Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the entertainment industry was in flux. China’s growing box-office power forced movie studios to balance U.S. values with the demands of Chinese censors and the tastes of Chinese audiences. An explosion in the number of streaming outlets and scripted shows fractured the U.S. viewing public into little fandoms, eroding the common cultural lexicon that once united us. Meanwhile, Walt Disney Co. is gobbling up other studios, concentrating enormous cultural power in a single organization.
If pop culture had been navigating murky waters before, the emergence of coronavirus flung the movie business into uncharted territory. In China, restrictions on travel intended to minimize viral spread decimated box-office revenue during the Lunar New Year; Chinese theaters pulled in just $4.2 million from Jan. 24 to Feb. 23, down from $1.76 billion in all of 2019. In the United States, moviegoing fell to a 20-year low last weekend, and is poised to crater further as cities order theaters to close and chains shutter movie houses of their own volition. Blockbusters such as the forthcoming James Bond film “No Time to Die,” Disney’s live-action adaptation of “Mulan” and the latest installment in the muscle-car “Fast & Furious” franchise (“F9”) have been postponed. Television shows and movies have halted production to protect their casts and crews, raising the prospect that the well of new stories could run dry precisely as quarantined viewers succumb to cabin fever.
These temporary adjustments to the release calendar and moviegoers’ behavior may have not-so-temporary consequences. The entertainment industry has gravitated toward a business model that prioritizes big investments in grand-scale movies that have the potential to rake in a billion dollars or more at the international box office. Studios don’t need every release to be a hit of this magnitude, but they expect movies that bomb will be offset by sensations — and a continuous flow of cash allows them to keep putting new movies into production.
A halt in the release calendar is unprecedented in the modern moviegoing era. Even after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, movies continued to come out, though a small number were edited, delayed or canceled because of concerns about their depictions of terrorism or images of the World Trade Center.
But with theaters and productions both shuttered, Hollywood’s ability to fund future productions with current proceeds has been interrupted. Studios that have lots of cash on hand, or that are part of larger conglomerates, may soldier on. Others will not. Those studios that survive will face difficult choices about how many movies they can put into production, and whether to keep swinging for the fences with blockbusters or committing to making smaller movies that are less risky but also less remunerative. Their decisions will reverberate for years to come.
In the short term, novel efforts to get new movies in front of homebound audiences run their own risks. Universal broke an industry taboo Monday when it announced that it would make some movies available for $20 streaming rentals even while they play in theaters. Sony, also hoping to pick up viewers amid social distancing, plans to release the Vin Diesel film “Bloodshot” on demand next week. In an age of relatively inexpensive and extremely high-quality flat-screen televisions and home audio equipment, this option has been anathema to the film industry, which has feared it would make theaters obsolete.
These decisions are a gamble: Studios are betting that audiences will want to return to theaters when social interactions resume — even after they watch new releases in the comfort of their homes, at prices only a little higher than theater tickets (and at considerably less cost than it takes to get families of three or more to the multiplex).
If Universal and Sony are wrong, the impact on small theaters that are already struggling could be devastating. Washington-area moviegoers were stunned last week when, without warning, AMC shuttered the historic Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park. In boom times, a smaller chain like Landmark or Angelika might have come to the rescue, spiffing up the 84-year-old space, improving the projection and audio, and adding a bar. Now, those companies are more likely to protect theaters they already own and operate, and theaters such as the Uptown face even longer odds.
Covid-19 won’t be the end of movies. As we seek social distance, movies allow us to escape and give us a measure of the connection we can’t experience in person. Instead, the risk is that the pandemic will change the kinds of movies we get to see and whether we can watch them in a crowd, escaping together through a bright screen to other worlds.