As Coronavirus Hits Hollywood, Movies Find A New Path Forward

On Wednesday, the National Association of Theater Owners petitioned Congress for emergency relief funds to help compensate for losses and support the 150,000 theater employees who can’t work during the quarantine.

As Coronavirus Hits Hollywood, Movies Find A New Path Forward
As Coronavirus Hits Hollywood, Movies Find A New Path Forward

As the coronavirus ripples through every sector of public life, Hollywood must determine in real time how to deal with a crisis that seems to worsen by the hour. Movie theaters across the world have shuttered, including hundreds of venues operated by AMC, Regal and Cinemark, the United States’ three largest chains.

Blockbusters like “A Quiet Place Part II,” “Mulan,” “No Time to Die,” “Furious 9” and “Black Widow” — all of which staged hefty marketing campaigns worth millions — have been delayed. Other projects still in production (the long list includes “The Batman,” the “Avatar” sequels and Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic) are suspended indefinitely.

If the COVID-19 pandemic lasts through May, the global box office could face an estimated $20 billion loss. If it’s longer, who knows what might result. Regional economies will be affected, too, as film operations pump money into local businesses and employ freelance crew members who are now out of work.

Meanwhile, scores of people stuck at home are relying on digital platforms for entertainment, giving studios an opportunity to recoup some funds by making nimble, unprecedented decisions to use streaming outlets (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) and video-on-demand services (iTunes, Amazon Prime Video and cable systems like Comcast and Cox) to showcase movies that can no longer play in theaters.

Disney, for one, capitalized on the situation by releasing “Frozen II” on Disney+ months ahead of schedule. Paramount Pictures is cutting a deal to give Netflix “The Lovebirds,” a murder-mystery comedy starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani that was supposed to open April 3.

Universal Pictures and its art-house subsidiary, Focus Features, elected to make three current releases — horror smash “The Invisible Man,” controversial political satire “The Hunt” and the Jane Austen adaptation “Emma” — available to rent on VOD for $19.99, approximately twice the average cost of a ticket.

(Movies like these typically get a 90-day window for theatrical exclusivity.) Universal will also give the animated sequel “Trolls World Tour” a VOD premiere on April 10, the same day it was slated for theaters. There’s no word yet on whether the studio will follow suit with summer offerings, such as “Candyman” and Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” should self-quarantine practices continue.

So far, the strategy seems effective. “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt” and “Emma” hit VOD on Friday, and by midafternoon all three had appeared on the iTunes charts.

What remains to be seen is how much studios will profit from this refurbished VOD model and whether it will influence any broader strategies once theaters reopen. The streaming revolution, which snowballed when Netflix began prioritizing original content in 2013, has provoked an existential reckoning about Hollywood’s economics, specifically how to best reach audiences now that ticket sales are slipping.

The movies that don’t opt for digital distribution in the coming weeks will need to be redated, creating a backlog of competition that could disrupt traditional demarcations between the summer blockbuster deluge and awards season.

For directors and other creatives who still romanticize the collective moviegoing experience, a VOD exclusive means curtailing or altogether forfeiting the time their work can be seen on a big screen. Autumn de Wilde, the director of “Emma,” which opened Feb. 21 to strong grosses, found out about Universal’s plan not long before the news broke on March 16.

She received calls from executives at Focus Features and the Universal-owned production company Working Title, at which point the decision had already been formalized. De Wilde designed her film’s sunny aesthetics for theaters, but fortunately she’d pored over cuts meant for home viewing to ensure their specs had been perfected, too.

“I felt very excited, knowing how hard it is to really have to keep people inside,” de Wilde said by phone last week. “I could do my part by having this movie that someone wants to watch, and it gives them two extra hours that they didn’t feel tempted to go outside. I want to be of service in any way I can.”

On Wednesday, the National Association of Theater Owners petitioned Congress for emergency relief funds to help compensate for losses and support the 150,000 theater employees who can’t work during the quarantine.

“I’m not excited about what’s happening to theaters or my friends or all those amazing PAs that are hand-to-mouth and don’t have a union protecting them,” de Wilde said. “I am worried about all of that and how people are going to pay their bills because I was a single mom and I had many, many lean years.

But those movies I watched with my daughter cheered us up. ‘Bringing Up Baby’ cheered us up, ‘Pretty in Pink’ cheered us up, any Jennifer Aniston movie in Hawaii always cheered us up.”

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