On Monday, Sony Pictures Entertainment hosted a raucous premiere for “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” a superhero adventure widely expected to generate a new COVID-era record opening weekend. The red carpet outside Westwood’s Regency Village theater — where industry elites and A-listers gathered after showing proof of full vaccination and a negative PCR test to watch Peter Parker save the world — was filled with fans, journalists and social media influencers all vying to get a look at stars Tom Holland and Zendaya. Many people in the crowd were screaming and unmasked.
Days later, word began circulating that a top agent at one of the major talent agencies had tested positive for COVID-19 after attending both the premiere and Holland’s more selective after party for about 75 people off Sunset. It fell to Holland’s team to notify people about the outbreak. The potential exposure to the highly contagious virus and its latest variant, Omicron, shows how rapidly the public health situation in the U.S. has devolved in recent days. It’s a dramatic turn of events that has imperiled the entertainment industry’s tenuous recovery efforts.
Although it’s not yet known what percentage of the surge the Omicron variant represents, health officials are hoping the variant causes less severe disease than the Delta variant. But the spike in cases is alarming and sobering. Hospitalizations due to COVID have increased 20% in the past two weeks, according to the New York Times.
Social life in Hollywood had all but fully resumed in recent months with cocktail parties for awards voters, splashy film premieres and power lunches five days a week. But things are changing rapidly as one agency and studio after another discovers breakthrough cases of COVID within its ranks.
“Last week, I would have said ‘yes’ to a full office Christmas party or a lunch or dinner,” said one indie film publicist. “In the last 24 hours, everything changed. I woke up this Thursday and cancelled everything.”
The sudden shift in conditions has cast doubt on the viability of upcoming in-person events such as the Critics Choice Awards, the Sundance Film Festival and premieres for major movies. Already, several Broadway shows have cancelled performances or gone on hiatus after members of their company tested positive for the virus, and several prominent restaurants in New York closed after staff were exposed. This week, CBS’s hit sitcom “Ghosts” halted production until 2022 after there was a COVID case on set, and Netflix’s “The Crown” wrapped early for the holidays amidst rising cases of the virus. And it’s not just the entertainment sector where things are shutting down or getting delayed at a dizzying clip. A planned showdown between the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams was pushed to next Tuesday after a reported mass COVID exposure.
Also in recent days, rumblings about two unvaccinated actresses have grown louder and more concerning — one up for Oscar contention in a prominent indie, the other the headliner of a December tentpole. The women continue to engage in publicity for their respective projects, some in person, which has alarmed the publicists and actors who are working the circuit alongside them.
For now, companies are moving forward with plans to attend Sundance, which resumes in-person events in Park City, Utah on Jan. 20 after going virtual in 2021. But they are contemplating reducing the number of staff they send and privately acknowledge that many stars may not feel safe making the trek up the mountain in the middle of a surge of COVID.
Some major events are plunging ahead while others are taking a wait-and-see approach. Warner Bros. will move forward with its San Francisco premiere tomorrow for “The Matrix Resurrections,” but attendees must provide both proof of vaccination and a negative test. On the tech front, CES 2022 is still a go for an in-person return to Las Vegas from Jan. 5-8. CTA, the trade group that produces the event, decided earlier this year that all attendees must have proof of COVID-19 vaccination and says it’s actively tracking the new Omicron variant and following the guidance of health authorities. CTA expects attendance to be down as much as 50% from previous levels (CES 2020 drew 170,000 attendees).
“The safety of our participants and partners is a top priority,” a CTA rep said. “While it is too early to determine the impact of [the Omicron] variant, we will continue to monitor and adjust our plans and health protocols as necessary.”
The Critics Choice Awards, which is being held at the Fairmont Hotel on Jan. 9 in Los Angeles, is moving forward with plans, although some awards watchers think the event may be revamped as an outdoor show. The Hollywood Critics Association, which is hosting its own show on Jan. 8 says it plans to have its party as planned…for now.
“In addition to following all state and local guidelines, will be requiring a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the event AND proof of full vaccination. If conditions demand it, we are fully prepared to take an alternative route to protect the health and safety of our guests and members,” said HCA Co-Founders Scott and Ashley Menzel.
The situation in the U.S. may have seemingly changed overnight, but other countries around the world have been dealing with a dramatic rise in COVID cases in recent weeks. In the U.K., Boris Johnson’s government appears loathe to enforce lockdown restrictions before Christmas despite the Omicron variant pushing the daily COVID caseload to new pandemic records. On Thursday, more than 88,376 coronavirus cases were confirmed, with over 11,000 cases of Omicron so far identified.
Yet without official government guidance asking businesses to close, cinemas remain open and, as was the case throughout much of the pandemic, production can also continue under COVID protocols.
Phil Clapp, head of the U.K. Cinema Association, tells Variety that, despite the apparent pervasiveness of the Omicron strain, “No one is thinking that future announcements from any U.K. government will require the closure of cinemas.”
But signs of Omicron’s spread and its impact on the industry are increasingly being felt — most acutely in the West End, where headline shows like the Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley-starring “Cabaret” have had to cancel performances as a result of COVID cases in the company. What’s promising, however, is that theaters are largely canceling select performances or a week or two of shows, rather than shutting down productions entirely.
Elsewhere, most holiday parties that fell this side of Dec. 10, including Discovery’s lavish Christmas drinks event on Dec. 15, were called off in short order, with few companies willing to risk becoming a super-spreader event.
John McVay, the boss of powerful producers’ trade org Pact, bemoaned having to put away his “midnight blue tuxedo” for the group’s glitzy 30th anniversary gala, which was originally planned for July, then pushed to mid-December, and now postponed to June.
The Scottish executive, a vocal spokesperson for the production community, says that although productions like Netflix’s “The Crown” have had to wrap early ahead of the holidays, film and TV production hasn’t felt the pain of Omicron for the most part. This is largely because production slows down during the winter months anyway, and because the industry-leading COVID protocols are still “maintaining high levels of safety on production.”
“Because everyone has so much experience of suspensions and restarts, people are being smart about how they manage things,” says McVay. “It’s not like it was in the beginning when people didn’t know what they were doing. This is the normal way of business now, sadly.”
McVay says a wave during winter doesn’t create as many headaches in the U.K. because it isn’t peak production time. “By the time we get to spring, it will be more manageable because that’s really when production kicks off again.”
The squeeze, however, will be on insurance. The U.K. acted quickly to get a government-backed indemnity fund to cover COVID-impacted productions that’s been extended a number of times, most recently from October 2021 to April 2022. However, McVay points out that as new variants emerge and wreak havoc, the concern is that commercial insurers may hesitate to come back and support productions going forward.
In New York and Los Angeles, everyone it seemed knew of at least one person in their immediate circle who had tested positive or were showing signs of COVID. Many of the people who were sick had been vaccinated or boosted, which exacerbated the anxiety.
But there were hopeful signs that the general public isn’t as fearful or is at least learning to live through our new pandemic norm. On Thursday, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” shattered records for a pandemic release, opening to $50 million in previews. Only “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Avengers: Endgame” have fared better.
“It’s younger kids and men,” said one exhibition industry executive. “They’re just not scared of getting COVID. They want to go out and have a good time.”
Jazz Tangcay and Todd Spangler contributed to this report.