Reality REALLY bites: a report from the field.
So, that happened. Years from now, decades from now, when people talk about “The Pandemic of 2020,” you can say you were there... assuming you’re still here. At the very least, you’ll never be able to look at a bottle of Corona without a torrent of unpleasant memories.
My approach to this piece evolved in real-time this past week as the COVID-19 health crisis mushroomed into a full-blown socio-economic shit storm. As a point of reference, I’m currently updating this in Taipei on March 22nd, 2020 after my March 20th draft was almost immediately rendered obsolete. Given the rapidly accelerating chain of events, it may still be a time capsule even when read only days later.
- Those who understand the threat and are taking sensible precautions.
- Those who think the threat is exaggerated but are still taking sensible precautions.
- Those who think the threat is exaggerated or a conspiracy and are willfully flouting sensible precautions.
- Spring breakers.
It’s called Darwinism, and it ultimately leads to the improvement of our species, although there is typically collateral damage from the nitwit blast radius. Those of us in Generation X are facing the compound challenge of keeping our kids off the beaches and our parents out of the buffets.
With that in mind, it’s essential for as many of us as possible to do everything we can (which ironically amounts to doing as little as we must) in order to “flatten the curve” (there’s that phrase again). In short, flattening the curve via social distancing (there’s that phrase again) slows the spread of the virus so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time – ideally avoiding a spike in cases which could overwhelm the healthcare system. COVID-19 is not like the flu (unless the flu is like pouring Elmer’s Glue into your lungs).
As of this writing, the trajectory of America’s coronavirus curve is at a crucial point. Will it go the direction of South Korea (relatively controlled following a frightening initial outbreak) or Italy (out of control, and surpassing China’s death toll)? The answer to that question is becoming painfully clear by the day. Expect Italy to surpass China in total cases by the end of March, and the USA to be #1 sometime in April (something Donald Trump always promised).
Of course, every country – starting with China – has made serious mistakes, some more than others. The particular ideological & systemic weaknesses of nations around the world have been exposed in ways that are both embarrassing and enlightening. There are real learning opportunities to be had from this that we hopefully will not squander. At the very least, we can effect grassroots transformation in the interest of ourselves, our family & friends, and our communities.
Like many people, the impact of COVID-19 on my own life went from detached interest to engaged scrambling in a super short period of time. On January 8th, my wife, kids and I flew from our home in Beijing to visit relatives in Taipei. We had heard of some sort of viral outbreak in Wuhan, but it didn’t seem that serious and cases hadn’t reached Beijing (to our knowledge, anyway). Within two weeks of our arrival in Taipei, the outbreak rippled throughout mainland China and the city of Wuhan was locked down: the first time in history that an entire city of 11 million people was quarantined.
My wife and I were very active on social media as our travel plans devolved in Gilligan-esque fashion (a three-week visit now in its third month). We were considered fortunate by our quarantined friends in China, but regarded as hyperbolic coal mine canaries by friends and family (and assorted strangers) back in the West. The cognitive disconnect of watching folks on Facebook detachedly debate coronavirus stats and precautions while we were wrangling profound work/life disruption was bemusing to say the least. Our Plan B, Plan C, Plan Z... all scuttled. It’s remarkable how quickly you can blow through the contingency alphabet and must humbly resign yourself to hunkering down for an extended period.
Of course, the entire world found itself in collective hunker soon enough. Disruption isn’t easy to swallow - especially for Americans, who are fairly spoiled by global standards (sorry guys, it’s true). I watched my Los Angeles animation friends enter the first of the Five Stages of Grief - denial - with comic aplomb. Stubbornly entitled directors declared, “I’m not working from home!” (as though they had any choice). College professors were outraged by the “absurdity” of buying toilet paper online (a First World problem, irrespective of absurdity level).
“I won’t do this. I can’t do that.” Those words spewed from my own mouth back in January, and still slip out from time to time. But if the magnitude of the COVID-19 outbreak has taught me anything, it’s this:
You’ll be surprised what you WILL do and CAN do when you HAVE to.
Pretty much every person and every profession is being affected, and some will be devastated. Given my own profession and the forum of this article, I’ll focus my observations on The New Normal for entertainment – a field which may feel more trivial than ever, but is also needed now more than ever (ironically as its practitioners face massive disruption).
The New Normal
For content creators...
- Working from home
For independent content creators such as myself, working from home is normal, not a “New Normal.” But regardless of whether you’re an independent creator, a freelancer or a displaced employee, working from home in the COVID-19 world introduces the added physical and psychological stress of similarly-displaced family members (significant others, significant children, significant pets) crowding your space and requiring your time. As they are entitled to.
On the bright side, you have the opportunity to spend more time with your loved ones (or at least save time on commuting). There’s plenty of online advice for healthy work-from-home strategies, and great tools to assist you whether you’re working alone or with a team. You’ll eventually figure it out, and may even realize – once the current crisis has evolved from acute to chronic – that you don’t need or want to go back to a corporate office. Or maybe you’ll be dying to go back (no pun intended).
In any case, when you find yourself grumbling or feeling sorry for yourself – “I can’t work from home!” – think of those who truly can’t work from home: blue collar laborers and others who genuinely don’t have that luxury. Take whatever work you can, and don’t be picky. Be thankful that you’re among those still working.
- Relevance reboot
It’s funny how something like a global pandemic can suddenly reframe what’s important and what’s not – what’s relevant and what’s not. I’m sure that most of the Animation World Network readers can relate both as content consumers and content creators. This isn’t to say that everyone needs to stream 1995’s Outbreak or 2011’s Contagion now (although those films have indeed enjoyed renewed attention), or that every pitch from here on out needs to contain a virus angle (although studio executives will indeed greenlight an increased number of virus-oriented projects). But those of us in the content development business can’t simply proceed as though nothing has changed. Everything has changed.
When it comes to this crisis, some will hunger for diversion while others will seek immersion (the horror genre is predicated upon facing our fears). But regardless of whether your tack is family comedy or dark humor, serious drama or escapist fare, you don’t want to come across like Captain America, cluelessly stumbling into a changed world (unless, of course, that’s your premise). The coronavirus relevance reboot will mean different things to different viewers, and different things to different creators. Where to begin? Follow your heart.
- Passion projects
If there was ever a time for passion projects, that time is now. As a content creator, you’re probably going to have more time on your hands than money for the next year or two (good luck landing investment while the stock markets are tanking and re-tanking). Money is a renewable resource while time is not, so count your blessings and get on with things that are meaningful to you instead of languishing in suspended animation (pun intended this time) because “everything is dead.” Now is the time for self-sufficiency, self-actualization and self-growth.
Being stranded with my family in Taipei since January amid the global outbreak has meant putting larger-scale development projects on the back burner while focusing my time and attention on things I can do by myself or with a partner. The reasons for this are as much psychological as logistical.
For instance, I’ve been slowly developing my latest children’s book, “Grandpa Groundhog,” over the course of a year. It’s always been a more personal story than my previous four children’s books, but took on a new layer of meaning with the impact of the coronavirus crisis on my family. Despite having the kids on us around the clock, I carved out time in the wee hours to complete the rough draft, which I am currently circulating for feedback (my rough draft readers seem to have more time on their hands now for some reason).
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve also been inspired to dig deeper into the graphic novel project, “Orion DSSR,” that I’ve been developing with talented artist and concept designer Nicolas Vallet - a veteran of the Chinese sci-fi epic, “The Wandering Earth.” Set in a dystopian future (is there any other kind?), “Orion DSSR” has been informed by issues of technological displacement, bio-hazards and environmental catastrophe from its inception, but the concept now seems more relevant to me than ever.
It’s decidedly more adult than “Grandpa Groundhog” in every respect imaginable, but each IP is in its own way a meditation on life and death – and both spring from thinking about my young children’s future… although I won’t let them read “Orion DSSR” until they’re 18 years old or living the fictional events in real life – which ever comes first.
For the entertainment industry...
- Virtual offices
Like other fields trafficking in intellectual property, the entertainment industry has flirted with the notion of networked teams in virtual offices for decades… always to retrench into physical workspaces. There are some very good reasons for this (brainstorming) and some not so good reasons for it (seat-warming), but studios are now being forced to reassess their physical operations for an indefinite period of time. Most things can be an email, as it turns out.
I don’t think COVID-19 marks the end of communal offices, but I do think it will cause the industry to reassess when, where and why it needs to utilize physical space over virtual space. There’s a golden opportunity for VR hardware and software companies to step up to the plate here.
- Virtual production
With that in mind, I believe we’re going to see a big increase in virtual production - not only for special effects epics, but for content set in ordinary locations that are now inadvisable or inaccessible due to global travel precautions and restrictions. While there is still some degree of risk involved with multiple actors and crew on a virtual production set, it can be controlled – not unlike a porn shoot.
- The end of location-based entertainment(?)
I had originally titled this section “The end of windowing,” but let’s face it, the coronavirus outbreak is a big kick in the nuts to location-based entertainment in general – not to mention restaurants. Dave & Buster’s is busted, and Mickey has closed the gates (sorry, Jeff).
Let’s get windowing out of the way, literally and figuratively. Studio executives have been angling to collapse content release windowing (the period of time that elapses between theatrical premiere, home video release, online streaming, airplane availability, etc...) for decades – especially in light of the revenue-corroding effects of content piracy. But the popcorn stores you know as movie theaters have always howled loud enough that the studios always backed down from potentially cannibalizing theatrical revenue. Now, the COVID-19 world begs the question: “What theatrical revenue?” Movie theaters are empty. The ever-disruptive Netflix has been quick to introduce Netflix Party (referred to by many as “quarantine and chill”). Even stodgy old studios such as Universal have processed the Five Stages of Grief, and are now offering current theatrical releases for home viewing. The theatrical landscape will never be the same.
Location-based entertainment (LBE) is dead, and will migrate into the home. In February, I consulted for a VR hardware manufacturer who was waking up to this reality in mainland China. They’re now scrambling to deal with it in the rest of the world. Disney will eventually reopen their parks (poor Bob Chapek - first the Jungle Cruise sinks… then a monorail collides… now this), but smaller scale LBE companies – already struggling with tight margins due to declining repeat business – will go under. Who wants to share a VR headset or even a handrail now?
I believe we’ll see the acceleration of artificial intelligence and robotics applications in the wake of COVID-19: everything from home companions, to factory fulfillment to drone delivery. Ominously, the need for social distancing removes us from the professions that are more immune to AI disruption (nursing, physical therapy, etc) and thrusts us into the online scrum, where bots rule.
At the risk of sounding like Optimistic Guy (or worse, Opportunistic Guy), now is a great time for entrepreneurs to pivot in a way that truly matters. The Nintendo Switch RingFit – currently the hottest item in mainland China – is just one example of how to address the New Normal, as confined citizens try to find ways to entertain themselves and stay fit at the same time.
This is a golden opportunity for aspiring unicorns to truly “make the world a better place” by addressing real problems instead of fiddling around with online shopping deals, bed & breakfast schemes, and other marginal nonsense. It’s a more serious world now, and those business models have been broken.
(Hopefully not too) final thoughts
This won’t be over soon, but the intensity will eventually subside… to be followed by The Next Thing and The Next Thing. Welcome to The Century of Hell, brought to you by... YOU. From increased hurricane intensity, to the Australian wildfires, and now the coronavirus outbreak – we are reaping what we have sown in terms of encroachment upon nature and overall abuse of the earth. Despite all of the finger pointing going on over COVID-19, there’s no one to blame but ourselves. The truth hurts. You can argue it, but there’s no escaping it. If anything good comes out of this, it might be the reduction of mindless mass consumption (if only because people will have less disposable income to squander and fewer manufactured goods to indulge in).
Most people thought they had already processed that the illusion of stability and security is gone – patting themselves on the back for gamely acclimating to the “gig” economy and flexible workspaces – but this health crisis has exposed in no uncertain terms how weak our systems are, how fragile our society is and how high the stakes are.
There’s no going back. The coronavirus will change the world permanently, and our behaviors will change permanently in response. We’ve entered a world in which every personal interaction within six feet is like unprotected sex. The new wave of public health precautions in the COVID-19 world will become as normal as wearing a condom in the HIV world or removing your belt and shoes at the airport in the post 9-11 world. Get used to it. Find out where people have been (and with whom) before you step to them, and learn how to rock your surgical mask. Public “barebacking” is a thing of the past.
Social distancing aside, we’re all in this together – although facing our own particular challenges. Mine include living out of a suitcase with my family in Taipei for almost three months now, struggling to keep ourselves safe and together while options are closed to us left and right. The fact that governments continue to stand on bureaucratic protocol in the face of humanitarian crisis doesn’t help.
As a multi-cultural, multi-national family, we’ve always juggled a complex combination of resources, residencies and visas even in the best of times. Despite having a variety of backup plans, it’s demoralizing how quickly one can exhaust all contingencies in the midst of a global pandemic that has nations ratcheting up restrictions while the world shuts down. I feel like we’re trapped in a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
Count your blessings if you’re not sick, not separated from your family, and not separated from your home. I’ve been touching base with my pal Brendan Davis on our respective COVID-19 challenges in his recurring podcast series IF I KNEW YOU BETTER, and should have another update at the end of this month for the hat trick.
- “Fretful Laowai: Pandemic Edition” - February 1st, 2020
- "March of the Fretful Laowai” - March 1st, 2020
Until then, I’ll leave you with the words of Harvard president Lawrence Bacow:
“No one knows what we will face in the weeks ahead, but everyone knows enough to understand that COVID-19 will test our capacities to be kind and generous, and to see beyond ourselves and our own interests. Our task now is to bring the best of who we are and what we do to a world that is more complex and more confused than any of us would like it to be. May we all proceed with wisdom and grace.”
Be safe. Stay home. Save lives.