The global COVID-19 lockdown may have struck down this year’s international box office, but it has led to new opportunities for classic movie catalogues and, of course, streamers, according to film distribution execs taking part in a Cannes virtual market conference on Wednesday.
While cinemas in mainland China remain shuttered for the foreseeable future, they have stayed open in Taiwan, where the pandemic has been much less severe, and reopened in Hong Kong, where they had been closed for some six weeks.
Commenting on the Taiwanese box office, Jeffrey Chan, exec VP of China’s Bona Film Group said the lack of major international titles had created opportunities for older and beloved classic films.
A restored edition of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 classic “The Last Emperor” has been the highest grossing film in the past four weeks in Taiwan, Chan noted, adding that the film had at once been the highest grossing foreign film in Taiwan’s history.
Studiocanal CEO Anna Marsh added that in France, where cinemas reopened this week after a three-month closure, the company was likewise releasing older catalogue titles, such as David Lynch’s 1980 classic “The Elephant Man” — currently out on 60 screens across the country — in addition to some new domestic films.
The audience for catalogue films are not just older viewers, Marsh pointed out, but also younger viewers “who find it quite cool and maybe even quite retro to discover some of these older titles.”
She added, “We definitely have put a lot more effort than we usually would have in pushing and programming ‘The Elephant Man’.”
Organized by European-Chinese association Bridging the Dragon and hosted by Variety Asia editor Patrick Frater, the conference also featured Jerry Ye, chairman of Huaying Tianxia, the distribution unit of Huayi Brothers Media, who offered a sobering forecast for cinemas in mainland China, where they have remained closed since January.
It is a bad situation for Chinese theaters and moviegoers, Ye said, describing it as “as a tragedy” for China’s film business. “We have no timetable for the reopening of theaters yet,” he added “I have no idea. It’s difficult.”
While the execs agreed that a mix of content was ideal for getting viewers back into theaters, highly anticipated Hollywood titles like Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and Disney’s “Mulan” may roll out well before China’s theaters reopen.
The lockdown’s lasting impact is accelerating the growth and significance of streaming services, Ye added. “The trends are clear. I think it’s a big change now with the crisis. Online will be the future. Online platforms and high-quality content will be the future. … Everything is changing, especially for the distributors. They will get used to the change quickly. … It’s a new stage. It’s a new world.”
On the prospect of consolidation in the film distribution business as a result of the crisis, Marsh said it was a distinct and lamentable possibility.
“I certainly hope not, but one has to be realistic during a crisis and sometimes during a crisis there are certainly opportunities for some and difficulties for others. It’s very sad. As a producer and distributor, we definitely have a responsibility, more than ever, to operate together. It’s strength in numbers. We have to be there to help us all through this crisis.”