Will COVID kill the Event Movie?

The pandemic isn't just putting release dates on hold. It could transform Hollywood as we know it.
By Benjamin Svetkey
September 17, 2020 at 12:03 PM EDT

Maybe you've heard about Tom Cruise’s plans to launch himself into outer space? How the 58-year-old actor wants to hitch a ride on one of Elon Musk’s rockets in order to film the world’s first narrative feature in orbit around the Earth. Some details of the project leaked in May: Cruise has reportedly been talking to his old Edge of Tomorrow partner Doug Liman about directing and to Universal about distributing, and is asking for a budget of at least $200 million.

Oh, and one detail you might not have heard: There’s zero chance this is going to happen.

In fact, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pound Hollywood, it’s beginning to look as if all Event Movies will be grounded indefinitely. Audiences may not notice it immediately, but by 2023, the genre could disappear from big screens entirely. Since the global health care crisis hit the U.S. in March, not a single traditional studio appears to have greenlit a theatrical release with a budget nearing $200 million. That’s partly because the studios have had their hands full figuring out what to do with all the finished or half-finished $200 million-plus tentpoles already in the pipeline, with Disney moving Mulan to VOD, Sony pushing No Time to Die deep into 2020, and Warner Bros. stopping and restarting production on Matrix 4. But as far as new Event Movies are concerned, the only players placing those kinds of bets have been cash-rich streamers like Apple (which greenlit Martin Scorsese’s $200 million Killers of the Flower Moon in May) and Netflix (Ryan Gosling’s $200 million thriller The Gray Man in July). The rest of the town has all but left the game.

“We’re in a period of shock for the next few months at least, while everybody tries to figure out how they’re going to skin this cat,” says Chris Weitz, who’s both written (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and directed (The Golden Compass) Event Movies. Adds actor-director Ben Affleck, who donned cape and cowl to star in the $250 million Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, “Who knows what the theatrical business will be like…what will be the new reality, post-Covid.”

The old reality, pre-Covid, was that jumbo-budgeted, F/X-packed spectacles have been running the business for the past 40 years. And as streamers have started eating up the entertainment industry, Event Movies have become the last great hope for theatrical releases, the only lure powerful enough to pull audiences away from their 50-inch flat screens and into theaters. But now, with theaters operating at 25 to 50 percent capacity — when operating at all — that business model seems as dead as Tony Stark at the end of the last Avengers film (you know, the one that cost $356 million and grossed $2.8 billion). The rule of thumb for Event Movie success is they need to earn three times their production budgets to turn a profit (since studios spend as much on marketing those sorts of films as they do on making them, and they share ticket revenue with exhibitors). And right now, not even Tom Cruise in a SpaceX orbiter (let alone John David Washington in a Christopher Nolan time-bending thriller) is capable of grossing numbers like that.

Home video isn’t coming to Hollywood’s rescue, either. Disney can cut its losses by peddling Mulan for $30 on its subscription service, but in order to recoup the film’s reported $200 million budget and $100 million marketing costs, some 10 million viewers will have to buy the film, roughly the same number of new subscribers Netflix has added over the entire course of the pandemic so far. Releasing films theatrically overseas, where theaters are reopening more quickly, might help, but only a bit. Studios take in merely a third of the ticket sales from places like China and Europe.

There are other risk factors. Event Movies by definition are huge productions involving hundreds of crew members flying all over the world for shoots that drag on for six months or longer. Keeping that many people healthy in the midst of a pandemic isn’t just a logistical nightmare; it’s expensive. “We’re talking millions and millions of dollars,” says World War Z producer Graham King. “Testing everybody every day, rethinking every aspect of production, having nurses on the set and Covid coordinators, which is a totally new job description — it’s a tough thing to do.” Especially on an Event Movie scale, where one actor testing positive — as Robert Pattinson did recently on the set of The Batman — can set back production for weeks or even months, costing millions more.

New technologies could help minimize some of the danger. “If we’re unable to travel, maybe studios start spilling all that money into [virtual] reality,” suggests The Da Vinci Code screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. “Maybe the studios have their own [VR] coves, the way they used to have water tanks.” But, again, it’s not cheap. James Cameron’s Avatar sequels are being shot with VR and are still costing a billion dollars.

Of course, all this could change overnight. Maybe Russia’s Sputnik vaccine will work. Or maybe President Trump is right and the virus will disappear “like a miracle.” Certainly, that’s what a lot of movie executives are praying for. “I have to think positive,” says King. “Even during wartime, people still go to movie theaters.” But only if they have confidence the theater won’t be blown up during the show, which is where we’re at in the Covid era. And if Event Movies are over, it’s hard to imagine movie theaters surviving without them — although not entirely impossible. “Maybe Amazon buys a theater chain,” says ICM CEO Chris Silbermann. “They could integrate Amazon stores into mall theaters and re-envision the entire theatrical experience. The theater experience hasn’t changed in 80 years. Maybe this is a great opportunity to reinvent it.”

Maybe it’s also an opportunity for Hollywood to reinvent itself. After four decades of placing bigger and bigger bets, has the time come to start thinking smaller? Instead of splurging hundreds of millions on franchisable superheroes, studios could pivot to leaner, less risky projects, the sorts of pictures that can be filmed quickly, with smaller crews in the relative safety of controlled studio soundstages, and that stand a reasonable chance of making a profit even during a pandemic. In other words, the kind that depend less on special effects and more on great writing, fabulous acting, and savvy directing.

Sadly, shooting Tom Cruise into space is a luxury Hollywood can no longer afford.

With reporting by Tyler Aquilina and Derek Lawrence. Illustration by Golden Cosmos.