Shaun MacGillivray is President of MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF). While they may not be Disney or Warner Bros., they are a part of the movie business and one that has been around for years, crafting content for an important, niche market. They are one of the top independent producers and distributors of giant-screen 70mm movies, having produced more than 40 titles for IMAX and giant-screen theatres over the years. And just like other major studios, or independent companies within the movie business, they are having to navigate the increasingly uncertain waters brought on by the ongoing pandemic.
The company has been behind movies such as Van Gogh: Brush With Genius, Dream Big and Apollo 11, which went on to win several Emmys and, in the eyes of many critics, should have won the Oscar for Best Documentary. It is a family-owned company that has been going since the late 60s and early 70s when his father started making surf movies. It has since expanded greatly. As Shaun MacGillivray puts it, “A lot of work from iPhone to IMAX across the board.” All in the documentary space.
I recently spoke with Shaun MacGillivray about the challenges he and MFF have been facing in 2020. It’s no secret that moviegoing has taken a steep dive, with movie theaters closed for months and the box office failing to spring back to life with the release of Tenet. While producing documentaries is far different than cooking up the next Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure or franchise blockbuster, it comes with its own set of challenges. When it comes to actors, they are generally working with them from a narrator standpoint, which simplifies things in some ways. But it’s not as easy as all of that.
“We went from [in] February we had 40 films in over 300 theaters to March 18, zero films in zero theaters. We also had lined up, after a year and a half of filming, we were all set for a celebrity narrator to record… and that immediately got postponed. Then we went back, finally we got the word for SAG [Screen Actors Guild] that we were able to record. We got a special provision. This was before SAG had gone through all of those guidelines… Got that permission, was about to record, and then he got sick… Everybody thought he might have it. Luckily, he didn’t. We just recorded him a couple of weeks ago for this four-part series.”
Recording voiceover is radically different than dealing with a full-on production on set. Be that as it may, they were very careful and took extra precautions. Even in a situation such as this, nothing is the same.
“We basically had it where we never went in the same door as the actor. We never were in the same room with him. Continued to always have face masks on and we only brought one person into that recording studio. Again, never close by the actor and always in separate rooms. It’s a crazy time.”
Other productions such as The Batman and Jurassic World: Dominion have managed to resume since the initial industry-wide shutdown in March. Health and safety protocols have been put in place to help make that possible. But that comes at a cost. With longer production windows, delays, dealing with talent schedules and other issues, Shaun MacGillivray expects the budget could increase by around 15 percent for a standard feature. But that’s for a standard production at a major studio. As he explains, it’s worse for smaller, independent companies, who are already often working on tight budgets.
“If they have, let’s say, two weeks in production. If they get delayed, and it takes them two weeks instead of three weeks, that easily could be an additional 30 percent more to the budget.”
As has been reported, liability is also a big issue for any production. Whereas big studios are just willing to take that potential expense on, it is again a bigger issue for smaller productions. It is pretty much impossible to get insurance protection for this sort of thing, which complicates matters. Shaun MacGillivray says that, ultimately, investors have to be comfortable taking on that risk to be able to make it work.
“I think what you’re going to find is, when it comes to the films that are greenlit and do start production, you’re gonna see, especially for intimate scenes… you’ll have it where they fully trust that co-actor. Whether that’s their man or wife. Whether they’ve been in many films together. I think you’re going to see much more of that.”
It is a matter of “life or death” and it comes down to trusting that the scene partner won’t do “something stupid beforehand.” Acquiring tests so that cast and crew can be tested regularly is also a challenge, particularly for smaller productions, according to MacGillivray. Other logistics, specifically with location, come into play. If the plan was originally to shoot in Europe, that will prove challenging. Between quarantine procedures, travel and everything else that factors in, the budget inflates dramatically. This is a problem for smaller productions, and a not-insignificant factor for big productions. “That would be a huge change to the budget if you’re a small production company and one of your main costs is that one actor that you were able to get. That was very expensive, but they’re only on set for two days. You’re just not gonna do it. Or you’re gonna wait. Or you’re gonna have to recast.” Shaun MacGillivray said.
The production interruption has caused huge issues for studios, networks and streaming services. Animation work can continue as it can be done remotely. Live-action is far more complicated. With that, opportunities have sprung up for those who can produce content right now.
“When we go out to broadcasters and streaming partners, they’re looking for content. And they’re looking for content that can actually be produced on budget. Because many of our documentaries aren’t within big cities, many of our documentaries aren’t with SAG, you have less restrictions.”
This still requires creativity, such as shooting interviews at a distance but it is possible to make content, even under these difficult conditions. Without divulging names, he also offered some perspective on what is going on with on-screen talent right now. At this point, it’s a matter of who it is and what the project is. For some, it simply isn’t worth the risk. For others, they still need the work.
“For those who are social media savvy, that’s what they’re doing. They’re doing branded content. They’re doing things that are simple to do and, frankly, probably crushing it, depending on who the actor or actress is. I think they’re planning their shoots right now but we had three months where they weren’t filming any of the big blockbusters. I think it’s two-fold. There’s a sense of, ‘I want to get going.’ And there’s the sense of, ‘I’ve got to be very careful.’ Especially if I have kids.”
Shaun MacGillivray believes this extends to anyone who would work on set, not just actors. Certain actors are eager to work, despite the circumstances, in his experience. Others? Not so much. The risk assessment varies greatly from person to person.
“There is a layer of risk, no matter what, until we have a vaccine. That’s just it. There is no getting around that. That’s not just for the SAG actors. That’s for the cinematographers, for the directors, for everybody that’s on set. Ultimately, that plays not only into everyone’s decision as to whether or not they are going to be a part of it, but also who is responsible and what is that liability? You can sign as many waivers as you want but, in the end, the buck stops with the people that are putting up the check.”
With that in mind, studios and production companies are taking on more risk than ever. As such, he expects that everyone will play by whatever guidelines are in place to the letter. It is simply not worth the liability to divert from those guidelines. Though, as we saw with Robert Pattinson on The Batman and some crew members on Scream 5, these precautions have their limitations. But these guidelines largely help get the business through in the short-term. Some of the biggest questions the industry faces have to do with the long-term and what things will look like once there is a return to relative normalcy, most likely once a vaccine is developed and distributed widely.
Streaming, even before 2020, was starting to dominate the entertainment landscape. As Shaun MacGillivray sees it, this has just accelerated some of those trends. Exclusive theatrical windows will continue to shrink. And there are big questions about how powerful streaming services will become. Will they own theaters in the future? It’s something Netflix has already experimented with and something he expects to see Amazon venture into as well.
“My guess is, at some point, Amazon is buying a certain amount of theaters across the U.S. I don’t think they’re going to buy all of them, because there’s too many theaters across the U.S., but I think it makes a lot of sense for them to. If they’re going to fully jump in, and they kind of have, it would make sense for them to own some real estate there.”
It also comes down to innovation. Things cannot simply stay as they are or have been. It will be an adapt or die situation. Once things are safe again, he foresees situations where the theatrical experience will be essential for certain individuals. But the nature of that experience will need to change.
“If you’re a family and you decide you’re going to get a babysitter, the last thing you want to do is watch Netflix at home. You want to go and experience something. I think there’s always going to be that need for an incredible experience. Theatrically, I think you’re going to continue to see that, but I think it’s going to become more premium. We’ve already seen that theme change. We’ve seen more and more theaters go to the model of being able to have a drink and food served to you. I think it’s just going to continue. And I think it needs to continue. It needs to become more of a premiere experience. Those theaters that had the really disgusting popcorn that we all remember, where the seats looked like they were from the 1930s, I think those are either going to be renovated or probably changed.”
Chains like the Alamo Drafthouse have built their business on this model. IMAX, of particular concern to MFF, also offers a premium experience unlike a typical theater. Shaun MacGillivray also sees the types of movies that can justify a wide theatrical release changing, with Disney movies and blockbusters dominating the landscape. Everything else? That’s a bit more hazy.
“I think we’re always gonna have Disney with the blockbusters and the sequels. I think they’re gonna continue to crush it. I think there’s gonna be more and more of this type of film that is paid for by a streaming partner, a broadcaster, frankly a distributor. You use the theatrical experience market. As a way to appeal to your VIP members, and as a way to draw incredible, local PR around the world. I think that will continue to grow.”
The trend in recent years has been that mid-budget movies, ones that aren’t anchored by major IP, have a difficult time in the theatrical marketplace. There are exceptions to every rule but make no mistake, things like Baby Driver and John Wick are the exceptions, not the rule. Ultimately, it is expected these movies will increasingly end up on streaming services, or perhaps even done as limited series on cable instead. Shaun MacGillivray echoes that sentiment.
“That’s where the streaming partners kick in. That’s where the content is needed. Whether that budget goes even further down the threshold, and there are certain economics to get those great actors on board. But people want more than just those stories of Iron Man being told.”
To conclude, we discussed his hopes for the industry. It is hard to know what things will look like when the dust settles. Though they have had luck working directly with networks and streaming services during this time. Mostly, there is a huge appetite for content and he hopes MFF will be able to help satiate that appetite.
“What has been an amazing tailwind is going directly to the broadcasters and streaming partners, knowing that there is a huge appetite for authentic storytelling, for real stories, for documentary storytelling. I think there always was, there just wasn’t major access to it. Now that there is access to it through these streaming services, people are realizing that audiences really like to see this type of content. From our side, we’re continuing to produce. I think the theatrical experience, I firmly believe that people love to be together while having a shared experience. I don’t think it’s something where you just want to watch it at home. I think there’s always going to be that, but I think people like to go out and have new experiences and shared experiences. I think, once people start to feel safe again, and we’re already starting to see it, even with the potential risk, I think there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand. Pent-up demand for movies. Pent-up demand for travel. Pent-up demand for experiencing things together. We want to be a part of that. The future is bright. It’s one where, like a lot of industries, this is a tough road. At least from our side, there are fantastic opportunities and we’re obviously making the most of that”