The Virus and the Movies

On Film / The Daily — Mar 17, 2020
Jack Palance and Zero Mostel in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950)

Yesterday at Film Comment, James Wham posted an excellent roundup of annotated links to news and further reading, with most of the items relating to the impact of the coronavirus crisis on filmmaking and moviegoing. Highly recommended reading, and what follows is something of a supplement. There’s a lot to process here, from the immediate economic blows through the long-term effects, from ways to distract ourselves through what we might learn from past narratives about global outbreaks.

Numbers That Hurt

As Bryan Adams points out at the Credits, in the U.S. alone, the film and television industries support “some two-and-a-half million jobs across all fifty states, with 892,000 people directly involved in producing, marketing, distributing, and manufacturing films, TV shows, and video content.” At Deadline, Patrick Hipes is maintaining a list of the productions being shut down, and they range from superhero blockbusters through modest projects such as Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter. The film starring Oscar Isaac, Willem Dafoe, Tye Sheridan, and Tiffany Haddish was forced to cease shooting when, as Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. reports, “an actor who’d flown in from Los Angeles for a few scenes tested positive.” Schrader was not happy and took to Facebook: “Production halted five days before wrap by my pussified producers because an LA day player had the coronavirus. Myself, I would have shot through hellfire rain to complete the film. I’m old and asthmatic, what better way to die than on the job?” It’s got to hurt, but for the sake of the cast and crew, there was surely no other choice.

While the studios and independent filmmakers tally their losses, the picture is just as grim on the distribution end. “As it stands now, the global box office has already taken a coronavirus hit of at least seven billion dollars,” figures a team at the Hollywood Reporter. “If the remainder of March, April, and May are included, lost revenue would climb another ten billion, making a total loss of approximately seventeen billion. And if the crisis continues beyond May, all bets are off.” James Wham mentions a few initiatives aimed at easing the pain, such as the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund, and to his list we can add the My Darling Quarantine Short Film Festival, organized by programmers from a wide range of international festivals who will be funneling donations to Doctors Without Borders and cultural institutions affected by the crisis. In Germany, the great art-house distributor Grandfilm is rolling out an online program and splitting the profits with the dozens of independent cinemas it’s been working with over the years.

Between production and distribution, there are those who, as Variety’s Brent Lang writes, “make the business run, from the assistants fielding calls at agencies to the grip hanging lights on a soundstage,” a large number of them living “paycheck to paycheck. Many of these workers don’t have salaried employment. They are part of a gig economy, requiring them to jump from one television or feature film production after another as they hustle to stay ahead of the bills.” Audrey Cleo Yap, also writing for Variety, talks with people working in ancillary service industries—caterers, hospitality professionals, brand ambassadors—facing an uncertain future.

Home Viewing and Closing Windows

It was barely two weeks ago that the first studios announced a decision that, in hindsight, we should have seen as a harbinger of things to come. MGM, Eon, and Universal moved the release date for No Time to Die, their next James Bond movie, from April to Thanksgiving. The producers had their eye on the global market, but as the crisis has since spread across Europe and taken hold in the States, where theaters are closing from coast to coast, the majors are bringing their big releases online: The Invisible Man (Universal), for example, or Frozen 2 (Disney) and Birds of Prey (Warner Brothers). The New York TimesBrooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling and Vulture’s Chris Lee are reading these moves as signs that, even after the crisis passes, the traditional ninety-day window between the theatrical release of a given title and its streaming debut may be closing.

Many of us stuck at home will be looking for movies a little less mainstream, of course, and nearly every film-related publication has been compiling lists of recommendations geared to every taste imaginable. At TheWrap, Alonso Duralde has put together an especially good one for people who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands. “The only way I can suspend dire thoughts about mortality—my own and that of people I love—is by watching movies on my home screens,” writes Amy Taubin at the top of her annotated list for Artforum. At Vulture, Hunter Harris talks with Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name) about how he’s been coping during the lockdown. “I’m planning on watching all the movies of the great Taiwanese director Edward Yang,” he tells her. Meantime, the editors of Film Comment have launched a new series of special editions of their podcast called simply “At Home.”

Other Viruses, Other Movies

Another outstanding podcast, You Must Remember This, has just wrapped a series on the overlap between the film and beauty industries, and yesterday, creator and host Karina Longworth posted a separate “emergency dispatch,” a brief primer on how the pandemic of 1918 affected Hollywood. Stories of biblical plagues and global outbreaks are as old as literature—film historian Thomas Doherty recommends Thucydides’s “harrowing account” of the plague that struck Athens in his History of the Peloponnesian War—but “the perfect prototype for a disaster movie” is Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947), argues J. Hoberman in a terrific piece for the Paris Review. “When not stockpiling toilet paper and keeping their social distance, Americans have been comforting themselves by streaming Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s naturalistic homage to technocratic efficiency in combating an Ebola-like pandemic,” he writes. “The real, if unacknowledged, movie version of The Plague would be Elia Kazan’s atmospheric Panic in the Streets, released . . . during the summer of 1950, one month into the Korean War.”

The movie on Megan Garber’s mind lately has been Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995), a film whose “utter lack of nuance is itself revealing: Its bluntness manages to capture some of the extreme contradictions of this moment—a situation some are treating as an emergency and others are treating as a Monday. Outbreak gets a lot wrong, but it gets one of the broadest things right. It understands that, in America, one of the biggest threats to public health can be American culture itself.” For yet more plague-themed viewing, turn to the Los Angeles Times, where Noel Murray writes about a slew of titles ranging from Lew Landers’s Pacific Liner (1939) through George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and observes that “Hollywood has been preparing us for this moment for decades.”

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