For those who work in the motion-picture industry, the coronavirus must feel like a crisis coming on the heels of an earthquake — a disruption built on a disruption. The toll that it’s about to take on our collective moviegoing habits is already profound. The canceling of film festivals, led by SXSW, was the first sign. (Cannes, holding onto hope by its fingernails, has been rumored to be the next major festival to fall.) And the big new Hollywood films that have seen their spring releases postponed, pushed back to dates that have yet to be determined — “No Time to Die,” “Mulan,” “A Quiet Place Part II,” with the ninth “Fast and Furious” film, “F9,” getting bumped back an entire year — are only the first of many dominoes to fall. Disney, and then Universal, announced this week that it would shut down production on all live-action films, with other studios sure to follow.
Even more significant, perhaps, is the question that looms in the background: Over the next three months, six months, 12 months, how will the essential act of going out to see a movie be affected by the coronavirus?
Movies, of course, are the definition of large groups of people gathering in close quarters. And moviegoing is quickly being diminished and even shut down. (As the weekend box-office grosses indicate, it didn’t take long to enter the diminished stage.) What all this adds up to, in great likelihood, is a collective blow to the engine of the film business that could have a shattering impact on countless jobs and careers, not to mention the basic financial equilibrium of the major studios and the exhibition chains.
All of this has arrived, of course, in tandem with the earthquake that the entertainment industry was already in the middle of: the most convulsive paradigm shift in the consumption and distribution of movies since the invention of the VCR. The history of that ancient, now-quaint technology might suggest that the streaming revolution needn’t be a revolution to fear. Watching movies at home has been the new normal since 1982. Yet this isn’t just about habits; it’s about shifting expectations and game-changing new attitudes. The early days of home-movie viewing, on VHS or HBO, never evolved into the kind of fundamentalist couch-potato ideology that said, “Home viewing is all you need!” And that’s the message, more and more, that’s coming at us today.
Over the last few weeks, there has been an attempt, in a very understandable way, to take one disruption and fit it neatly into the other. The consequences of the streaming revolution — at once cultural and corporate — have been the obsessive focus of Hollywood for over a year; the conversation about it has been an inquiring and often desperate attempt to pin down what the future will be. And I don’t think it trivializes the potentially devastating human consequences of the coronavirus to say that speculation about the course that the pandemic will take has now figured into that dialogue.
The conventional wisdom says: In a society that’s going to be organized, for a while, around social distancing, and where pockets of people will be quarantined (the great unknown being how vast some of those pockets will be), the impulse toward home viewing just got kicked up from a desire into an imperative. And since the question that’s been asked over the last year is, “Do movie theaters have a future? Or is it Netflix’s world and we just live in it?,” the virus now dovetails with the cutting edge of that question. The temptation to view something like the coronavirus in karmic terms may be unfair, but it’s only human; I’m hardly alone in feeling that the pandemic already seems like a cosmic comeuppance to Donald Trump, whose presidency it could help to end. And some members of the entertainment industry may now view it is as the ultimate nudge toward what was already happening: the movement to seeing the home bunker as a replacement for the movie theater. If that change occurs, then history might well record that the coronavirus was the accidental event that crystalized the change.
But I put that scenario out there only to say how much I reject it as inaccurate. I don’t want movie theaters to go away, and for all the doom-saying vogue on this issue I don’t believe, for a moment, that they will. But could the stay-at-home ethos fostered by who knows how many months of the coronavirus, beyond being an obvious boon to streaming services, turn into a preview of the world that’s coming?
I think it could prove to be just the opposite. For a while, the coronavirus is going to take movies away from us — not all movies, but more than a few movies, in the spring and possibly summer (if not beyond). It will take away a number of the films that people most want to see. It’s eerie to look at the updated release calendar and register that there are now no new major Hollywood films scheduled for the second half of March. You could call that an early microcosm of a cinema landscape that is suddenly under siege. For a while, the American movie theater could turn into a very quiet place.
Yet none of this testifies to a waning movie culture. On the contrary, the fact that major films have moved off the calendar, with other high-profile postponements destined to follow, is a testament to how much those films matter. No one is talking about streaming “A Quiet Place Part II” — and that’s a perfect example, since in a horror film where the nuances of sound (and the hushed absence of it) are everything, of course you want to see it in a theater. And of course you want to see “Mulan” in a theater, so that the full force of its girl-power mythology can be something you share with everyone in the audience. And of course you want to see “No Time to Die” and “F9” in a theater, because…well, does anyone need that explained? There are movie experiences that are meant to be large.
For a while, though, we won’t be able to, because this is a time to stay home. Festivals, blockbusters, dramas for adults, that casual night out to see the documentary playing at your local indie theater (if you in fact have one) — a lot of the essential moviegoing impulse is going to be canceled, postponed, suppressed. But that doesn’t mean it’s going away. The coronavirus is not an art crisis — it’s a human crisis, with lives at stake. But if it does wind up not just touching but influencing our relationship to movies, I predict that will happen in a less cataclysmic manner than you might expect. By taking movies away, it can only stoke our desire for them to come roaring back.