At the beginning of the week, I was hopeful that the spreading coronavirus situation would not lead to social meltdown, that the cancellation of SXSW would be the worst side-effect we saw. I was so young then, so naïve. Social meltdown is here, and the parade of coronavirus-related cancellations continues. The latest cancellations include but are not limited to:
• Disneyland and Universal Studios are closing (in fact, all Disney parks are closed, this is a big week for Bob 2).
• The NCAA March Madness tournaments are cancelled.
• A Quiet Place II is indefinitely postponed.
• Mulan is also indefinitely postponed.
Also postponed with Mulan is The New Mutants, which has now been delayed five times since its original scheduled release in 2018. Just Tuesday I was talking to a source that was adamant Disney would not change their release dates, but this week has been CRAZY, and especially the last 36 hours have been A LOT. At this point, every major release between now and May 1 has been postponed, except for Trolls: World Tour, and that’s probably because they can’t get Justin Timberlake to shut up long enough to inform him that the movie has been delayed.
A recurring question this week is whether or not any studios will simply shift their release strategy and drop a movie on streaming instead of in theaters. While I would not be surprised if Disney just dumps The New Mutants on Disney+ at this point, in general, that is not a strategy that behooves the studios. Streaming revenues cannot touch what a blockbuster can make in theaters. A movie like Mulan, for instance, that cost at least $200 million to make (and another $100 million to market), is a potential billion-dollar earner. Ditto for F9 and Black Widow, should Disney move that one, too. No one is making that kind of money off streaming, let alone making that kind of money twice in a row, as Disney could with the Mulan-Black Widow double-header. It’s better to wait for things to settle down and then proceed with theatrical release.
So far, Marvel is sticking on May 1 for Black Widow, but it seems ever more likely that, too, will move, which is kind of stunning given how stalwart Marvel has been all decade. But they are facing challenges all over the place, from the dicey theatrical market to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s completely f-cked production schedule—they are now on their second delay, following a previous disruption after the Puerto Rico earthquake earlier this year. I am now wondering if that series is ready for its projected August release on Disney+. The entire Marvel release strategy for the next couple of years might have to change now.
The problem, though, is that there might not be theaters to release movies. If theaters have to close—which seems more and more likely as state and local governments crack down on public gathering—many simply won’t reopen. I’ve been saying it all week: this is not a healthy industry. Despite headlines about record-breaking box office revenue and individual success stories, movie theaters in North America are not doing too well. An industry shutdown could force many of them out of business. And that’s the source of my coronavirus panic. I’m not worried about getting sick, I’m worried about the long-term economic effect of social meltdown. I’m worried about the small businesses that won’t recover from weeks of depressed, or even non-existent, sales; I’m worried about the destruction of creative industries that already exist on razor-thin margins; and I’m worried about the wage workers losing shifts and opportunities.
Of course, all of that isn’t the most important part of the coronavirus story, but the potential for the entertainment industry as we know it to be irrevocably changed by this outbreak is high. As it stands, the rest of the year is going to be a car crash of f-cked up releases that goes into 2021. And the question of whether or not streaming at home can truly replace the theatrical release market looms large over everything. More likely than someone dumping a high-profile movie on streaming is some studio giving premium on demand another shot and attempting to rent a blockbuster to folks at home for $40-50. Going into this decade, I thought we had up to five years to figure out the future of streaming and theatrical and consumer habits that continue to shift away from traditional theatrical release. Now I’m not sure we have five months. The social meltdown will pass, but the effects will be with us a for long time.