What Happens When Hollywood Shuts Down

Tara Lachapelle

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Todd Garner was in Puerto Rico filming his latest comedy “Vacation Friends” — for 20th Century Studios and starring John Cena — when it started to become evident that the coronavirus was going to be a serious problem. While the U.S. government wasn’t quite yet relaying such severity, “I could see the anxiety on everybody’s faces” among the cast and crew, Garner recounted on a recent episode of his podcast. Questions arose that filmmakers haven’t had to confront before: Should so many people be working in such close quarters? Is it safe for makeup artists to be touching the actors’ faces? Two weeks into production, and with six weeks to go, they put the film on ice.

It’s hardly the only movie that’s had to temporarily stop filming and send everyone home for an unknowable period of time. Indeed, “show business” is neither right now. Garner, who co-produced “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” said he also had two TV series for Netflix Inc. that were already far along and had to cease production. Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” HBO’s “Succession,” ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” AMC Networks Inc.’s “The Walking Dead,” Hulu’s “Handmaid’s Tale” and Apple Inc.’s “The Morning Show” are among other series with highly anticipated returning seasons that will be delayed by national stay-at-home orders. And it’s not just scripted shows. For example, it seems unlikely that the “Friends” reunion special can still be filmed in time for the arrival of HBO Max, a new streaming-TV service launching in May from AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia, which reportedly paid $425 million last year to snatch away from Netflix the streaming rights to the popular 1990s-early aughts sitcom.

Movie theaters are closed and there aren’t any sports to watch. For an audience bored by the isolation on a good day, and entirely dispirited by it on the bad ones, it’s all the more devastating to not be able to look forward to our favorite shows.

The Hollywood shutdown hit just as media giants like Comcast Corp. and Walt Disney Co. are getting their streaming products off the ground, each looking to spend billions of dollars on new content. Disney+ and Apple TV+ both launched in November, while Comcast’s NBCUniversal is introducing its Peacock service April 15. Quibi, a startup created by a pair of media and tech veterans that’s reportedly raised $1.75 billion in funding, launched Monday. With everyone home and glued to their TVs and devices, these companies will have a chance to attract more subscribers, while viewers gain more options for passing the time.

Even so, none of these apps on its own may have enough to watch or offer sufficient variety for the average household. The most sought-after programs have been divvied up among the different services, which each charge their own monthly fees. Viewers might just grow tired with of any of these streaming apps when forced to spend so much extra time with one, potentially creating more volatile churn rates — the closely tracked measurement of customers canceling subscriptions. It’s a test for the streaming newbies and even Netflix that’s made all the more challenging if new content stops flowing in.

New theatrical releases have gotten caught in the middle of this, too. For a big-budget film like “F9,” the latest installment of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise, bypassing hundreds of millions of dollars in box-office revenue isn’t really an option. That’s why Universal Pictures pushed back the release by almost a whole year to next April. But with “Trolls World Tour,” Universal decided to make the movie available to rent on-demand for $20 instead of just delaying its theatrical debut. Other studios are having to make similar decisions. It raises the question of how all these delayed movies will fit into exhibitors’ schedules once theaters do reopen. As movie-goers grow accustomed to being able to see first-run films at home, and as streaming services try to juice their subscriber bases, a potential outcome may be shorter theatrical windows and an industry that’s forever changed.

The pain is also being felt by contractors and local businesses in Atlanta, which became the new U.S. hub for TV and film production in recent years. About 400 works were filmed, resulting in $2.9 billion invested in Georgia for the fiscal year ended June 2019, according to the state. “Film & Entertainment” is featured prominently on the Georgia Department of Economic Development website, but visit the “now filming” section and you’ll find a bare page that reads: “Production in Georgia has been largely suspended due to the Covid-19 outbreak.”

Hollywood isn’t the only industry where workers’ safety has been suddenly put at odds with their livelihoods. Still, as housebound viewers devour more content than ever, new shows and movies aren’t getting made. That makes TV entertainment one area where the effects of the pandemic could be most striking for the everyday consumer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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