Into the COVIDeodrome
Am I Flu? Another Sick in the Wall; Through Sick and Thin;
When I launched this journal, a little over two years ago, I thought my weeks would be made of summoning humdrum, workaday outrage about things like: "How can they say this movie is going to open at $45 million? Clearly it'll be lucky to do $30 million!" and "Why did Peter Rice's parking space get moved three slots closer to the front door?"
Things like that.
Instead, weeks after I launched, the Me Too moment happened, and Hollywood's long-overdue reckoning for some of its more extravagant monstrosities, washed over the industry.
At the same time, the Streaming War transformed itself from a sideshow to the titanic showdown for the entire future of entertainment, under the weight of which entire studios would be wiped off the earth, and somewhere down the line, some new order would emerge.
As I've watched Hollywood absorb these shock waves, I naively expected at each turn that the industry would take stock, recalibrate, and emerge stronger, better, more forward-looking, more inclusive, and better prepared for the new day. Instead, each jolt has shot through the system and never stopped shooting, and Hollywood, two years later, has been staggering around in a sort of walking nervous breakdown.
Now, in that condition, we get the news that an asteroid is coming and it’s aimed right at us.
It's been an interesting time to be observing this industry, I'll say that for it.
Requisite disclaimer: I am not suggesting that Hollywood will be the greatest victim of this. We're just talking about finance and livelihoods here, not life and death.
But all that said, as business goes, we are uniquely positioned for devastation beyond anything we've experienced, at the moment when we can least afford it.
Or to look at it another way: For the past few years a lot of media savants and the weight of the tech-enamored finance community have said that the theatrical business is an outdated, fading model, doomed to be swept away soon enough, and that any studio that wanted to be part of the future should push theatrical aside, go all in on streaming and just get on with it.
Now we'll get to test out how well that theory works.
On the positive: The world is going to be needing entertainment, and particularly the entertainment that we produce, more than ever. They are just going to be ingesting that in a different way—and at a different price—than we're used to. So something will remain at the bottom of all this, it's just getting from here to there, and seeing who is strong enough to make that journey that will be tricky.
Some data points from the Covid-eodrome:
• After Mulan, and the parks closure, not to mention the cruise ships, shutting down production and whatever giant hit consumer products must be facing, Disney grabbed a silver lining where they could find it, and announced they were putting Frozen 2 up on + three months ahead of schedule.
• No one has yet grabbed for the scenario I floated a week ago—that the corporate overlords would take this as an opportunity to kill the window and shift the entire corporate weight to streaming by putting their big movies for this year straight up on their services. As of this writing, that still seems like it would be a crazy, self-defeating step. But this long, dark night is young. The need for some sort of boost to the bottom line is going to get a lot greater before we're done, and a lot of things that seem bonkers now are going to be seen as common sense before we're through.
• With events having unfolded, the abrupt Bob-xit certainly looks ever more eyebrow-raising. A kind spin would be that he was exhausted by the day-to-day duties and thought a fresh leader, particularly one of a logistical bent, could handle this better than he could at this point. But still, it's hard to imagine, knowing all the secrets of the Universe that a Disney chief has access to, that he didn't know this was coming.
• That said, has there ever been a major corporate CEO who has been handed a harder first month on the job than Bob Chapek has? We should all say a prayer for him tonight, because much of this industry rests on him being able to see Disney through this in one piece.
• One more point, I made when I spoke to Vulture for this excellent Mulan piece by Chris Lee: Imagine if this had happened one year or so earlier, say just before the opening of Endgame? If it hadn’t come during what was going to be Disney’s relatively lean year by its standards, but at the top of it’s world-devouring, year of total domination. Imagine if they’d had to call that off.
• How much of a chump must Gavin Newsom feel like? Having given that ridiculous press conference where he announced that Disneyland of all places was being exempted from crowd restrictions, only to have the rug pulled out from under him three hours later when Disney announced they were closing. Let this be a lesson to folks that this situation is changing by the hour and be careful thinking you've found a safe rock that will let you stand above the tide.
• The mind boggles at the amount of dislocation this will bring about. Does the whole release calendar just move back six months? All these productions that are being shut down, how do you rebook everyone's calendar to fit everything? Will Disney be able to bigfoot everyone out of the way, and just step on previously announced openings on the calendar and make competitors move?
• As for theatrical, how do we begin to think about when will be optimum release time again? After all we're going to go through, how serious we're going to see this virus is, just because a muted all-clear is sounded doesn't mean the world is going to be in any hurry to sit in a dark auditorium full of strangers. This virus will likely recur in waves after the initial one passes. How long until people feel comfortable with there again?
• Again, with the average American going to the movies something like once every year and a half before this, it's not like the absence of moviegoing will leave a big hole in people's lives that they are going to be desperate to fill.
• One still gets the sense that there's a moderate amount of denial about how bad this is going to be. When this weekend's box office totals zero million dollars, combined, that should focus the mind a bit.
• Then again, it's had to say that this weekend's box office would have ever been much above zero million.
Which sort of encapsulates why this hole is going to be so hard to dig out of.
• How do we begin to estimate how big this hit will be? THR took a stab at it and went with $20 billion, which seems more of an opening bid than a full accounting. But taking that number as a starting point, at current valuations, that's the equivalent of two Viacoms, or 20 Lionsgates that we'll lose. That's if everything goes back to normal by the end of May and the summer can be saved. Which I would call a pretty enormous if right now. How many of the studios are in a position to ride out their share of that and keep the lights on?
• The streamers may be best positioned not to be hurt, but a global recession is going to shrink the potential subscriber base at a moment when they need every viewer on the planet.
• As far as the great conversion to the streaming model goes, it's not so much a question of whether there is a real business to be had in streaming, it's whether in the mad, overheated hunt to "win" the streaming wars, the players got so overextended that there's no longer any model that can support the place we're in. In sum, did they go into debt for a million dollars in the race to win a hundred dollars? Building a sustainable business around the amount of money that's actually there will require some kind of dramatic restructuring, ie. a bunch of companies going out of business.
• If some of the studios cry uncle and put themselves up for a fire sale, who will be the buyers? Apple and Amazon remain the likely suspects, but would they want to take on a studio just yet?
For a library? Maybe. Taking on a legacy studio infrastructure? Less likely. Plus, be careful what you wish for. Look at what Amazon has done to Whole Foods in less than three years: It’s destroyed what had been a pretty good workplace culture. Just yesterday, when even Comcast was removing excess fees and data caps, Amazon encouraged Whole Foods employees who were healthy to donate their sick days to fellow workers who were sick. As opposed to, you know, the world's richest man extending sick leave to all employees. The stores suffered from shortages well before the current hoarding panic shopping, and what had been perhaps the gold standard for a grocery store shopping experience has been converted into a warehouse of professional shoppers fulfilling deliveries and any actual customers in the stores are treated somewhere between being an afterthought and in the way. Now translate that to what would happen at Sony, Lionsgate, or Paramount under King of Hollywood, Louie B. Bezos.
• The superstitious among us might wonder whether it was a moment of hubris on the part of Bob Greenblatt himself that brought the wrath of the gods down upon us. An Ankler friend noticed this item on Deadline:
Finally, a note after a somber issue. I've been very proud during these two years to get to meet and talk to so many in the Ankler community who have lent me their time, wisdom, and expertise. You are the brightest, most impressive people in an industry that is the heart of the entire world. We may not be the biggest business on the planet, but we're the community which, at our best, gives the world some joy in their lives. Some very bad days are ahead, but if the heart of the world is to beat on, we need you all safe and healthy. Please take this threat seriously. Save your crazy chances for what you accomplish on screen. Be careful. And wash your hands! Constantly!
Readers may notice that this has been a rare, almost invective-free episode of the Ankler. Desperate times, you know. But it will take a bigger virus than this to wipe the sneer off our face. Throughout the days ahead, we'll be here for you trying to make sense of where we all are now. Our normally topsy-turvy production schedule might get even a little more topsy as we deal with the fallout on this end, so please bear with us. But we'll be back to see you through, with ever high dudgeon, even more name calling, finger pointing, and ever lower blows. Ultimately, these times demand nothing less.
Please drop me a line and let me know how your Hollywood is looking during the coming diaspora. I'd love to hear from you at email@example.com. Be safe and wash those hands!
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