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Pandemic Offers Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Make Films That Matter (Guest Blog)

”Minds are opened by common adversity, hearts redirected. New paradigms suddenly become plausible,“ producer Peter Samuelson says

It will be over at some point.

Life on Earth is not ending, except for those tragically dying, a death toll that could reach into the millions, depending on how we all behave ourselves in the weeks to come. When it is over, most of us will still be here, picking up the pieces. We know now, and we will know even better by then, that life is fragile, that we are all in this together, that the Grim Reaper is closer to our door than we probably thought, except at other people’s funerals. And there will be a massive recession causing more pain, and we’ll get through that, too.

I last rode my bike 10 days ago along a nearly deserted Mulholland Drive with a mask on, vigilant to never be closer than 20 feet from the rare fellow exercisers. Now, I pedal away on the stationary bike in the attic, watching the news and the last remaining Academy screeners I never got to. Either way, lots of time to ponder life’s strange turn: That COVID-19 is probably a net positive for all the species living on Earth, except possibly for us. Or maybe taking a long-term view, including us.

Then when the crisis passes, one can expect a surge of distractive entertainment, feeding a need to escape death, disease, unemployment and stress. Followed closely by a major counter-trend of citizens suddenly shocked by feeling that fragility of life, understanding the small size of the planet we share, and how close to the edge of the cliff we have blundered.

What will be our compelling content for those looking for focus, understanding and solutions? Will we be ready?

Weirdly, I see more long-term career positives than short-term challenges. Audiences have always existed for purpose-driven content; many more will demand it. This is our once-in-a-generation best moment to make films that matter, that dare to suggest how the world needs to heal itself and to engage audiences in that endeavor. If ever there was a time to use our tool kits to make a difference, surely this is it?

There is an opportunity for content creators and for distributors, as well. My latest film, “Foster Boy,” has now found its distributor. Hooray. It will mostly stream in the U.S. and then go theatrical in foreign markets when they open. Here, after they spray the theaters, there will be a U.S. theatrical run, at least for awards qualification, and who knows where it goes from there? Is this a step down from red carpets and audiences in red plush chairs? Is this a limited time phenomenon? I think not.

Films of ideas covet eyeballs and ears, and as many as possible, to do their most powerful work. And they will increasingly require aligned engagement and activation opportunities, which are particularly well-married to the immediate availability and longer shelf life of digital. For us, streaming could be the new normal, and, I’m suggesting, a very good thing.

Consider the economics: The streaming audience may well be 10 times the size of the theatrical — and the shelf life is way, way longer. The numbers work out better when the P&A is much less, as with purpose-driven, digitally-delivered content directed towards predisposed audiences who have a lower cost-benefit hurdle to jump. Increasingly, the choice for couples will be: “Do we venture out and spend $30 in a theater or click a button and see content for a fraction of the cost, on an issue that matters to us?” As a social impact advocate, this opportunity to move hearts and minds and expand the choir gives me great hope. It seems like a happy pivot, and I’m all in.

History tells us that massive social dislocations often cause society to change permanently, and also result in some of culture’s most important, indelible work. Minds are opened by common adversity, hearts redirected. New paradigms suddenly become plausible. The question for us as filmmakers, self-declared masters of empathy and persuasion, is whether we will use our skills to ensure the pivots are good for humanity and the planet. As Richard Powers wrote, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Start your motors.

This is our time. Lift up the world. Open eyes. COVID-19 shall pass, and it is not as awful as the Second World War our parents and grandparents survived. The opportunity to do good with our art and commerce has never looked brighter. Stay safe.

For the record: A previous version of this story had a previous title for the film “Foster Boy.”

Peter Samuelson is the producer of 26 films, including "Revenge of the Nerds," "Arlington Road,” and the Oscar-nominated "Tom & Viv." He is also the founder of the Starlight Children's Foundation, First Star Academies for Foster Youth, and EDAR, Everyone Deserves a Roof. He also co-founded a new purpose-driven, double bottom line media company merging philanthropy and filmmaking into a unique model of development, finance, production, marketing and advocacy.