James Bond film decision was the canary in the coalmine

Coronavirus: Cinemas are closed, festivals cancelled, movie productions halted

Photograph: Getty

Photograph: Getty

 

The speed with which the shutdown progressed is staggering. It is just over two weeks since Universal Studios announced that No Time to Die, the 25th James Bond film, was being postponed from April to November. The news was greeted with surprise. The Covid-19 outbreak – not officially a worldwide pandemic at that stage – would surely damage Bond’s prospects in China, then the epicentre of the outbreak, but European markets would muddle through. Even if there was a downturn, a delay of seven months would surely prove excessive. Right?

Among the less startling lessons of March 2020 is that we should never underestimate Barbara Broccoli. The tireless producer – who runs the Bond franchise with her half-brother, Michael G Wilson – jumped first and secured a vacant spot in the pre-Christmas season. 

That was the canary in the coalmine. It felt as if an aeon had passed (it was a little over a week) when Walt Disney confirmed that Mulan, the latest of its live-action remakes, would not arrive on March 27th. Such was the acceleration of the crisis that Mulan’s red-carpet premiere, largely unblemished by facemasks or social distancing, had already taken place in Los Angeles. Paramount then pulled horror sequel A Quiet Place Part II. Any notions that the crisis would be a short one were dispelled when Disney plucked Black Widow, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from its prime May 1st release spot.

By the time the rescheduling was afoot, cinema chains were already closing down. Odeon and Cineworld have shut all venues in Ireland and the UK. Arthouse specialists such as the Irish Film Institute, The Light House, and Queens Film Theatre are also on hiatus. There’s not much point releasing a film if there’s nowhere to screen the thing.

Film festivals are falling like the proverbial winged insects. The Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, hit badly by snow two years ago, got lucky by finishing mere days before the fest cull started. In the US Tribeca has been postponed and South by South West, due this weekend, was an early casualty. A few days ago, the Cannes Festival, scheduled to begin on May 12th, announced that it "cannot be held on the scheduled dates". The release suggested that the festival could be rescheduled to the end of June but, with events scheduled for that period such as Euro 2020 and Glastonburyalready  scrapped,,that seems unlikely.

The shift towards an online cinema universe offers possible solutions for festivals

Production is halting as fast as releases are being shelved. In this country Screen Ireland announced ameliorating measures such as alterations to development loans and “additional marketing and distribution support”. The medium has gone away for a while. 

Nothing like this happened during either of the world wars. The closest comparison would be the so-called Spanish Flu (not actually Spanish, of course) outbreak in 1918. That led to a decline in independent exhibition as larger US chains sucked up the ailing smaller movie houses. The movie studios read the tea leaves, established their own cinema chains and – despite the inconveniences of the Depression – enjoyed boomtimes until a famous anti-trust case slowed them down in 1948.

Too much has changed for that story to tell us many useful lessons. Punters did not even have television as competition in 1918. Long before Covid-19 struck, theatrical exhibitors were already feeling the pinch from online platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. The cinema chains will be uneasy about the pivot towards streaming that has already happened during the developing crisis. Frozen II will be available on the Disney+ service three months ahead of schedule. Universal titles such as The Invisible Man, The Hunt and Emma will also go to the small screen ahead of schedule. In an unprecedented move for a mainstream studio release, Trolls World Tour, a sure-fire family romp, will be debuting simultaneously online and in cinemas on April 10th (assuming anywhere is open to show it). 

The shift towards an online cinema universe offers possible solutions for festivals. Cannes is not just a beano for film critics and movie stars. Thousands of producers, big and small, count upon sales made at the annual film market in the south of France to propel their projects to the next stage. It was announced last week that the Marché du Film will run “a virtual market” this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Could Cannes – or bits of Cannes – run an online festival at the same time? It’s possible. But it would require much flexibility from those representing the more high-profile movies.

One obvious objection would be the danger of solidifying a drift away from theatrical exhibition. Nobody who cares about film wants the big-screen experience to die. That shouldn’t happen. Some chains are struggling. Mid-budget productions fight for air. But there is still a huge market for efficient, professional franchises such as Marvel, Bond and the Fast and the Furious. If any of those films goes straight to stream then it really is time to worry. 

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