Right about now, depending on whether you have school-age children or not, you are likely wondering what else could possibly be hiding in the nooks and crannies of your Netflix queue. The good news is that there is still much to be found in the undiscovered depths of the streaming world, with enough underrated movies and heretofore-unheard-of content to keep your household occupied these next few weeks. Or months.
But eventually, sooner than we think, we’re going to run into a problem: There simply isn’t anything new being made. The pipeline of Hollywood production, which has been clogged with projects these past few streaming-war years, is completely dry. For now, we are stuck with whatever movies we have.
Just as the COVID-19 crisis hit, the studio system was busy cranking out hopeful blockbusters in various stages of production. Warner Bros. had just started shooting The Batman with Robert Pattinson and was in the middle of production on the new Matrix sequel in Germany, while Universal was busy with Jurassic World: Dominion, Paramount had the next Mission: Impossible, Sony the would-be franchise-starter Uncharted with Tom Holland and Disney the next entry in its world-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, plus its gargantuan, already much-delayed set of Avatar follow-ups.
It is not just the tentpole business that was hit, of course. A rash of mid-budget, potentially Oscar-friendly films shut down in the midst of production, too, including Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley starring Bradley Cooper, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel featuring the on-screen reunion of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and Baz Luhrmann’s untitled Elvis Presley biopic (the latter of which may forever and unfairly be known as the movie that allowed Tom Hanks to contract COVID-19). On the indie scale, there’s Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, the ballet drama Birds of Paradise, and on and on and on. Just as the world has pressed pause, so, too, has the movie business ground to a halt.
Which isn’t to say that this is the very end of new movies. There is a sizable backlog of ready-to-go features, thanks to the spring and summer movie seasons effectively cancelling themselves. Already, the major studios have indefinitely scrubbed 2020 releases ranging from mega-cartoon Minions: The Rise of Gru to Marvel adventure Black Widow to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights, and it is only a matter of time before the remaining seasonal blockbusters fall, too.
So while there is product waiting on the shelf, it is a wide and terrifyingly open question as to how confident the studios are that public anxieties will subside by late summer or fall – which is when Warner has shifted Wonder Woman 1984 and Universal/MGM moved the new James Bond entry No Time to Die – or whether Hollywood needs to further break its own business model and release more movies digitally rather than holding out hope for a theatrical premiere.
Right now, Universal’s decision to send Trolls World Tour straight to home audiences or Disney’s capitulation to speed Onward’s Disney+ debut by months are drastic measures for drastic times – aberrations that no one in the business of showing movies on movie screens want to see repeated. But there is only so long that a studio can hold on to, say, a Top Gun sequel without a certain stench wafting over the whole endeavor.
“Given the stay-at-home orders could be weeks or months, would Hollywood studios not organically choose to release their ‘coming soon’ projects on digital platforms as a first-run option? Seems plausible to me,” says Jim Mirkopoulos, vice-president of Cinespace Film Studios. “How long will the release of the next 007 film be mired in uncertainty, thus prolonging MGM’s return on their investment?”
And after those inevitable releases – Ghostbusters: Afterlife debuting on, say, Hulu makes a weird amount of sense right about now – we are facing empty shelves. Studio lots are shuttered. Actors are quarantining themselves. The many hundreds of people it takes to populate a film set cannot be let near each other. Nothing is being made, and no one knows when this might change.
“It’s going to last long, and the damage is going to be here for a good long while,” Paul Bronfman, CEO of production company giant William F. White International and chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, told The Globe last week, when wave after wave of production suspensions were announced. “Depending on how long this thing goes for, to get new series on or new movies into the theatre, there’s going to be a lag time. It depends on how much is in inventory. What’s in post-production already, and what can they get finished, perhaps with people still working from home?”
Still, this is the movie industry – an improbable business pivoting on a constantly disrupted model, when you break it down – and so there is boundless optimism to be found, too.
“I’m optimistic because I believe in these people and this business. I know we’re going to get through this,” says Bronfman. “There are only two constants in this crazy business: change and uncertainty.”
All audiences can do now, then, is hold out hope for a Hollywood ending.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.