Curtains have been closed, concession stands bare, for many months. The arts industries have suffered more than many, performing arts in particular, mostly in light of how easily an infectious disease could proliferate in an enclosed space full of people sitting shoulder to shoulder. Concerns now seem to have, well, spread deeper into the industrial consciousness with Directors UK (who legislate on directorial guidance) issuing new instructions entitled ‘Directing nudity and simulated sex: guidance for directors’.

Safety is, of course, of the utmost importance, especially in the case of already ‘sensitive’ subject matter. However, this response to the current crisis seems far from sensitive. We must initially consider those films that are (or were) mid-production during the pandemic. The film industry is in desperate need of funds in every sector; the recent news that Disney’s live-action Mulan adaptation will exhibit on their streaming platform rather than in cinemas has compounded the critical need for rejuvenation. Large productions that are already in play could, if forced to abide by punishing restrictions, abandon half-finished scenes or else truncate scripts in order to fit them to the new guidelines. The end result? Films hacked together in order to push early release in a plea to make money and which will, in all likelihood, receive poorer responses from audiences.

The situation is all the more dire for smaller budgets. The ‘Technical Alternatives’, as suggested in the statement on ‘Intimacy in the Time of Covid-19’, which are most apt to a convincing final product include CGI composites and double-shooting of scenes. Both are likely to distend a budget well beyond the range afforded to independent films. As currently produced smaller films are squeezed out, forced to shut down or indefinitely halt their schedules, the same destiny awaits many scripts currently being marketed. Producers, the first to receive their stern boundaries, will be incredibly cautious of scripts that seem harder to manage.

This will extend far further than sex, too. Bill Anderson, speaking for Directors UK, emphasises “intimacy” over “biology” and, to an extent, he has a point. However, everything but for the most extreme wing of romance on screen generally precludes what, for the sake of some modesty, we shall call ‘mechanical detail’. Unless Anderson is confusing the latest rom-com with something seen on the seedier side of the internet, these directives will impact any intimacy necessary to portray romantic life. Even further, how on earth is Black Widow going to break a man’s neck with her superpowered leg-scissor move, familiar to anyone who’s seen a Marvel film, or else James Bond fall off a ledge grappling with Blofeld (again)? This is an all too easy a lesson to summon  in how poorly the arts industries have been treated amidst the response to the pandemic. While sports teams are accommodated in bio-secure environments throughout and around play, directors have been told to “get creative” in order to avoid potential infection. 

One of the more practical – and less expensive – suggestions made is to cast pre-existing, real-life couples as onscreen counterparts. This is, in principle, an excellent idea; it seems like a pretty perfect solution, until we recall that the film industry is still overwhelmingly white, cis-gendered, and heterosexual, meaning, just as in the type of films being released, the progress of any kind of diversity will be stymied. Hollywood already suffers from a distinct homogeneity in both its talent and its depictions of romance. Thus, filmmakers will be restricted to scripts that call for what we already have. That means fewer than ever BAME and LGBTQ+ casts, characters, and couples. We are in desperate need of open discussions about sex. Film is one of the most important ways we can help achieve this. Clumsy and unsubtle content made with only those dully cognate resources available under these restrictions will only send us backwards.

More concerning still are some of the implications attached to a recommendation such as this one: “You may even find inspiration by revisiting classic[s] […] filmed under the Hays Code, which prohibited the depiction of sex on screen.” To regress to the stifling sexual standards of the 1930s seems unlikely to develop a better dialogue surrounding sex. Furthermore, to appeal to the Hays Code, which, among other things, included depictions of homosexual relationships within it’s definition of prohibited “perversion”, and forbade representations of interracial couples, seems to me a disgrace.

These restrictions also include insidious injunctions adjacent to the viral situation but that seem to imply a hand stretching beyond practical safety regulations. Initial ‘protections’ for actors in vulnerable scenarios were published in November and challenge the notion that sexual detail is “necessary” in many stories. Combined with allusions to the Hays Code, this comes to look like an advantageous opportunity for artistic censorship on the part of those keen to suppress sexuality in cinema. If this is the case, prospects are far worse than they seem.

Tom Martland

While not studying, Tom (he/him) has written across a range of subjects, including national publications in engineering and arts sectors - primarily for the Musical Theatre Review. He is Secretary of the Oxford Socratic Society and often stays up too late arguing about ethics.