Amazon bailed on SXSW. The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival should kick off Thursday, but it’s now postponed. UniFrance pulled out of its annual French film series at Lincoln Center. The MipTV Conference in Cannes was canceled. The new James Bond movie was pushed to the fall, and the global box office faces a $2 billion shortfall — so far.
However, the biggest Coronavirus impact has now hit every player in the entertainment industry: uncertainty.
While the outbreak could have a dramatic effect on the business at any time of the year, it has landed on the cusp of several major international film events, and each of them faces different organizational issues related to travel and attendance that could reverberate throughout the year. What’s the fate of CinemaCon in Las Vegas set for March 30 – April 2, which brings over 5,000 attendees from over 80 countries? Or the Cannes Film Festival from May 12-23, which swells the population of the city, just 40 miles from the northern Italian border, from 74,000 to over 200,000 each year? Or Comic-Con July 23-26, which brings 135,000 rabid fans to San Diego?
Experts are divided over when the outbreak will peak. The science journal Nature last month published a report that had estimates ranging from the optimistic (February) to a worst-case scenario (late May). It’s impossible to gauge the outbreak’s true impact, leaving event organizers struggling to consider what might happen, and what will.
Shuttered cinemas in China have led to the most direct financial hit to the industry so far: With $2 billion is lost grosses and counting, worldwide distributors of “No Time to Die” have moved the release date of the next James Bond film from April to November 25, while “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Onward,” and “1917” are all among the movies to see their Chinese releases postponed indefinitely.
Citing “the rapidly evolving situation” with coronavirus, organizers of CanneSeries postposed the television festival until the fall, while the coinciding conference and market MipTV has been cancelled. In Switzerland, the Fribourg International Film Festival set for the end of the month has been canceled.
That came after the French government banned gatherings of more than 5,000 people due to the outbreak. That country has had over 250 confirmed cases of the virus so far, compared to 137 cases in the US. The Cannes Film Festival, meanwhile, is still planning to move forward in May. A spokesperson said it’s too soon to speculate whether the major festival could be impacted by the outbreak.
While this country is far larger and less dense than those in Europe, measures taken across the pond raise questions about the viability of major film events stateside that gather thousands of people, including next week’s South by Southwest, CinemaCon at the end of the month, and April’s Tribeca Film Festival. Organizers for those three events say they’re moving forward as planned. Other upcoming festivals likely to show some impact include April’s SFFILM in the Bay Area, and the Seattle International Film Festival, which takes place in a city that has seen 10 coronavirus-related outbreaks in the past week.
As the next large-scale film event set to take place in North America, SXSW faces several practical questions. There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Austin, and health officials there say there’s no evidence that closing the festival will make people safer. Organizers say they’re watching the situation closely and coordinating with officials. But all it takes is one person arriving at the festival with the virus, which can take two weeks to cause symptoms, to cause a local outbreak in the Texas capital — and lead attendees to bring the virus back home with them.
The world has already seen the result of how localized outbreaks can happen when people are in close quarters. After one passenger on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship was confirmed to have coronavirus, the ship was quarantined for several weeks and 705 passengers were diagnosed with the disease.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said health officials would make the recommendation to cancel the festival if the community would be safer as a result. For now, they’re exploring options for “social distancing” at the festival and engaging the use of basic hygiene for attendees to protect themselves against coronavirus. While the festival is still moving forward, companies are beginning to pull out, though Amazon Studios is the only film company to nix its plans. The Interactive conference has seen more dramatic impact. Twitter, Facebook, and Intel are among those who have canceled.
That coincides with corporate policies that limit travel or, like Twitter, encourage employees to work from home. WarnerMedia has suspended international travel and limited other travel only to critical trips. At the news and sports division, Jeff Zucker has said that domestic travel “should be done only if absolutely necessary.” A WarnerMedia spokesman confirmed that WarnerMedia Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt still plans to appear on a SXSW panel about the company’s forthcoming streaming service HBO Max. A SXSW representative confirmed that another panel, Inside Innovation at WarnerMedia, has been cancelled, but a WarnerMedia spokesman did not return a request for comment about whether it was linked to the company’s travel policy.
If entertainment companies do pull out of their appearances, it could put a major damper on the annual event known for its extensive lineup of panels and roundtables. Another soon-to-launch streaming service, Quibi, is among the other companies planning to head to Austin to drum up interest.
Elsewhere, production delays are already happening. Paramount last week delayed plans for a three-week “Mission: Impossible 7” shoot in Venice, Italy after the government there locked down almost a dozen towns and has curbed public gatherings in the most affected regions.
It’s unclear what exactly WarnerMedia’s policies mean for Warner Bros. film shoots outside of Los Angeles. Even if not mandated by corporate, there could be a desire among casts and crew to stay close to home in order to avoid air travel. Representatives from major studios reported no additional production delays when asked by IndieWire, but declined to detail their coronavirus-related preparations and discussions.
On a smaller scale, a ban on international travel by New York University applies to students planning to travel for their film projects, the Undergraduate Film and Television chairman told faculty Tuesday. However, that provides a microcosm of challenges facing many film productions around the world on virtually every scale.
This story has been updated.