Autumn de Wilde, the director of Focus Featres’ “Emma,” flew home to Los Angeles on Thursday night after a London work trip and began a 15-day self-quarantine at a friend’s bungalow. Though not usually a nervous flier nor a germaphobe, de Wilde said she’d had a “stressful” flight because of her anxiety about coronavirus. “I was definitely feeling like the invisible enemy was getting to me,” she told Variety on Friday.
Before nearly every movie theater in the U.S. closed, “Emma” was doing quite well at the box office. De Wilde’s adaptation of the 1815 Jane Austen novel had a limited release over the weekend of Feb. 21, then expanded the next two weekends, making more than $10 million domestically and $15 million internationally.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic caused box office to crater, and movie theaters across the country — and the world — closed.
On Monday, “Emma” was among the group of films Universal Pictures — Focus’ parent company — hastened to video-on-demand services beginning Friday, which included recent theatrical releases “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt” and “Trolls World Tour,” which will skip theaters entirely. They’ll all be available to rent for $19.99 for 48 hours.
After the Universal announcement, a cascade of films will be rushed to digital services, including the Ben Affleck drama “The Way Back,” Pixar’s “Onward,” and Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog.” If the coronavirus is changing every aspect of most Americans’ lives, it is also causing a massive — and possibly lasting — shift in movie distribution and consumption.
De Wilde had been gratified by how well “Emma” was doing theatrically. She said, “Of course, I would have loved to have seen how it was going to do.”
But even before the Universal/Focus decision had been made, she was seeing tweets from people who wanted to see “Emma” at home. The film, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, is clever and colorfully stylized, with a screenplay adapted by the Man Booker prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton. It’s cozy as hell — and perhaps a medicinal balm for anxiety. “They were all writing to me, begging me,” de Wilde said, quoting the tweets. “‘Please ask them to release it on demand! All I want to do when I’m stuck in my house is watch ‘Emma!’’”
As people’s fears about going to theaters increased, de Wilde screenshotted the tweets and shared them with executives at Focus and at Working Title, which produced the film. “There’s someone who’s seen it seven times already in the theater, and wanted to see it again,” de Wilde said. “A lot of the people asking had seen it three times in the theater — and it just was so amazing to have that support.”
When Focus called de Wilde to say that yes, “Emma” was going to move to VOD on March 20, which usually would have taken months, she was glad. “I’m not thinking in terms of like, ‘Oh my movie got interrupted.’ I’m thinking, this is amazing! If I could even help those people with something I’ve made, that feels wonderful.”
In the new VOD paradigm, studios may start to report rental numbers, which have never been monitored in the same way box office grosses are. But VOD presents a complicated additive problem that has no tracking ahead of time, and would involve the studio going to each individual company — DirecTV, Apple, Amazon, and many more — in order to compile results.
Whether every acclimatization to these new economics will further imperil the future of movie theaters, only time will tell.
“I think that we all want theaters to survive this, too — really badly. And I’m committed to that,” de Wilde said. “But right now, we can’t do anything about that, unfortunately. Or my friends’ restaurants or shops — all these things that are affected.”
“There’s a part of me that could imagine people just not wanting to be at home anymore after forced isolation, and being desperate to go to a movie theater,” she added.
Though de Wilde was already a successful photographer and director of commercials and music videos, “Emma” was the 49-year-old’s feature film debut. She is part of the surge of women directors that began last year, and was to continue this year with an unprecedented number of movies directed by women. But the releases of movies like Niki Caro’s “Mulan” and Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow” have already been pushed, throwing this wave — along with everything else, of course — into question. As for de Wilde, she has some “potential projects” she’s considering, but “nothing’s confirmed,” she said.
“It was very exciting for this movie to come out and have people interested in talking to me about ideas. I wasn’t in a rush to commit to one of them, because there was a long period of my career where I felt often overlooked,” she said. “And I’ve had some amazing experiences in my career — and a lot of times when I couldn’t pay my bills, mostly when I was a single mom. So it’s very exciting.”
De Wilde said she made “Emma” as a cure for what she called her “Trump depression.” And now she hopes audiences benefit from its palliative powers. “I’ve always really valued escape — things that transport you and take your mind off of something,” de Wilde said. “There’s a lot of fun made of romantic comedies, but I think that it is a really healing place for people.”