LOS ANGELES: In a shocking twist usually reserved for conspiracy thrillers, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused the US box office to, for the first time in history, report revenue of zero this week.
“It’s kind of a nuclear bomb going off in the middle of a business,” said David Poland, film critic and editor for Movie City News. “We’re used to very minor shifts, and those get discussed a lot. This is a major shift.”
Thousands have lost their lives as coronavirus sweeps the globe, and in this context the struggles of the film industry are trivial.
However, looking at the epidemic through the lens of Hollywood can provide insight as to just how vulnerable the multibillion-dollar industry really is.
The precautionary measures taken by governments across the world to limit the spread of coronavirus — while essential — have wreaked havoc on the entertainment industry.
Studios have postponed upcoming films, pushing the release dates to later in the year and even to 2021.
Films currently in production are on hold until it is safe for the cast and crew to reconvene. Movie theaters countrywide have been closed to prevent further spread of the virus.
When Arab News sat down to discuss the effects in depth, Poland said public safety is not the only factor being considered in the delays.
“A movie like ‘Mulan’ at Disney got postponed, and part of the reason was because it’s expected to do so much business overseas,” he added.
“So they have to wait for China and the rest of Asia to settle down and be available to go to the movies before they can release it, or they’re basically throwing away $300 or $400 million.”
With traditional film distribution no longer an option, some industry eyes are turning to streaming.
NBCUniversal in particular has announced plans to release many of its currently in-theater films online, including “The Invisible Man”, “The Hunt” and the upcoming “Trolls World Tour.”
But Poland said streaming video on demand (VOD) is not a solution that will work for every film, once again citing “Mulan” and fan speculation that it could also find an early release online.
“The idea that they’re going to throw it onto Disney+ is insane. It would basically be throwing away half a billion dollars for them,” he added.
Indeed, the most a film released to streaming has ever made is around $50 million. So while streaming may be viable for mid-level films, the A-list movies will probably still see an eventual theatrical release.
And despite its streaming plan, NBCUniversal seems aware of its limitations. It has opted not to release its franchise favorites “Fast and Furious 9” and “No Time to Die” online, and instead is delaying them to ensure returns in the international market.
While the outcome of NBCUniversal’s theatrical vs streaming experiment is uncertain, the streaming industry as a whole stands to gain from this disruption.
With the potential launch of HBO Max and Comcast’s Peacock streaming service on the horizon, the VOD industry continues to grow just in time for many people to find themselves stuck at home and searching for entertainment.
“I think Netflix will be the beneficiary of all this in that they’ll actually be able to stop production on a lot of things,” said Poland.
“The biggest problem Netflix has going forward is that they’re spending way too much money on productions.”
Poland said the pause in filming could be Netflix’s chance to scale back production without attracting unwanted attention.
As for the major studios, between their reactive release strategies, TV production sides — which stand to gain in the same way streaming does — and their many other sources of profit, he is confident they will weather this storm.
“There are going to be losses. It’s going to be in the billions of dollars,” he said. “But I think it’s going to be a lot less painful than most people suspect.”
The real tragedy will be the human cost. While the studios will bounce back, smaller companies and individuals in the industry will find themselves without a job and struggling to make ends meet.
And of course there are those who contract coronavirus. Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson and Idris Elba have tested positive.
Their odds of recovery are good, however. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fatality rate is highest for people aged 85 or higher, decreasing in younger demographics.
“I don’t think we’re going to lose Tom Hanks, and I don’t think we’re going to lose Idris Elba. All those kinds of people generally are younger and healthy,” said Poland.
“But there are going to be some older people. Particularly you have to really worry about the motion picture home.”
At the time of writing, the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, a retirement community for film and TV professionals, had zero reported cases of coronavirus among their patients, residents and staff.
If quarantining measures and the efforts of doctors and researchers worldwide continue, our story may have a happier ending than some of Hollywood’s biggest pandemic-themed blockbusters.