Tom Jolliffe looks at the potential box office fallout in the wake of the coronavirus…
You may have noticed in the news that a virus has swept the globe. Depending on what resources you choose to source your information, it’s either the oncoming biblical plague which will lead to our apocalypse, or it’s just a bit of flu. The reality is nothing like the doomsdayer worst in panicking, nor the very nonchalant blasé attitude of others (worryingly, many politicians in the west it would seem). One thing is very real though, the affect on cinema already. No Time to Die has already been delayed until November. In the case of James Bond, as one of my recent articles argued, it could potentially be to the benefit of the film.
This will not be the case for every film though, nor the industry as a whole. Widespread delays and cancellations will only cause an over-saturation further down the line (with clogged schedules) or potential long term delays of projects due for greenlight, which may now wait until the studio gets out its back log of delayed releases. On the whole, this years blockbuster offerings don’t even have quite the same draw as 2019 offered us. For Marvel, nothing is going to come close to being as unmissable as Avengers: Endgame. Hell, I’m not too big on Marvel. Most I could take or leave, but I almost felt magnetically drawn/obliged to see the last two biggies.
Black Widow, which under normal circumstances would have been sure fire success, doesn’t have nearly the same draw, and not even a lure as close as last year’s first post Avengers offering, Spider-Man: Far From Home. A May 1st release seems destined to fall at a time where the west will be peaking (with the virus numbers), and possibly looking to close down cinemas etc. It happened in China. Despite watching this transpire, and despite all the likelihood of this spreading across a global world (the racists seem to think the worlds openness is recent, as opposed to, you know, thousands of years), the west has seemed to be in re-active mode, rather than having been suitably pre-prepared. Who knows, maybe draconian closures may not happen (even if/when we get a scenario that perhaps they should). Still…as individuals, with internet and Netflix at home, people will actively avoid going to sporting events, concerts and cinemas.
The year on year box office, world wide is likely to fall (and in all honesty even without the virus probably would have). Is cinema prepared? Has it had the contingency in places to cover for these scenarios? Disney are probably the only studio who will likely not get beaten half to death if their summer listings take significant hits below expectations. It’s all worst case of course, but it has been clear that in the big budget game, it’s high stakes, all or nothing. Studios gamble big and go for the billion. Under current circumstances, are we going to see a billion grosser anytime soon?
This is why Blumhouse are proving shrewd in running a business model that works and doesn’t shift, even in the wake of huge box office returns. It runs on a low-moderate budget and tidy return formula. The kind that seems so deceptively simple, and yet very few studios have done this in the blockbuster age. To an extent it’s Cannon, with less bravado and more dramatic skill, and Cannon’s downfall was when they began to overextend themselves (a mistake Jason Blum seems unlikely to make). For years studios have pelted huge money on comic book films, remakes, sequels and more. Even whilst the world has given us a few natural warnings about what may come (as far as a contagion) most have seemed disconcertingly unprepared. Is there the back up for event of significant cinematic drop offs in numbers? It doesn’t seem that way, but we shall see in the next 12 months in the peak and fallout of COVID 19.
The key question too is, will this bring about a significant shift in the tentpole business model? When even discounting the impact of a widespread virus, even Star Wars films can underwhelm financially, there’s enough of a warning that things need to change. If Disney, with seemingly everything major under their wing, gamble big, almost every time, it only takes a house of cards effect to see the cracks form. Even as imperious as they might seem, every behemoth is fallible. Even the Death Star had that small weakness which set off a chain reaction. Yes it came back (twice) but it was never quite the same. If you can actually talk about something real and prescient in a film like Joker, shot for modest money, and still gross an enormous amount, it just makes these $250 million budget films look a little obscene. Escapism is still possible on lower budgets and that way studios aren’t one flop away from potential oblivion. Indeed, what’s also pertinent is the fact that looking at budgets over $150 million say… how many are genuinely good films? Not many of them. Marvel in fairness (without being exceptional cinema persay) does large scale escapism mostly very well, but all those copycats do it, frankly, pretty badly on the whole. Audiences can live without the bad ones and still have plenty of cineplex choice.
What will transpire over the next few months is going to be interesting. Potentially the option of shifting films out into PPV alongside their cinema releases could potentially offset lower theatrical numbers, as long as they have suitable prevention in place for piracy. Ultimately though, significant numbers of prospective audiences are going to be staying at home. However the big guns choose to cope, I wouldn’t doubt that Disney will come through largely unscathed, and as far as potential options to keep some numbers up, possibly involving the home market (earlier than expected), be ahead of the curve.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.