Earlier this year, the Cannes Film Festival announced that the annual cinematic showcase, set to be held between 12 and 23 May, would not go ahead as scheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Several options are [being] considered in order to preserve its running,” the organisers said in a statement. “The main one being a simple postponement.” For the global film industry—of whom 40,000 attend each year to buy, sell and report on releases—there was nothing simple about it.
Throughout its illustrious history, Cannes has only been brought down by revolution or war. In 1968, the festival was cut short when nationwide strikes brought the French economy to a grinding halt. Before that, it was Cannes’ first-ever edition that was interrupted by the outbreak of the second world war. The day after the 1939 opening night gala, which featured a screening of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, German troops invaded Poland. The festival was not relaunched until 1946.
On all fronts, the rapid spread of COVID-19 is being compared to a battle. Currently, there are more than half a million cases worldwide, over 20,000 casualties and the possibility of 25 million jobs being lost. For the film industry, the crisis has already meant a loss of US$7 billion in box-office takings, a figure that is expected to rise to US$17 billion by the end of May. Meanwhile, the US entertainment industry union International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) reports that 120,000 workers have so far been laid off in Hollywood as a result of the shutdown. The immediate impact has been cataclysmic, but concern is also growing over the future of film. As social distancing and self-isolation become the new norm, can a business built around a communal experience survive?
In January 2020, just weeks after the first cases of the coronavirus appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan, cinemas across the region began to close. The timing was particularly devastating, coming on the eve of the Chinese New Year holiday, which ordinarily makes for one of the most lucrative weeks of cinema visits anywhere in the world. In 2019, the same 20-day period had brought in US$1.5 billion in revenue; this year amounted to just US$3.9 million. Soon after, almost all of China’s 70,000 theatres shuttered, and as the virus spread across the world, cinemas in Italy, Spain and the Arab world followed. In France, the UK and Ireland, efforts were made to enforce social distancing in cinemas through seat separation and reduced capacity, but the move was short-lived. By the time they were ordered to close by local governments, many already had due to lack of demand. Some independent cinemas, overwhelmed by rental payments, may not be able to reopen.
In response, blockbusters promptly postponed their release dates. The 25th James Bond film, MGM’s somewhat unfortunately named No Time to Die, was pushed from April to November. Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II, Disney’s Mulan, Marvel’s Black Widow and DC’s Wonder Woman 1984 have also been delayed. As they compete for prime spots in the autumn, smaller films are exploring other options. Universal recently became the first traditional studio to break the theatrical window of exclusivity, making three current releases—Emma, The Invisible Man and The Hunt—available to watch at home immediately, instead of 90 days later. This angered theatre owners who have long been fighting to stop streaming platforms doing the same, but more studios followed suit, including Pixar for Onward and Warner Brothers for Birds of Prey. Once this crisis ends, launching films simultaneously in cinemas and on demand could become commonplace.
Festivals in jeopardy
Similarly anxious are those battling to get their projects made and distributed. The first major blow for independent filmmakers came with the cancellation of SXSW, which was due to take place in Austin, Texas, from 13 to 22 March. Reeling from the financial hit, the festival’s organisers had to let go of a third of its year-round staff. The local economy is estimated to have lost US$350 million, and those employed around the festival—from caterers to security staff—have found themselves out of pocket. It created a domino effect: a week later, Tribeca Film Festival was postponed and a week after that, Cannes followed. Even if they are rescheduled in the autumn, having to jostle for position beside Venice, Telluride and Toronto could see smaller film festivals dropping off the map entirely.
It may be even worse for those in the midst of production. To date, the pandemic has halted at least 34 films and 144 TV shows. The former includes big-budget releases such as Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid, The Matrix 4, Jurassic World: Dominion, Robert Pattinson’s The Batman and Ryan Murphy’s The Prom starring Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep. Among the latter is everything from The Handmaid’s Tale and Euphoria to Stranger Things and Russian Doll. The cost of pressing pause and holding onto crew can be astronomical (up to US$350,000 a day for Disney, according to The Hollywood Reporter), and the true impact of the shutdown may not be felt for months. A gap in programming, on both the big and small screen, appears to be on the horizon.
Director, actress and poet Greta Bellamacina considers herself lucky, having wrapped production on the British comedy Venice at Dawn in early March, weeks before London went into lockdown. “We’d finished principle photography, so we thought we had gotten the film over the line, but the week after that, part of our funding collapsed because of all the financial panic,” she says. “So now we are paying some of the production bills ourselves until we can build the funding back up again.” Filmmakers around the world, she believes, have similar stories to tell. “My acting agent has had projects that have taken years to develop just put on hold indefinitely,” she adds. “It’s going to be a year of crisis for everyone and some of us won’t have any income at all for the next six months.”
As the industry examines its wounds, its major players have proven to be equally vulnerable. On 12 March, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that they had tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, a number of other actors have spoken out about their diagnosis: British stalwart Idris Elba, French-Ukrainian Olga Kurylenko, Korean-American Daniel Dae Kim and Norwegian Game of Thrones star Kristofer Hivju. Even more surprising? The news on 23 March that Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced producer and now convicted sex offender, had tested positive in prison. It was an unexpected plot twist in a prolific saga that has dominated Hollywood’s headlines for two years.
This morning I tested positive for Covid 19. I feel ok, I have no symptoms so far but have been isolated since I found out about my possible exposure to the virus. Stay home people and be pragmatic. I will keep you updated on how I’m doing 👊🏾👊🏾 No panic. pic.twitter.com/Lg7HVMZglZ
— Idris Elba (@idriselba) March 16, 2020
Bellamacina does, however, believe that there are opportunities to be found in this new world order, especially at a time when people are avidly consuming content at home. “The landscape was already tough for indie films and the people who make them are adaptable,” she continues. “As the investments and risks are smaller, this could be a time when we see more support for smaller films. We could also be looking at new ways of making films.” The industry has certainly taken this to heart, finding innovative ways to bypass the current roadblocks. While sets remain closed, writers’ rooms are convening on Zoom; the Casting Society of America and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) are promoting virtual and remote casting; and festivals are pledging to do online screenings and sales.
“We should focus on finding creative solutions to keep business going,” agrees Philip Knatchbull, the CEO of UK cinema chain Curzon, who has been directing viewers to the Curzon Home Cinema website as theatres stay closed. “We’re offering the platform to other distributors as a home for their releases that were scheduled during this time,” he explains. “We’re also working on a series of online events, kicking off with a live Q&A with System Crasher director Nora Fingscheidt.”
So, as the stigma is removed from streaming and staying in becomes the new going out, will we still crave the big-screen experience once the crisis is over? Part of the answer can be found in China, where the outbreak seems to be receding and cinemas are slowly reopening. On 20 March, 486 theatres were open, but nationwide revenue totalled less than US$2,000. In the coastal regions of Fujian and Guangdong, not a single ticket was sold. After months of quarantine, the public may need time to regain the confidence to return to cinemas, but it’s also possible that this pandemic will push the film industry towards a more digital future—accelerating a transition that has been underway for the past decade. Cinema will endure, of course, but in what form? No one can yet say.