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Sent reeling: Coronavirus crisis will transform film forever

As production is halted on major Hollywood projects and movie theatres close indefinitely around the globe, Paul Whitington looks at the impact of the coronavirus on the world of cinema

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Disney's big budget live-action remake of Mulan, which was due out next week, has been delayed indefinitely

Disney's big budget live-action remake of Mulan, which was due out next week, has been delayed indefinitely

Disney's big budget live-action remake of Mulan, which was due out next week, has been delayed indefinitely

This week I was supposed to be in Madrid interviewing Chris Hemsworth about his new action thriller, Extraction. Instead, with Thor no doubt safely behind his balustrades in Byron Bay, Australia, the Spanish capital is in lockdown - its bars, cafes and museums closed as army tanks trundle around the empty streets.

Like many other industries, cinema has been decimated overnight by the relentless onslaught of Covid-19. Just a week ago, the big studios were confidently pressing ahead with marketing big-budget spring releases and cinemas were hoping that a policy of maintaining a two-seat distance between punters would keep the show going. No such luck.

On March 12, Paramount pulled A Quiet Place: Part II from the schedules: it was due to open this Friday, and big things were expected of it, with John Krasinski's 2018 original having grossed $340m on a $20m budget. It will now be released later in the year, but no one's exactly sure when.

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The makers of new Bond film No Time To Die feared losing millions at the box office

The makers of new Bond film No Time To Die feared losing millions at the box office

The makers of new Bond film No Time To Die feared losing millions at the box office

Disney's Mulan, a live action remake of their classic animation, was due out on March 27, but cost $200m to make and would have been absolutely hammered at the box office in the current climate. It was expected to do particularly well in China, but its release has been indefinitely delayed. Incidentally, its star, Liu Yifei, was born in the now-besieged city of Wuhan. Disney has also pushed back the release of the X-Men spin-off New Mutants, and though they've thus far stayed silent regarding the fate of the Marvel movie Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johansson, it's highly unlikely to meet its May 1 release date.

The children's films Trolls World Tour and Peter Rabbit 2 are gone for the moment, and the release of the Fast & Furious sequel Fast 9 has been delayed until next spring.

When the new Bond film No Time To Die was pushed back to November a few weeks ago, everyone thought it was so that more tinkering could be done on the troubled project. But the film is apparently finished and ready to go: its wily makers Eon Productions had smelt trouble coming and were unwilling to risk releasing a $250m blockbuster into the teeth of a pandemic.

Their fears now seem well-founded and pity the poor movies released over the last few weeks. The box office gross for Onward, Pixar's delightful coming-of-age animation, has stalled around the $100m mark as audience numbers collapse across the world. Somewhere between $600m and $800m would be more like the Pixar average, but Onward's chances of reaching anything like that figure now seem remote: last weekend, cinema attendances plummeted in the US, partly as a result of social distancing measures, but mainly due to fears over Covid-19. Onward had been the top performer, but its take fell by 73pc compared to the previous weekend, as overall box office revenues plummeted to their lowest ebb in 20 years.

The picture elsewhere is similarly bleak. Cinemas are now closed here, in France, Spain and in Italy, as they have been in the massive market of China for some time.

The Covid-19 crisis is also having a knock-on effect on future productions. The Batman, DC's eagerly awaited reboot of its much-loved and extremely profitable superhero franchise, had begun shooting in Glasgow last month, with Robert Pattinson taking over from Ben Affleck in the lead role. But as worries mounted over Covid-19, production was moved to Liverpool before being halted altogether. A slated release for next summer now looks doubtful.

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Halle Bailey’s name was unknown to many when she was announced to star in The Little Mermaid (Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP, File)

Halle Bailey’s name was unknown to many when she was announced to star in The Little Mermaid (Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP, File)

Halle Bailey’s name was unknown to many when she was announced to star in The Little Mermaid (Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP, File)

Next month, Disney were due to start shooting their live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, already the subject of an absurd and ugly row concerning the casting of a black actress, Halle Bailey, in the lead role. It has now been suspended.

While the human cost of the tragedy is by far the most important aspect of this story, it is also true that the economic fallout could be devastating to the industry. Hollywood movies cost tremendous amounts of money to make and studios are rushing to recoup losses on movies already released. The Invisible Man, Leigh Whannell's excellent reimagining of H.G. Wells' horror story, has performed respectably at the box office, but might have done better had its cinema run not been curtailed by Covid-19. So Universal has pushed forward its streaming release - it will be available to rent or buy online as soon as today.

Other recent releases, like Autumn de Wilde's Emma, will also be streamed well ahead of schedule, while Trolls World Tour, originally due for cinema release on April 10, will be released online on that date instead.

These are piecemeal measures designed to mitigate studio losses. And whenever cinemas do open again, a back-up of stalled movies is set to cause chaos with release schedules, as a glut of films fight for an already dwindled audience. Punters may be reluctant to return to the multiplexes even after their governments tell them it's okay to do so.

Of course, huge conglomerates like Disney and Universal are well-placed to absorb losses and pick up where they left off once the crisis has abated. But for smaller studios and independent producers, a bleaker scenario presents. For them, the current industry paralysis means that backers will drop out and films already started may never be finished at all. It all depends on how long the crisis lasts, and experts are saying that could be many months.

There were already worries among cinema owners and movie studios about the long-term effects of streaming, and the willingness of Netflix and others to bypass the cinema release model altogether. If cinemas now stay closed for months on end, there's a possibility some chains will go out of business and the public may lose the habit.

Meanwhile it's an ill wind, as they say, and Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV, Disney+ and other streaming services will enjoy massive bumps in subscriptions over the coming weeks and months.

And remember, Netflix and others are releasing new movies all the time - Hemsworth's Extraction, for instance, wasn't going to get a cinema release anyway, and will be streamed as scheduled on Netflix from April 24. Netflix and co, then, will be just fine during the lockdown. But whenever the Covid-19 threat does recede, the cinema industry will emerge from its bunker a changed and chastened beast.

Irish Independent