Contained Stories: Here to Stay or Gone Tomorrow?
Contained Stories: Here to Stay or Gone Tomorrow?By Jorge Gonzalez
The industry is changing. We all see it. And just like any strong third act, the stakes are higher than ever. As studios and networks figure out how to bring production back online, what’s at stake is not just the safety of their cast and crew but also the creation of a production model that will allow them to return to making content of all sizes. But while we are still in the nascent stages of resuming production for films even as big as WB’s THE BATMAN and Netflix’s RED NOTICE, will this close the window on contained stories? If we look back at some contained films over the last several years, evidence suggests that strong demand for contained stories isn’t going away anytime soon.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise either. For years there has been an appetite for contained, budget-conscious projects that could scale and work on a wide theatrical level. Films like the John Cho starrer SEARCHING, caught a lot of attention when it came out of Sundance in 2018. As a film that primarily takes place entirely in front of a computer screen, it exemplified what a compelling contained story can be. Other notable contained stories over the last few decades include 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, PHONE BOOTH, PANIC ROOM, DON’T BREATHE, LOCKE, and GREEN ROOM to name a few.
Why studios are clamoring for contained content, especially now, is because making a mass scale project like AVENGERS ENDGAME requires a village to put together. With huge crews, tons of extras, and on-screen antics, these productions are far from socially distant. So what’s the alternative?
With all of this comes innovation. Let’s take a look at the forthcoming Netflix anthology series from ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK creator Jenji Kohan: the series appropriately titled SOCIAL DISTANCE pushed the creators to experiment with something new by creating a project with a virtual first mindset, with none of the cast and crew meeting face to face. While this show might be at one extreme of the spectrum, contained stories offer the benefit of having fewer locations and smaller casts. Just a few weeks ago, Netflix shelled out $30MM to acquire worldwide rights to MALCOLM & MARIE, starring Zendaya and John David Washington. That’s the entire cast! The film was shot this summer while painstakingly working to gain the approval of the major guilds and keep the set free of COVID.
While these next few films still required plenty of crew, by design they are made to be budget conscious. Look at Blumhouse and Universal’s THE INVISIBLE MAN which had its theatrical run right before movie theaters started closing up. This instant masterpiece from Leigh Whannel pits Elisabeth Moss against an invisible enemy. What’s more here is that this film falls in line with the low-cost Blumhouse model. With a reported budget of $7M before P&A and a shortened run in theaters, the film still managed to bring in just shy of $123M worldwide. Let us not forget Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, also from Uni and Blumhouse that earned $255M on a $4.5M budget. So pandemic concerns aside, contained stories can generate serious revenue for studios while mitigating the budgetary risk of some of their other nine-figure tentpoles.
Does this mean the end of larger productions? Of course not. Several studios like MGM and Paramount have spent the pandemic acquiring new material either based on IP or with big stars attached. Knowing that by the time they get through the development cycle and are in any shape to start shooting, there will be a vaccine or the industry will have perfected a safe production model.
Writers are often told not to chase the trend, which is by and large sound advice. The thing is that contained stories don’t all need to be about a viral outbreak that impacts the world on a global scale. There are countless stories to be told in a contained way and have proven themselves as a valuable and necessary part of studio slates. And while we may see more of them in the short term, this will by no means replace the larger scale film and TV we know so well. The point is, contained stories are here to stay. They existed long before the pandemic and will continue well after.