With its star cast and storyline based on a Chinese legend, Disney’s live-action “Mulan” was supposed to make a big splash in that country.
Then COVID-19 started spreading and shut down almost the entire movie industry in China. Theaters nationwide have been closed for months. The Chinese premiere for “Mulan” is on hold indefinitely, though it’s still set to debut later this month in the United States.
The impact of the virus on the film industry is being felt worldwide, from production of “Mission Impossible” being halted in Italy to the release of the new James Bond movie being postponed globally.
While it’s not clear how bad it will get, for Hollywood, China is a huge loss. “You can’t produce a major Hollywood film, a blockbuster film, without having the China market as part of your strategy,” said Stanley Rosen, who studies Chinese politics and society at the University of Southern California. “In many cases, like the ‘Fast and the Furious’ or ‘Transformers,’ the China market can be bigger.”
Now, around 70,000 big screens in China have gone dark due to the epidemic. Some movies in China have hit streaming platforms instead of theaters. “Enter the Fat Dragon” and “Lost in Russia,” two Chinese comedies that were expected to do well at the box office, were set to premiere during the profitable Chinese Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day. Both went directly to streaming platforms instead.
Rosen said big-budget films won’t make as much money that way.
“For those kinds of films, streaming is not really a solution. But for smaller budget films, certainly streaming makes a lot of sense.”
Another big hit to Hollywood? The coronavirus has brought film production in China to a screeching halt.
“Hollywood has increasingly turned to China over recent years,” said Sky Canaves, a contributing editor at China Film Insider. There’s a cap on how many foreign films can be shown annually in China, but Hollywood teaming up with a Chinese studio can help get around that restriction. DreamWorks partnered with a Chinese production company to create material such as the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise.
Aynne Kokas, author of the book “Hollywood Made in China,” said she’s looking out for how Chinese investments in the film industry could be affected.
“We’re seeing an increase in Chinese firms investing in Hollywood production,” she said. “Tencent and Alibaba both have film investment arms that are increasingly active in the U.S. market.” But Kokas expects to see Chinese government pressure investors to look inward. “After the pass of the coronavirus crisis, whenever that is, I think what we’ll see is a retrenchment of domestic investment in China.”
And if the virus lasts through the summer blockbuster season, there’s the risk that more American movies will get delayed. Producers of the Bond movie said they pushed back the release because the “global theatrical marketplace” was uncertain.
American box office revenues are up so far this year, compared to 2019. Last month’s “Invisible Man” beat expectations. But that was before there were runs on hand sanitizer. Going to a movie theater was one of the first things Americans said they would give up if the virus spread to their community, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
Pixar’s “Onward,” the story of two adolescent elves, premiered Friday. Industry experts say whether people stay home this weekend, as the number of infected grow in Florida, California and Washington, will tell us a lot about where Hollywood is heading during the epidemic.