Bond is on the move, Mulan is staying put, and regardless of the positive spin from industry insiders and theater owners, no one really knows what happens next. However, the social distancing measures happening in other areas around the world right now could very easily be on the way here. Movie theaters absolutely could close. As our leaders battle between alarmism, pragmatism, and outright denial in their public messaging, communities are left to figure this out on their own. We simply don’t know how bad this is going to get, but should worst-case scenarios come to pass movie theater closures will be the least of our problems.
Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty.” He was assassinated two years later. So, really, spot on with that whole “times of danger and uncertainty” bit. (Too soon for that kind of joke even though he died over 50 years ago?) That’s not the whole quote, though. After acknowledging the dour tone of the day, Kennedy pivoted toward optimism, concluding, “But they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
It remains to be seen what kind of creativity humanity musters in response to pandemic disease, but the fact remains that in 2020 we most certainly live in an interesting time. In America, we’ve been told by the CDC to expect widespread disruption to our normal way of life as COVID-19 sweeps the country. “No shit” says countries like China or Italy which have long since swung into complete “it’s like a ghost town” lockdown mode, resulting in such dystopic scenes as a professional Italian soccer game played in front of a completely empty stadium.
For the purposes of this particular website, the question is what kind of impact COVID-19 will have on film and television. So far, the 2020 domestic box office is actually up 3% year-over-year and TV shows continue to come and go as they always have. (Alex Garland’s Devs premieres today on FX! SyFy just canceled The Magicians!) Granted, Apple and Amazon just dropped out of the SXSW Festival, which still set to happen later this month, DC Comics officially canceled all employee appearances at conventions through the end of March, and China has been canceling movie premieres and closing theaters for months now. Still, to the casual observer, everything in the entertainment industry probably seemed mostly copasetic.
That changed yesterday:
Insert your preferred pun about a movie called “No Time to Die” deciding now is not the right time to come out, not when people are literally dying from a communicable disease with a mortality rate that is at least worse than that of the seasonal flu.
The Bond blockbuster ticketed for an early April release has now become a pre-Thanksgiving movie. In a way, No Time to Die should have always been a November flick. That same release window served Skyfall and Spectre so well, and before director Danny Boyle left the project during preproduction No Time to Day was meant to be a November 2019 release. Now it’s landed in November 2020, which might not seem like such a big deal. Release dates shift all the time. Heck, next week STX is set to roll out the Dave Bautista vehicle My Spy, a family comedy which has been so many times now that it’s starting to feel like a cruel joke, especially since the trailer never really left the rotation at movie theaters.
But My Spy was delayed mostly because its distributor, STX, is barely on life support these days. No Time to Die is similarly backed by fiscally-challenged distributors, MGM and Annapurna, but Universal has international distribution rights and is actually #2 in market share now that Disney absorbed Fox. This collective delay on MGM/Annapurna/Universal’s part is more “force of nature,” less “we’re running out of money,” which makes it a remarkably rare event.
“Once you have a release date for a big picture, the momentum is like a tsunami. It takes a real act of derring-do to step in front of it and say stop,” film producer Peter Guber (Batman, Last Action Hero) once said. “It’s got so much momentum-the toys are being sold, the videos are being sold, the marketing machine, everything starts to work.”
That’s what makes the timing of this so rare. After all, the movie was supposed to come out just next month. Luckily for MGM/Annapurna/Universal, announcing this move five weeks before the original release date might be enough of a buffer to cost-effectively postpone No Time to Die’s various advertising campaigns. Not everything can be pushed back, though. Daniel Craig, for example, is still hosting SNL this weekend.
The story of No Time to Die’s delay was exclusively broken by Deadline, which went on to note “this is purely an economic decision we understand, and not one based on growing fears over the coronavirus.” In other words, MGM and Universal aren’t doing this out of concern for the health and safety of those moviegoers in the parts of the world where theaters remain open; it’s doing it because No Time to Die’s profit-model doesn’t work without the Pacific Rim countries like China and South Korea currently hit the hardest by COVID-19.
Follow-up reporting by THR and Variety attempted to stop the bleeding and frame MGM and Universal’s joint decision as unique and not at all indicative of a domino effect about to take place. “Conversations with other movie distributors confirm that a strong slate of global and local titles will continue to be released theatrically in all territories except those few countries most affected by the virus,” the National Association of Theatre Owners told THR. “Cinemas will remain open around the world with strong attendance, in line with local conditions, and in communication with local health officials.”
“For James Bond, the move made sense,” said box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore. “But I would be shocked if films like Mulan or Black Widow moved. This is a highly unusual situation and unusual steps are being taken for some movies.”
Indeed, Disney confirmed it intends to release Mulan in the United States on March 27, 2020, as planned. The international release pattern will be staggered. Basically, China – and other reeling areas of the world – will get the movie once things are back to normal. For everywhere else, it’s Mulan-alooza. Black Widow is reportedly also sticking to its release date. Universal similarly assured the press that Fast and Furious 9 is still on track to hit theaters in May.
The only other big release date shift besides No Time to Die seems to be Troll: World Tour, which is actually moving up a week earlier to take over Bond’s vacated Easter weekend. The other shoe’s not dropping. Yet.
However, across these various reports, I noticed the quotes from experts whiplash from optimism to “fuck if I know what’s going to happen” caution.
Let’s all go to the movies, let’s all go to the movies, and have ourselves a sanitary good time
“We’re seeing zero impact from attendance right now at the box office,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners told Variety. “In North America, we’ve been through SARS, Ebola, swine flu and we’ve never had to force a quarantine situation where exhibition closes down, so it seems premature to assume that it will now.”
“The movie business is simultaneously global and local,” the National Association of Theatre Owners told THR. “All theaters in the U.S. and Canada and the vast majority of movie theaters around the world remain open with strong ticket sales.”
Shit could get bad. What do I know?
“I just don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen since this is a novel virus. Those other viruses had a small swelling of fears, but this seems a lot more major,” Comscore’s Jeff Bock told Variety. “You go to the store, and all the Purell is sold out. Maybe it is people overreacting, but we don’t know yet. We have to take it day by day.”
If the bad thing happens, this will be the least of our concerns
“The last thing people are going to want to do is sit in a theater with a bunch of coughing people,” entertainment industry lawyer Schuyler Moore told Variety. “That’s just not going to happen.”
AMC stands ready to do…something
“It goes without saying that we are vigilantly monitoring reports and advice from governmental authorities in the United States and throughout Europe, as well as from medical experts,” AMC CEO Adam Aron said in a recent call with investors. “Of course, as you would expect, we will be a responsible player here, taking into account the safety of our guests and of our staff, but importantly, to report looking broadly at our circuit of 1,000 theaters across 15 countries visited a million times per day by moviegoers around the world. So far, so good.”
So far, so good for AMC, maybe. The global box office is already expected to take a $5B hit in 2020, though. If North American theaters join that downturn, who knows how high the number could go.
Is No Time to Die the canary in this particular coal mine? Or is it truly a unicorn?
I….don’t know. Many, though not all movie theaters around the United States eventually closed during the 1918 Spanish Flu, and it was economically devasting. History could repeat itself, even right down to the way the Spanish Flu first presented in a mild form in the spring, dissipated in the summer and came back with a deadly vengeance in the fall. It’s conceivable that when No Time to Die’s new November release date rolls around COVID-19 could be a real monster of a disease, in which case film premieres, sporting events, concerts, and other public gatherings won’t so much matter anymore.
If the rest of the United States soon suffers the same fate currently experienced by everyone in Seattle and the entire state of Washington, that lifestyle disruption the CDC warned about will be inevitable. Or, like a character from a disease outbreak movie, a heroic scientist could come along to save us. Or maybe this is another case of everyone worrying over a pandemic that doesn’t in fact live up to the world-enders of our fiction.
“The fact that the future is complicated makes us cling to people who offer certainty, and that kind of certainty is not in the offing,” New York Times Farhad Manoo opinion columnist recently told the On the Media podcast. “We should just be open to the possibility that everyone you see on TV and Twitter has no idea what they’re talking about because they don’t know the unexpected thing that’s going to come tomorrow.”
In this case, I have a professional background in public health research, and I’ve written about film and TV for nearly a decade now. I still don’t really know what I’m talking about here because I don’t know what new unexpected direction awaits COVID-19. (I never, for example, would have expected the CDC to prepare test kits that simply didn’t work.) If the analysts were more honest, they don’t know either.
For now, No Time to Die’s delay is an isolated incident, and the movie theaters stand at the ready to take whatever precautionary action is called for. The streamers, meanwhile, can’t exactly be rooting for this to get worse, but in the entertainment realm, they most stand to benefit. If a lot of us end up housebound while the world battles a pandemic, Netflix and other streamers will likely become a constant companion. What a morose excuse for finally clearing out your queue.
Still, Locke & Key, I will finish you someday, I swear.