Coronavirus hits the global box office – hard

The growing outbreak of the novel coronavirus has left many industries reeling, and the film industry has been among the hardest hit. Frightened people are foregoing enclosed spaces like movie theaters and opting to stay home, and entertainment companies have been forced to react.

The human element of the story is clearly the most important. Safety is key, and while Americans love movies, human lives and health are the priority. But major film delays and festival cancellations will have an effect on people financially,  which is something that should be taken seriously.

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The act of going to the cinema takes on an entirely new cadre of concerns when you take into account the contagious nature of the novel coronavirus. People are eating popcorn, candy, pizza and other snacks with their hands. Tickets are being passed from one person's hands to another's. Movies are viewed in an enclosed space where people could be coughing and sneezing.

Global box office power

Over the years, the global box office has become king. More and more films are raking in upwards of $1 billion at the worldwide box office with franchises like Star Wars, Marvel and more becoming top earners. Film studios are often more concerned about global box office numbers than domestic sales.  Some films need the international box office to profit on their massive production and promotional budgets.

This begs an important question about the power of the international box office. There have been many articles written about the importance of the box office in China. It seems that some films are predicated on the idea that they will do well internationally, even if that means the domestic intake will be low.

The latest James Bond film, “No Time To Die,” has been pushed from an April 10 release date in the U.S. to November 25. The official James Bond Twitter account released the news last week, saying the decision was made after “careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace."

That makes perfect sense when you look at the recent box office numbers for the past couple of Bond films. “Skyfall,” which is the highest-grossing Bond film to date, brought in $1.1 billion at the worldwide box office. According to Box Office Mojo, more than $804 million of that worldwide gross was from international markets.

An even more extreme example of the power of the worldwide box office would be “Avengers: Endgame,” which also happens to be the highest grossing film of all time, eclipsing James Cameron’s “Avatar” last year. The film brought in over $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office, and over $1.9 billion of that money belonged to international markets.

While Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow” likely won’t be as huge as “Avengers: Endgame,” that brings up an interesting discussion for the new film’s release. As of March 9, the film is still set to be released on May 1. In fact, Marvel Studios released a brand new trailer for the film.

But the “No Time To Die” delay is an international business move. According to The Hollywood Reporter, there are around 70,000 theaters closed in China. If the film was still released on schedule in the U.S., what would there be to stop people from pirating the film, leading to major loses at the international box office? THe Bond studio could potentially lose between $30-$50 million by moving the release date of the film, but those losses would be much steeper if the film stayed in the original April 10 slot, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

So why move the film seven months? Why not movie the film to May or June or even July? It likely has to do with theatrical distribution schedules and IMAX. “No Time To Die” was partially shot with IMAX cameras and the film was scheduled to be released on IMAX screens for a certain period of time. At this point in the year, many films are already scheduled for their IMAX windows. Films like “Black Widow” (opening May 1) or “Fast 9” (opening May 22) already have IMAX theatrical windows booked for their releases. 

Since 1995’s “Goldeneye,” every single Bond film has been released in November or December. Given the historical context, November is a much more fitting date for a James Bond film. 

Meanwhile, Disney's live-action "Mulan," a massive production with a reported budget of around $200 million, has a release date of March 26 domestically and then rolls out to many international markets on March 27, which includes China. But the shift in the Bond film's release date raises questions about what Walt Disney Studios will do considering the global audience for "Mulan."

Festival cancellations, financial fallout and the safety of streaming

On March 6, SXSW (South By Southwest) announced the official cancellation of their 2020 festival due to coronavirus concerns. This is the first time in 34 years that the annual film, music and arts festival had to cancel. The official website for the Austin festival announced the news just eight days before its scheduled opening on March 13. This sent a shockwave through the film and music world as many independent filmmakers, musicians and artists rely on SXSW to premiere their work. Many people took to social media to talk about how this will financially affect many artists. 

But some films have soldiered on. Pixar’s “Onward” opened to an estimated $40 million at the domestic box office this past weekend. While that was enough to place number one, it fell short of numbers normally seen by Pixar films. “Toy Story 4” opened to around $120 million domestically last year while “Incredibles 2” opened to around $182 million domestically in 2018. “Coco” opened to around $50 million in 2017. 

But in the wake of festival and film cancellations and delays, will platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and Disney+ start to shift their strategies to meet the moment? 

Now that “No Time To Die” has moved back, there are many global film releases that are in question.