When Virus Eyes Are Smiling

Am I Flu? Another Sick in the Wall.

On some level of course, it's unbelievably crass in the middle of an international pandemic to talk about its impact on our little industry.

In one way, it's not crass at all. I mean . . . . It is! Who us? Hollywood? Crass? Perish the thought!

But on the other hand, it's not too much to say that we're in unprecedented territory, and the decisions of the next few weeks could not only determine the future of entertainment but also have a grand seismic impact on the world's economy as a whole.

So let's have a look, shall we?

Had we faced this challenge in 1993, or in 1983, 1953, 1933—or 2013, for that matter—Hollywood would've been perfectly able to shrug this off, absorb the losses, and go on. But this comes at a moment when the future of the industry already hangs in the balance, reeling from one shock after another . . . and at that moment, you throw a plague at it?

As it is, few people could give you anything better than a wild guess as to what this industry will look like in five years. Now, it's an open question of what will be standing in five months.

Just consider the dilemma of Bob the Second enjoying his first week on the job at Disney.

Now that Bond has taken the leap, all eyes are on Disney to see whether it pulls the plug on Mulan, and after that, Black Widow.

For MGM and Eon—with their entire ball of wax riding on the Bond release—the calculation is different. (There have also been suggestions of other factors at play.)

(Aside: It would be interesting to see if MGM used this found time to swap out the dead-fish Billie Eilish theme song with a new, second theme song it could unveil in the fall.)

But for Disney—big integrated, international fly-wheeling conglomerate that it is—one spoke may not be much in itself, but it has the potential to bring the world to its knees.

If Disney were to say, pull Mulan off the calendar, consider the train of questions that would follow.

If Mulan goes, then it has to consider doing the same for Black Widow, following soon, effectively wiping out the first half of Disney's movie year, and all that follows in the wake of that.

For the other studios, every question these days comes down to: What is Disney going to do? if Disney pulled its 50% marketshare off the shelves, it would be tough for Uni to say: What a bunch of old grandmothers! Virus schmirus! Get the kids in the car and come on down to the Wagon Wheel 15 for tonight's show of Fast and Furious 9!"

(Although it would be fun to see someone try that, to see Tom Rothman step into the vacuum and release the new Ghostbusters on 25,000 screens. The only movie in America!)

Realistically, once Disney pulled its films, the other studios would be forced the follow suit. This isn't a question of what is the real health risk, of course. But how great is the public freak-out and panic, justified or no. Once the panic kicks in, it's pretty hard for a studio to say: F- it, come out and see our movies anyway.

But once Disney pulls its films, that's just the beginning: What about the parks, the boats, the stores? It's too dangerous to have movies in the theaters, but you're going to keep them open? How long does this go on until you give the all-clear? Until every last case is treated?

If Disney, the most beloved, trusted family brand on Earth, calls for a time out, what about the rest of the world? Will schools stay open when Disney has effectively proclaimed a public emergency? Supermarkets? Malls?

So effectively, in Bob Chapek's hands, one week on the job, is nothing less than the entire world's economy. If he panics and shuts everything down and it doesn't develop into the black plague, then he's destroyed the world for nothing. If he keeps everything going, and tens of thousands of people end up getting sick at, perhaps, movie theaters, he's put the health of the world at stake for corporate profits.

Welcome to the Iger chair, Bob the Second! Starting to see why Bob I was in such a rush to pass the baton?

Putting aside for a moment the impact on the rest of the world, let’s get back to what matters: how this effects Hollywood. The first thing you have to wonder is, if worst comes to worst, how many movie theaters are still going to be open when the all-clear is sounded? These chains are barely holding on as it is.

This is an example of how when you're on the wrong track, the roads become more narrow and your choices become fewer. For decades now, as entertainment options have exploded, movie theaters have changed little to nothing to hold on to their audiences, giving an ever worse, more expensive experience as the competition increased. And now, here they are.

You can sense the desperation of the theatrical world in the releases from Cinema-Con, reminding the world that the event is still on. Of all the groups that don't want to give in to Corona Mania, NATO must top that list. Their latest plea to come out to the convention is heartbreakingly poignant in its desperation to reassure that a giant Las Vegas casino will be germ and disease-free:

Although the current risk level remains low, NATO and CinemaCon are committed to the health and safety of our guests and have therefore taken additional steps in partnership with Caesars Palace to enhance health and sanitation measures for CinemaCon 2020.

• Extra hand sanitizers will be available throughout Caesars Palace. As well, we will distribute individual hand sanitizer to each attendee.
• Caesars Palace has implemented enhanced cleaning protocols to ensure the health of guests and all of their employees, including servers throughout the property, including guest rooms and the casino. These include hourly sanitation, increased staff in restrooms, and wellness checks and training before each shift.
• CinemaCon is also working closely with Caesars Palace to reduce crowding, especially at food functions. Some examples include moving Tuesday and Wednesday’s lunches to locations with more space for seating and adding servers to distribute food at buffets and beverage stations. Extra napkins will also be provided at food functions. And wherever applicable, individually bagged/wrapped food will replace open/bowls of snacks. Servers will also wear gloves where possible.
• Extra trash bins will be available throughout the center.
• There will be signage throughout the property with health guidance and reminders.
• Caesars also has dedicated on site medical personnel including EMTs that stand ready to assist any guest that is feeling ill for whatever reason.

For anyone wanting to join an Ankler underground meet-up in Vegas, I'm still going, btw. Extra napkins at the buffet were all I needed to hear.

Okay, should it come to canceling a few months of movies, and assuming there are still theater chains left to re-open when the whistle blows, what then do you do with these months worth of movies that were pulled from the calendar? Earlier this week, I posed the possibility that some companies can send them straight to their new streaming services as a boost to them if they can accept the massive write-downs those losses would involve.

But if you're planning to release them down the line: then where? When? How? The calendar for the next year and a half is already booked solid, with Disney having claimed the prime real estate. Bond grabbed a non-optimal weekend in November, in a month already crowded with tentpoles, which was apparently the best they could do. But what do you do with months' worth of movies? Does Disney double up on top of Avatar? Do other companies dare to go against Disney? Do you just release everything in January and August?

As I say, when you're on the road to failure, the road gets narrower, your options become fewer and worse as you go along.

Some have suggested that this disruption will prove a big boom for the services, a fortuitous tragedy akin to when three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell down a well in 1949 and the country raced out to buy their first television sets so they could follow the live reports.

Certainly, it won't hurt. Especially as all the studio pressure is leaning this way already. But given that even without being quarantined and under martial law, the average American household already watches eight hours a day of television, it's not like the entertainment properties of this magic box are unknown to the public.

So the net effect will be to increase the shift from a diminished, but still basically functional, cash-generating business into a new world that no one knows whether it’s sustainable, whether anyone will be able to make a profit, how many of the current studios can survive here, and what the world looks like on the other side.

Some other second degree effects:

In my last issue, I proposed a scenario whereby the studios pre-emptively pull their major releases from theatrical in favor of their just-launching streaming services, in the interest of public health of course.

Some took exception with this scenario, pointing out the giant hole it would blow through the film divisions’ budgets, creating a cash vacuum they’d never recover from; others pointed out the problems compensating the other stakeholders if you took their film out of the theatrical market, and how much more paying them out would add to the price tags for these films.

All excellent points, and I can only respond: where there is a will, there’s a way. Imagine, for instance, if Peacock launched with F9 and Minions? How much would that be worth to the company to give their new service that kind of boost?

This is a little snapshot though, of the struggle to come in the years ahead. For all the lip service of finding the appropriate venue, there can only be one favored child who gets the best, and the other one, however you want to dress it up, gets the leftovers.

Also on the other side of things, how the path of success means you have more and better choices going forward. For Disney, which doesn’t have financial partners on films, these calculations will be that much simpler.

• At this point, forget about a strike. Pre-Corona, The Ankler Strike-o-Meter stood at 20%, reflecting a belief that there was on the writer's side no single clear rallying issue to galvanize sentiment, and little will, particularly after the agency action, for another big disruption, especially on the part of their all-important Brand Name Showrunners. On the studio side, in these early days of the streaming wars, they all need to keep shoveling coal on the fire to keep all their crazy estimates in play. All of which added up to very little chance of a strike, with the caveat that there are hotheads on both sides who could still sow chaos.

Add in Corona and the uncertainty and disruption caused by this, and no one is going to be looking for a labor standoff in the middle of a public health emergency. Perhaps they can work out a 6-month extension and table the showdown until after the all-clear, but as far as a strike happening now, I am hereby downgrading the Strike-o-Meter to a 10% chance.

Throw in the DGA agreement, which came quickly and easily, and we might even downgrade it to 5% next week.

The Death Star is on lockdown! CAA is now banning outsiders from its offices, confining agents to their desks. Which, virus or none, is a perfect metaphor for the state of the industry circa early 2020. I predict they'll like the lockdown so much, they'll make it permanent and all others will attempt to imitate. Who needs to see people when you have PowerPoints, algorithms, and Slack.

• SXSW's prolonged public agonies about whether to cancel as all their participants melt away were getting beyond painful until they surrendered to the inevitable. Just as the tide goes out, it reveals who isn't wearing pants, for entertainers when it comes to whether to cancel your South By presence, you have to first answer the question: Why were we spending a fortune to have this South By presence in the first place? The chance to influence a bunch of bloggers blogging to each other is surely worth something, but a few less road-show boondoggles might not be the worst thing for the business.

One likely casualty of this period might well be much of the hype complex. Once these things written off the budgets, all the things that we do because we’ve always done them/because everyone does them/because it’s what you do…Hollywood might just find it can get by without as many of those.

• Meanwhile, even as the trades continue to take the minute-by-minute pulse of who's canceling what, and feed the sense that anyone who doesn't go into immediate lockdown is putting the survival of the planet on the line, that sense of total emergency is not so strong that they believe it should be allowed to impact their own conference racket. While they chronicle the shut down of theaters, festivals, and launches, the all-important Variety Entertainment Marketing Summit – an event worth risking the public’s health over if ever there was one – is scheduled for March 26 and is staying the course and continues to solicit advertisers, as recently as this morning.

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