Gone Viral

Jennifer Ehle in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011)

Cannes Film Festival president Pierre Lescure has told the French newspaper Le Figaro that he and his team are not “oblivious” to the threat posed by the global pandemic but that he remains “reasonably optimistic in the hope that the peak of the epidemic will be reached at the end of March and that we will breathe a little better in April.” For the time being, plans for the seventy-third edition, set to run from May 12 through 23, are still on. That may (or may not) change when French President Emmanuel Macron addresses the nation on Thursday evening. In the meantime, festivals all across Europe,Asia, and North America are being canceled or postponed, movie theaters around the world are closing or placing voluntary caps on the number of tickets sold for each screening, and Tom Hanks has announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The impact of decisions being made in the urgent and necessary efforts to limit large public gatherings can cut across several sectors of a local economy, and right now, Exhibit A is Austin, Texas. Nearly a week after the city canceled SXSW, the new issue of the Austin Chronicle takes measure of the knock-on effects. Last year, well over 400,000 attendees from more than a hundred countries pumped an estimated 355.9 million dollars into the Austin economy. This year, SXSW has already laid off fifty people, about a third of its staff, and small businesses such as music venues, theaters, bars, and restaurants that count on a boost in income each spring are scrambling. The Chronicle quotes Maggie Lea, co-owner of the bar and venue Cheer Up Charlies: “This is our whole economy, down to the Porta Potty guy and the tent people and the ice guy . . . We were all depending on this, and we have all worked all year for this week.”

The Chronicle’s Richard Whittaker, Variety’s Brent Lang, and IndieWire’s Eric Kohn have all spoken with filmmakers who have been working for years on projects and were counting on being able to launch their films from SXSW’s high-profile platform. The word “devastated” comes up a lot. But it’s “not just an emotional ordeal,” reports Lang. Many filmmakers have been racing “to cancel Airbnb reservations and to get their flights refunded. Some report that they are out hundreds, even thousands of dollars.” One suspects that the same goes for tens, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of people who were planning to attend the festival.

As Nicole Sperling reports in the New York Times, many of us stuck at home have been driving Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) up the iTunes charts. The NYT’s Wesley Morris recently revisited the film and found that it “hit me squarely in my entertainment cortex, this funny, scary, stylish, soapy, plausible speculation of life during a global outbreak. The appeal now is how it’s proving to be an instructive worst-case scenario of our current freak-out. We’ve turned to it, in part, to know how bad things could get.” Very bad, of course, and “Soderbergh is the right guy to goose the dismay.”

At Slate, Sam Adams has a fascinating conversation with Scott Z. Burns, who wrote the screenplay. Burns argues that the “gravest mistake” we’re making right now—as opposed to the one we made in 2018 when we dismantled the office created in 2014 to oversee a national response to global outbreaks—is “not giving the space and the microphone and all of the support to the public health officials who can help guide us through this . . . I know it is against the law to yell fire in a public movie theater if there is no fire, but it should also be against the law to be yelling ‘calm!’ in a movie theater if it is on fire.”

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