As CinemaCon goes, so goes Hollywood.
On Wednesday night, after the world was brought to the brink of coronavirus news exhaustion – from Donald Trump’s European travel ban to the fact that America’s most beloved celebrity couple, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, has now been diagnosed with the virus – the film industry got an extra dose of anxiety when the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO; the other one) announced that this year’s CinemaCon was cancelled.
It is not hard to understand why NATO pulled the plug on the annual Las Vegas gathering of Hollywood studios and North American exhibitors, where each party attempts to convince the other that their business is a booming one. As COVID-19 continues to make headlines around the world, who would want to be stuck in a casino conference centre with thousands of others for a four-day grip-and-grin session? If I was one of the dozens of celebrities that studios such as Disney and Warner Bros. contract to make a CinemaCon appearance to hype up theatre owners about the year’s big new blockbuster, I would be desperately searching for any clauses to escape such a potential disease trap. The only real surprise about CinemaCon’s cancellation is that it took so long. The writing was on the wall as soon as Austin cancelled its SXSW film, music and tech festival. And even more so when MGM announced earlier this week that it was shutting down a cornerstone of CinemaCon socializing: seven of its Vegas buffets.
So while the move is completely understandable from a public-health perspective, the metaphorical optics are going to be a trickier sell. How are theatre owners going to convince the rest of the world that the multiplex is a safe environment if even they won’t congregate in large clusters themselves? Right now, the movie industry is standing on the edge of a cliff; the next few months will determine whether it jumps in blind or remembered to pack a parachute.
A test of how bad the situation might get will be found at the box office this weekend, which finds Hollywood offering up an accidentally timed vast array of options to appeal to as many demographics as possible: the premiere of a Vin Diesel action tentpole (Bloodshot), a zeitgeist-y satirical thriller (The Hunt) and a faith-based romance (I Still Believe). And two weeks later, Disney is hoping to repeat the success of its cartoon-to-live-action formula with the big-budget remake of Mulan. At least, those are the titles for now.
Already, we’re in unprecedented film-release territory, with four potential big earners (the 007 entry No Time to Die, the children’s film Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, the highly anticipated horror sequel A Quiet Place Part II, and F9, the latest instalment of the massive Fast & Furious franchise) and now even middle-ground releases (the Kumail Nanjiani/Issa Rae rom-com Lovebirds) abandoning their spring release dates in favour of (hopefully) less virus-y late-summer and fall berths. Surely there are countless accountants and risk-management experts going over every other major spring and summer release this very moment, deciding whether there’s money to be made on would-be blockbusters like Black Widow, Top Gun: Maverick, Wonder Woman 1984 and so on.
Meanwhile, the actual production of movies has also been thrown into chaos, given that Trump’s new European measures will put wrenches in any plans to shoot overseas. At home, California Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday urged the cancellation of any large gathering of more than 250 people, which certainly affects red-carpet premieres but could also include major-production film sets.
More than ever, the Cannes film festival seems to be in serious doubt – and any ripple effects of a Croisette cancellation will be felt far beyond the art-house world. On Thursday, the Junos and Canadian Screen Week, which culminates with the Canadian Screen Awards, have been cancelled. A cursory glance at the spring and summer industry calendar finds a long list of other major festivals and events, both abroad and in Canada, that are surely monitoring the public-health situation, and their books: the Tribeca Film Festival in New York (April 15-26), Hot Docs (April 30 through May 10), Inside Out (May 21-31), and then further into the fall the Venice (Sept. 2-12), Telluride (Sept. 4-7) and Toronto (Sept. 10-20) film festivals. (The Berlinale, so used to feeling the odd film festival out given its traditional late-February scheduling, must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that it got a 2020 edition out before the coronavirus concerns hit such high levels.)
If any of those events fold and more studios decide to shift releases, it won’t just change the way we watch movies but also which movies get made. Studios will no doubt continue producing product ... but maybe they won’t shell out $100-million-plus for a blockbuster that must be seen on a big screen, and instead, say, pay half that or a less for a film more suitable to their upstart streaming services. And no festivals and industry conferences means no talent discoveries, no coveted word-of-mouth buzz, no marketing angles, no handshake development and distribution deals, no future.
Not to sound alarmist, but there is a decent chance that the snuffing of SXSW has already meant some filmmakers have potentially lost crucial career gains they may never get back. We could be losing an entire generation of new voices, if the current situation holds.
Hopefully, business will be back to normal soon enough, and the Vegas buffets will once again welcome hungry CinemaCon attendees next spring. For now, though, Hollywood’s stomach is surely roiling.
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