LOS ANGELES,: The new James Bond movie delayed. Studios scrapping film festivals. Blockbuster productions shut down. Hollywood is being rocked by the unprecedented challenge of the new coronavirus, insiders revealed this week.
"I have never seen anything where this many films are going to be affected all at once," said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "There are isolated incidents or tragedies that happen that might affect a certain film. But this really does infect all the industry from top to bottom."
Industry estimates put the financial loss from Asian theatres already shuttered this year around $2 billion. Major Hollywood titles including Mulan, Disney's China-set live-action blockbuster, have been placed on hold in China. The last-minute global delay of 007 adventure No Time To Die, including its US and European releases, highlights the borderless impact of the virus.
For now, US theatre attendances are holding steady despite fears of spreading infection and Mulan remains penned in for launch this month in North America. But new coronavirus outbreaks in California and New York, and multiple deaths in Washington state, could impact receipts. "We'll see a little bit of downturn this week, by the time Mulan comes out. If this breaks as big as it did in China, it's going to change the entire landscape," said Bock.
Meanwhile, massive buyers including Netflix, Amazon and Apple have pulled out of the SXSW festival in Texas - an important marketplace for films. But the impact will not be restricted to major studios. Stephen Nemeth, who produced Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) starring Jonny Depp, has another Hunter S Thompson-themed film set to make its world premiere at the Austin festival. "We are forging ahead," he said. "We have a 1,100 seat theatre... that's a lot of seats to fill if there's only 25% capacity at the festival."
More than 50,000 people have signed an online petition calling for SXSW to be cancelled. While organisers insist it is still going ahead, reports of further high-profile dropouts including Warner Bros and CNN have sown doubts.
"I'm not anticipating a buyer because I think the buyers will be few and far between," said Nemeth, who thinks his film Freak Power is now more likely to sell via private screenings back in Hollywood. "I'm not certain that SXSW is still gonna happen," he added.
Other film gatherings, including CinemaCon in Las Vegas and the Cannes Film Festival, are under scrutiny.
Production has also been hit. A scheduled three-week shoot for the new Tom Cruise-starring Mission Impossible in Italy - one of the worst-affected countries - was stopped last month. Paramount moved the filming out of "an abundance of caution for the safety and well-being of our cast and crew."
Netflix is looking for alternative locations to shoot a part of new Dwayne Johnson’s Red Notice that had been due to film in Italy. "What it's doing is testing location managers on being super nimble problem solvers," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior Comscore analyst, pointing out that production workers "are a tenacious and inventive bunch."
But the logistics of filming anywhere - especially productions that require hundreds of actors and extras - make it appear a risky proposition right now, said Nemeth. "I do not begrudge actors for not wanting to continue with a film," he said. "Every film is its own little village. Those are people all dining together, waiting in the same line at the same lunch truck. You have many, many, many people in a confined area."
Any blockage in the relentless pipeline of film production could leave a dearth of films further ahead. "The longer that goes on, the fewer films that we get in the pipeline for 2021, 2022," said Bock. "This has the potential to really cripple the theatrical industry the longer it goes on."