Film in the age of COVID-19

Wesley Stenzel, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Fears surrounding coronavirus have deeply impacted nearly every facet of life, and the film industry is no exception. Like most forms of entertainment, the film industry heavily depends upon group gatherings and shared experiences at the cinema. Now, with many states and countries ordering citizens to shelter in place, cinemas — including Santa Barbara’s Riviera Theatre and various Metropolitan cinemas — have no choice but to close their doors indefinitely. How can studios and theatres stay afloat when people can’t go to the movies?

The most popular solution thus far has been the postponement of major movies. Studios have expressed that they would rather wait to release films at a more stable moment when people can enjoy them in theatres together. Sony Pictures was the first to act, pushing the latest James Bond film  “No Time To Die” from April to November. Other studios quickly followed suit, with Universal pushing “Fast and Furious 9” (originally slated for release next month) to April 2021 and Disney pulling “Mulan,” “The New Mutants,” and “Black Widow” until further notice. Warner Brothers also delayed “Wonder Woman 1984” to August, and postponed “In the Heights” and “Scoob” indefinitely.

The main alternative to these massive delays is more ideal for everyone at home: releasing new movies on streaming. In an unprecedented move, Universal made its entire current slate of theatrical movies, including “The Invisible Man,” “Emma.,” and “The Hunt,” available for rental and purchase online, and announced that “Trolls: World Tour” will be available online on April 8 –– the same day it would have premiered in theatres. Disney followed suit by releasing “Frozen 2” for free on Disney Plus months earlier than originally scheduled, and also made Pixar’s recently-released “Onward” purchasable on iTunes and Amazon. Additionally, Warner Brothers made all of its 2020 movies available for purchase, including “Birds of Prey,” “The Way Back,” “Just Mercy,” and “Bloodshot.”

There are still ways moviegoers can support local theatres without leaving their homes. The Riviera Theatre is providing opportunities to watch limited-release movies like “The Wild Goose Lake” via an exclusive streaming platform, where viewers can rent the film for $12. Cinephiles can also purchase gift cards to various Santa Barbara theatres and plan to use them once businesses reopen.

How will today’s pandemic affect tomorrow’s movies? Basically all film production has halted worldwide, so delays for anticipated movies are inevitable. Affected titles include forthcoming franchise entries from series such as “Avatar,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Matrix,” “Fantastic Beasts,” and “Jurassic World,” as well as reboots of classics like “The Little Mermaid,” “Batman,” “Home Alone,” “Peter Pan,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” and “Cinderella.” Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic also halted production in Australia after Tom Hanks, who plays Presley’s manager, tested positive for COVID-19. Studios will almost certainly reconfigure their release calendars for the next several years.

Moviegoing may look different for the next few months, but can still be a social experience. Viewers can watch films and series together through a number of means, including screen-sharing programs like Zoom or browser plugins like Netflix Party for Chrome. Additionally, live-tweeting “parties” are surging on Twitter, as users around the world simultaneously watch movies (like Beyoncé’s concert documentary “Homecoming”).

Meanwhile, China’s cinemas represent hope on the horizon. As the country’s COVID-19 cases have sharply dropped (indicating an end to the pandemic in China), quarantine orders are beginning to lift, and as a result, Chinese theatres are set to reopen at the end of March. The China Film Group announced that once cinemas reopen, they will show several highly popular titles, including “Wolf Totem,” “The Wandering Earth,” “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” and “Green Book,” in an attempt to bring the population back to the movies. American and European cinemas may pursue a similar strategy in the coming months. Until then, stay safe and stay inside — there’s never been a better time to clear out those Netflix queues.