Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Become a Genre of its Own at the 2020 AFM

Behind the scenes on 'Anti-Coronavirus'
Mitesh Patel

Behind the scenes on 'Anti-Coronavirus'

Several titles at the virtual market — from faith-based dramas and thrillers to rom-coms — don't just feature the pandemic as a central element of the storyline, but were shot and completed during the crisis.

There’s no shortage of big name filmmakers who are turning their dramatic lenses onto the COVID-19 crisis. The Michael Bay-produced Songbird — a sci-fi thriller set in 2024 in a world ravaged by a mutated version of the virus — finished shooting several months ago (the recently released trailer was met with mixed reactions), while Doug Liman has lined up an all-star cast of Anne Hathaway, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ben Stiller, Mindy Kaling and Ben Kingsley for his pandemic-set heist rom-com Lockdown, penned by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, to name just two.

But over at the American Film Market (now virtual, of course, due to COVID), there’s arguably a much broader array of films up for grabs that have given the ongoing real-world chaos their own fictitious spin. Thanks to micro-budgets and equally micro shooting schedules, several of these nimble projects — often with just a handful of crew — were able to get a significant jump-start on the more cumbersome Hollywood heavyweights, with some already complete, plying their trade online and looking for international buyers.

One of the first out of the gate was Applied Art Production’s faith-based drama Anti-Coronavirus — based around a man who inadvertently become patient zero when he brings the virus to the U.S from Italy — which managed to shoot and wrap while the pandemic was still very much in its infancy in March.

Director Mitesh Patel says production was complete in just seven days, shooting in Arizona and narrowly avoiding any disruptions.

“There was about 20 cases when we started, and by the time we were done it was up to about 1,000,” he says. “The day after we finished production the governor announced a lockdown, so it was the perfect time for us to make the movie.”

Undeterred by the new ruling to stay at home, Patel then focussed his energies onto another COVID-themed movie, House of Quarantine. A thriller about a group of filmmakers locked together in a house who eventually start killing each other, the production skirted the COVID restrictions by literally shooting inside one solitary location, this time over eight days. Patel even took advantage of the reality outside, using actual TV footage of the growing chaos within his film.

Another of the AFM’s super low budget virus titles shot amid the crisis is the recently-completed #MyCorona, from San Francisco-based director Phil Gorn and his Wonderphil Entertainment.

Forced to cancel another project due to stay-at-home orders, Gorn and his producer Kirk Zeller pivoted. “I was like, what can we shoot? But I didn’t want to do a drama, I wanted to do something different for the coronavirus and kind of own it.”

So they quickly put together an unlikely virus-themed romantic comedy, about two disconnected neighbours in an LA apartment block brought closer together by the sudden traffic-less quiet.

However, the building they wanted to use was in small town Nebraska, so Gorn — unable to travel — oversaw the entire six-day shoot remotely, directing two cameramen from his office in San Francisco while viewing the feed on his monitors. If he needed to speak to his actors after a scene, he’d just phone them up. As for social-distancing issues that might arise with a rom-com, Gorn says there’s just “one embrace” at the end. “And even then, I was like, oh no, actual contact!”

As it happens, #MyCorona isn’t the only pandemic-era rom-com in the AFM’s virtual aisles. Jimmy Kelly’s still-in-development Love Rolls with his own Fight On Entertainment banner takes one of the most comical early elements of the crisis — a shortage of toilet paper — and twists it into a comedic road movie about a romantic germaphobe who treks from Long Island to Brooklyn to provide his crush with some much-needed bathroom supplies.

While for the most part Kelly says Love Rolls is a small production and can be shot very simply, mostly on a microbudget and without any worry about restrictions, he’s hoping to attract a co-producer at the AFM to help with some of the film’s bigger sequences.

“I really think you would only need a week, but you would need to put in all the coronavirus protocols,” he says. “And with the protocols, you're increasing your budget anywhere between 10 percent to 50 percent.”

Also in development — and due to start shooting soon —is Into the Further from filmmaker Shawnda Christiansen and her Mega-Reel Entertainment production company. A documentary-style horror — inspired by an actual documentary, Six Feet of Separation, that Christiansen directed about the pandemic — the film follows a group of paranormal enthusiasts and a post-COVID world where people have been shuttered away for years.

“Most of the film will be shot in one location, like what you’d see in an episode of Ghost Hunters,” says Christiansen. “It has a really interesting spin that plays off the current social distancing situation.”

Although the budgets of AFM’s COVID-themed titles should reduce much of the financial risk, there’s still the issue of demand. Will audiences — and buyers — be hungry for movies set amid a crisis that much of the world would rather forget?

Patel says that both Anti-Coronavirus and House of Quarantine have already been picked up by a distributor in Japan, and he’s been distributing himself in the U.S. on platforms such as Vudu and iTunes. “But AFM is our big hope,” he says.

“Of course, we’re taking a risk, because it's a subject that some people like to watch, and some people don't," he says. "There's so much in the news and everywhere about the virus and maybe people don't want to watch it, it's completely normal.”

For Love Rolls and Into the Further, which aren’t yet made, there’s the added risk of seeming dated by the time they are ready. But the filmmakers are confident they’ll still find an audience.

“Once we have defeated the Coronavirus, and everything's back to normal, people can sit down and watch a movie with a theme about what we all went through. And compare notes,” says Christiansen. “I think that any movie that examines what we're all going through is going to be timeless because of that.”

Kelly agrees, and think moviegoers might want to reflect on the more insane elements on the crisis.

“Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, two or three years from now, the movie is out,” he says. “It would still work, because it would have this sense of nostalgia, like ‘oh my god, remember when we had to go through all this craziness for toilet paper? Man, it feels like a lifetime ago.”