Wellington Paranormal, the virus is being closely watched, but has not delayed anything – yet.
“We’re like a last bastion of hope. It’s certainly something we’ve being monitoring very closely … One crew member of ours is in self-isolation. But really, we’re going to crack on.”
Production is scheduled for early April, with shooting expected to begin in May. Yates is confident the team will be able to mitigate risks of the virus through being mindful of shooting practices and monitoring crew members’ health. “We won’t be too tactile.”
The programme doesn’t usually have any big crowd scenes that might be affected by the Government’s gatherings ban.
Already, his crew has scooped up three staffers who had other work contracts cancelled due to the virus. Mostly, it is international production cast and crew being affected, he says.
“This whole virus, it’s like an episode [of Wellington Paranormal] … We might weave it into a story somehow. It’s quite apocalyptic.”
For contract workers in big-budget productions, it essentially means putting life on hold. “Ultimately, it’s a case of crews having to wait until the phone rings when the virus has worn itself out. It’s a tough time.”
Elsewhere in the business of television, Rachel Howard, corporate communications manager at TVNZ, says the network has plans in place to retain its regular broadcasting schedule.
“We know it’s important for people to stay informed and 1 News plays a vital role in that. We also know, with more New Zealanders staying at home, being entertained is important too.”
The network is following Ministry of Health guidelines in ramping up both its professional cleaning and hygiene measures.
It has axed its studio audience for its in-house show Have You Been Paying Attention, and has also cancelled domestic and international business travel except for essential news-production travel, which is assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Journalists are also taking precautions, from extra cleaning of equipment, social distancing with interview subjects, and using their phones or Skype for interview options.
Some of TVNZ’s international programmes have been affected by the virus, too, in particular those with studio audiences or those involving overseas travel. The Ellen DeGeneres Show, part of the broadcaster’s daytime schedule, has halted filming until March 30.
Meanwhile, at MediaWorks’ Three, The Project and Dancing With The Stars have also got rid of their live studio audiences.
On the production of Shortland Street, South Pacific Pictures head of communications Rachael Keereweer says a plan was already in place after consultation with TVNZ and the health ministry, to ensure the show continues broadcasting as normal.
“We have implemented a mandatory work-from-home rule for several non-studio-based departments, as well as restricting visitors and family from the building, in order to keep the footprint at the studios to a minimum.”
Jennifer Ward-Lealand, president of Equity New Zealand, the organisation representing performers working in New Zealand’s entertainment industry, says the effects of the coronavirus are undeniable.
“It’s an issue for our arts sector generally, especially for all of our people working in theatre. Our NZ International Comedy Festival has been cancelled … when offshore comedians coming in have to self-isolate, they’re just not going to come over.”
Ward-Lealand herself has had at least five bookings cancelled within a 48-hour time period, and she acknowledges she is far from alone.
Even more of an issue is that for contract workers, backup jobs which they traditionally use to support themselves when they go without creative employment – bar, restaurant and other hospitality work – is also on the line due to the virus.
“For everyone in the gig economy … we need to make sure we can calculate our general fluctuating earnings [for the wage subsidy]. That’s what we’re starting to look in-depth at now – the issue of access,” Ward-Lealand says.
With contractors, who may have two “good months” followed by two quiet months, this will be hard to calculate. “You can’t fund something that you can’t forecast.”
She hopes people will not ask for refunds for events and shows they have paid for ahead of time, or risk performers suddenly being without money for necessities – food and rent being at the top of the list. “My heart is breaking. We’re in uncharted territory here.”
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