COVID-19 could change the film industry forever

Illustration of closed movie theater
Lucy Yang/Staff

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The outbreak of COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, and the consequential business closures across the country are ravaging numerous industries, and the movie industry is not exempt. 

The immediate effects of coronavirus are already detrimental. Theatrical windows for films such as “Onward” and “The Invisible Man” were cut short because of the nationwide closures of movie theaters. A roster of tentpole films scheduled for spring and summer releases have missed the theatrical window entirely, having been pushed significantly or simply delayed indefinitely. 

This upends every major studio’s slate for the year, removing entries that were guaranteed to be box-office earners. “A Quiet Place Part II” from Paramount Pictures, “Mulan” and “Black Widow” from Disney, “Wonder Woman 1984” from Warner Bros., “Fast & Furious 9” from Universal Pictures and “No Time to Die” from MGM are among the completed films that have been affected. Rescheduling is not as simple as it seems; studios have already sunk millions into advertising for many of these releases, buying billboards and costly Super Bowl spots that have now been rendered seemingly useless.

Other upcoming films are stuck in the production phase. “The Batman,” “Mission: Impossible 7” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” are just a few of many high-profile projects that have had to shutter their sets. Key film festivals that showcase new talent and herald early awards season front-runners, such as the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest festival, have been canceled. In short, every film studio’s theatrical release calendar will be in a state of costly limbo for the foreseeable future, and the film industry will feel the ramifications of that limbo for at least months to come. 

Short-term solutions to the financial repercussions of the closures may speed up a long-term shift that the industry has been dreading and side-stepping for years: viewers’ total migration from movie theaters to streaming platforms.

The U.S. box office saw a 4.6% decline last year, marking the second-lowest admissions total of the current century. And all of 2019’s top 10 box-office earners — including “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” — were based on franchises and stories that audiences already recognize, engineered to be seen with crowds of enthused fans rather than at home (the fact that seven of those 10 come from the same company is another issue entirely).  

This trend has often been attributed to the expansive, low-cost and sometimes Oscar-nominated libraries of entertainment offered by streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and now, Disney+. As moviegoing becomes more expensive, including ticket prices that can sometimes range around $22 on top of costly concessions, it’s become harder for studios to entice viewers off of their couches and away from their flat-screens for anything other than “event” films.

Adapting to ongoing theater closures and delays for tentpole films in the age of “quaran-streaming” could force studios to unwittingly prove the supposed redundancy of the current box-office model. Notably, Universal opted to skip a theatrical release for “Trolls World Tour” entirely, sending the film straight to home video in April (a move that seemingly irritated the chief of the National Association of Theater Owners). Recent Universal releases “The Invisible Man,” “Emma” and “The Hunt,” as well as Disney’s “Onward,” are also currently available on demand. Depending on how long the closures last worldwide and how far release calendars are set back, other rescheduled films could follow this route as well.

These choices could validate home releases, something the industry has as of yet widely rejected as a mainstream option, even after the closures caused by the coronavirus end. This would even further debilitate struggling exhibitors recovering from months of inactivity. Those who work at now-dormant movie theaters are among the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. If a massive increase in streaming activity mixed with lingering fear of public spaces makes staying in the new normal for moviegoers, the exhibitor industry may remain irreparably crippled and the theatrical experience forever changed.

It is, of course, also possible that everything goes the opposite way. Months of being cooped up could foster renewed vigor for moviegoing across the board, not just for films driven by familiar intellectual property. The box office could see a jump when postponed films are finally released to the public. Even in this best-case scenario, studios’ release calendars would still be delayed by months and exhibitors would still be struggling, but a path forward would be visible. All of this depends on when the closures will end, a lingering question with multiple potential answers.

“We believe in and support the theatrical experience,” said Paramount Pictures in a recent statement regarding the delay of “A Quiet Place Part II.” The roster of other major films that are currently waiting for a new theatrical window indicates that the rest of Hollywood agrees, as studios continue to bet on audiences’ desire to see movies together, on the big screen.

When movie theaters, along with the rest of the world, begin the lengthy return to normalcy, the film industry will hopefully see its gamble pay off. But until then, it’s a waiting game. At least we all have Netflix to help us pass the time.

Grace Orriss is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.