It is a very good time to be Netflix. Sure, the streaming giant is carrying billions of dollars in debt, faces new rivals armed with more fully stocked intellectual-property arsenals and lower price points, and possesses an Oscar trophy case that remains sparsely populated. But with the coronavirus spooking the global film industry in new and terrifying ways every day, it is not hard to imagine that just that many more moviegoers will decide to avoid the multiplex this year, and wait out the outbreak by bingeing Love Is Blind. COVID-19 may not be Netflix’s ultimate saviour, but it just might kill the traditional movie business as we know it.
First, the obvious: Of course the coronavirus situation is a serious one that should not be discussed lightly. And any impact that the outbreak might have on any industry – from education to hospitality to travel to entertainment – cannot eclipse the threat that it poses to health and safety, with more than 3,000 people already dead. But as Hollywood goes, so goes the rest of the world; the ripple effects of a film-festival cancellation, a movie premiere-date delay or a dip in box-office sales are huge in both economic and cultural terms, and deserve discussion. The traditional theatrical market has had a target on its back for years now – thanks to the advent of streaming and the paucity of genuine studio-pipeline ingenuity – and a public-health scare could be a potentially fatal blow to an already vulnerable industry.
Already, COVID-19 has shocked the film business in unexpected and unprecedented ways. In January, China cancelled several high-profile film releases, even though the Lunar New Year holiday is the country’s biggest and most profitable time period for new releases. (In a move that would have seemed preposterous just a year earlier, the Chinese distributor of the likely blockbuster Lost in Russia announced that the film would be available online for free instead; it received 600-million views in three days.) A month later, Disney revealed that it would not release its live-action version of Mulan in China on March 27, the same date that it was scheduled to open internationally (a new China release has yet to be set).
From there, it has been one shock after another, culminating with this week’s announcement that No Time to Die, the new James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, would abandon its early April global release in favour of a debut later this fall. While the move might initially seem like fodder for a few good-but-bad jokes – “So, when is the best time to die, then, Mr. Bond?” – the development marks the first major Hollywood movie to shift its release over the virus. And it will likely not be the last.
Already, there are questions as to whether the virus might also mean the cancellations of such major film events as the SXSW festival in Austin next week, the industry-crucial CinemaCon gathering in Las Vegas at the end of March (where the major U.S. studios come to unveil their glitzy 2020-21 offerings for members of the National Association of Theatre Owners), and the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in May. If those organizations decide to take a step back this year, it’s not hard to imagine the Venice, Telluride or Toronto film festivals cancelling, too. In other words: The entire industry would sit 2020 out. Productions would lose critical word-of-mouth, deals wouldn’t be made. Films would fall or be swallowed into a void.
And then there is the anxiety-inducing day-to-day reality that producers and movie-theatre operators already face. Total movie theatre admissions fell almost 5 per cent in 2019 compared with the year before, with North American box office down 4 per cent. Although there was a boom at the international box office last year – receipts hit an all-time high of US$42.5-billion – that figure will surely take a hit if China continues to shutter its multiplex doors and other countries follow suit.
Not helping matters is that 2020 was already looking like something of a fallow year in terms of sure-fire hits. If Hollywood is counting on the comic-book boom to see it through this year, for instance, there may be a rude awakening: There are only two Marvel movies scheduled for this year, both of them (Black Widow and The Eternals) not carrying nearly the levels of anticipation that arrived with 2019′s triple threat of Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far from Home. One of Warner’s two DC titles for 2020, meanwhile, has already disappointed (Birds of Prey).
And if James Bond continues to sit on the sidelines – and, say, the producers of the new Fast & Furious movie also decide that this spring is not the optimal time for an international publicity blitz – then things will look far more dire than any studio risk-management analyst may have expected back in the heady days of, well, three months ago.
So fire up your Netflix queue now – the service may be encountering a spike in user traffic very soon.
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