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How the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Changed the Movie Industry (Possibly Forever)

From theatrical turf wars over PVOD to new on-set safety standards, things are going to be different for a while

Amanda Bell

For all the talk about "reopening America" amid the continued spread of COVID-19, we still have no clear idea of how long safety shutdowns and social distancing measures will continue to affect certain industries, including Hollywood. For several weeks, the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus has left film and television productions in limbo and forced several movie studios to push back their premiere plans.

The fiscal impact of the public health crisis on Hollywood has been clear since the World Health Organization's declaration of a global pandemic in mid-March, with the box office taking a nosedive and theaters and other entertainment attractions across the country closing. Since then, the entertainment world has made some key adjustments to account for the drastic changes in society and the economy, and some of those new developments may just be here to stay.

On-demand and streaming services have even more influence. With theaters across the country closed indefinitely, many studios have been taking their titles to on-demand and streaming services, where they've had some significant success. Trolls World Tour, for example, nixed a planned theatrical release in favor of streaming and raked in a reported $100 million its first three weeks. Other titles like The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma have also been solid earners for Universal through digital rentals.

Meanwhile, Disney has been fast-tracking the addition of key titles to its own Disney+ in the wake of the pandemic, making movies like Frozen II, Onward, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalkeravailable to stream earlier than originally planned. Disney also retooled its release plans for Artemis Fowl to go straight to streaming. Other studios are beginning to follow suit. Sony Pictures' Seth Rogen-led comedy An American Pickle, for example, will debut on HBO Max instead of in theaters.

Movies Hitting On-Demand Early Due to Coronavirus: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, An American Pickle, and More

Major tensions are brewing between theater chains and studios. If and when more theaters reopen, it's unclear whether studios will continue to push more of their premier offerings to on-demand releases. But at least one major studio has indicated that it will release in both cinemas and PVOD in the future.

Following the success of Trolls World Tour's digital release, Universal's film chief Jeff Shell issued a statement about what it might mean for the future. "As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats," Shell said. This statement was immediately rebuked by AMC Theaters' Adam Aron, who sent an open letter to Universal's Donna Langley condemning Shell's words and vowing, "Going forward, AMC will not license any Universal movies in any of our 1,000 theaters globally on these terms."

If AMC's declaration seemed hollow -- especially since Universal has some major blockbusters in the pipeline, including Fast and Furious 9 and Jurassic World 3, and AMC is already in dire straits -- the company was soon backed up by other corners of the industry. The National Association of Theatre Owners issued its own statement, which it insisted was not made in coordination with AMC, condemning Shell's suggestion and insisting that Trolls World Tour's on-demand success "should not be interpreted as a sign of a 'new normal' for Hollywood."

Later, Regal Entertainment owner Cineworld slammed Universal for choosing to violate the theatrical release window, calling it "completely inappropriate." Cineworld also insisted they will "not be showing movies that fail to respect [release] windows as it does not make any economic sense." Universal responded to clarify that it only intends to use on-demand releases "when that distribution outlet makes sense."

Whether that nebulous qualifier will lessen the blow for these theater chains remains to be seen. On Thursday's investor call, Shell reportedly said that once the pandemic is over, he expects filmgoers to "return to the theaters" and that theatrical releases will "be a central element" to Universal's business. He also added that "PVOD is going to be a part of that in some way. It's not a replacement." The change in tone has led some in the industry to believe tensions are abating. We'll have to wait to see whether the theatrical chains follow through on their threats and how other movie studios address the prospect of PVOD options in the post-pandemic future. It's going to be tough to fit this genie back in the bottle.

Drive-in movie theater

Drive-in movie theater

Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire

Drive-in theaters are making a comeback. While in-house theaters are struggling, the few remaining drive-in theaters -- at least those that have been allowed to remain open -- have seen increases in their business. Idaho's Motor Vu, for example, had so many people show up to its reopening that it had to turn away potential customers, and Austin's Blue Starlite has become a small hotspot for revisiting old films.

Outside the U.S., Ontario's Parma Motor-Vu saw turnout increases, and similar stories are coming through from areas like Germany and South Korea. What's perhaps even more interesting is that a wave of new drive-in theaters has begun to crop up in states like Michigan and Arizona, and even some restaurants have begun to repurpose their parking lots to provide theatrical entertainment. The stories are anecdotal so far, but they could eventually lead to a trend. Drive-in theaters might have seemed like a relic before, with just a few hundred open in the U.S., but now they're officially relevant again. It's very possible that the unique charms of this experience might not be quickly forgotten.

Awards season rules are already starting to change. The long-running debate about whether streaming-only films should be allowed to compete in the Academy Awards is far from over. Big names in the film industry -- including Steven Spielberg -- have in the past challenged any rule change that would allow Netflix Originals to bypass theaters and still be eligible for Best Picture. But for one year, at least, the Oscars categories will look very different.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that for the 2021 Oscars, movies that went straight to on-demand services will be considered for competition, so long as they had a "previously planned theatrical release." The Academy insists that this is a one-time deal and that their support for the cinematic release requirement is "unchanged and unwavering," but arguments that this should be a permanent fix are, predictably, already starting to pop up. The Academy has been stridently opposed to streaming-only submissions in the past, but by making even a targeted exception like this one, they may be opening a floodgate in the conversation about what kinds of films should be allowed to the party in the future.

Film set safety is essential. Hollywood may never get back to "business as usual" as it was before. One of the biggest changes that could emerge from the coronavirus pandemic may be an emphasis on on-set safety measures. In Los Angeles, the local government has commissioned a task force to evaluate the safety protocols of film sets and institute best practices for productions going forward, and entertainment companies have been independently mapping out what protective measures and gear they'll need to adopt in order to safely reopen studios.

As stated by the International Cinematographers Guild, the responsibility will inevitably be on Hollywood employers to provide new safety standards that meet this public crisis. Right now, Steven Soderbergh is leading the Director's Guild of America's task force to help determine when work on films can safely resume, and chief among the considerations is what precautions might be put into place, like isolated housing for cast and crew, personal protective gear for everyone on set, and medical screenings. If and when cameras do start to roll, it's clear the new normal will be remarkably different, at least for the foreseeable future.