Readers of a squeamish disposition should turn the page now. The following article sets out, in blood-curdling detail, Hollywood's impending Texas Chainsaw moment. I say impending. In fact, it's already begun. The Covid-19 pathogen - or rather its wildfire spread, could bring about the end of the industry as we know it.

Idle scaremongering? Far from it. Last week, The Hollywood Reporter estimated that coronavirus has already cost the industry US$7 billion at the box office, with a further US$10b likely to evaporate even if business resumes in the next two months (should the crisis continue beyond May, "all bets are off", the magazine adds).

How much is US$17b in moviemaking terms? Well, it would eliminate the combined global takings of last year's 21 most successful English-language releases, from Avengers: Endgame down to Shazam!, via such worldwide smashes as The Lion King, Joker, Toy Story 4, Star Wars IX, 1917 and Detective Pikachu.

Last year was the most lucrative year in box office history. Five of Disney's releases each grossed more than US$1b worldwide. Yet because of the peculiar shape of the film business - most of its eggs piled teeteringly high in a very few dependable baskets - once you discount those 21 winners, you instantly hit flops.


The next biggest release of 2019 was Tim Burton's Dumbo remake, whose US$353 million global takings fell about US$150m short of turning a profit. Sony's best-performing release was Men in Black: International, which fell an estimated US$50m short of breaking even; while Paramount's Terminator: Dark Fate ended up more than US$100m in the red while still being the year's 34th most popular release.

Coronavirus has wreaked extensive havoc in a short space of time. It has thrown into chaos the release of major new films that would have been among 2020's top performers, including Mulan, the new James Bond film No Time To Die, Peter Rabbit 2, A Quiet Place Part II, Fast & Furious 9 and Black Widow, and derailed production of films for 2021 and beyond, among them The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion, The Matrix 4, Mission: Impossible 7, and the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid.

Nor is it a matter of downing tools for six months. That Hollywood Reporter piece put the cost of pausing a blockbuster mid-shoot at anything up to US$350,000 a day. Even once the shutdown ends, the entire cast and crew will have to be reassembled around other work commitments - which, thanks to industry panic, will be as flexible as concrete.

Worse, because each of these enormous properties needs the best chance possible of making back its enormous budget, their opening weekends have to be staked out years in advance: Disney currently has 24 as-yet-untitled blockbusters parked on release dates between now and Christmas 2026. So when one of these behemoths has to move, there's nowhere for it to move to.

By acting quickly, Bond found a halfway-hospitable slot in mid-November, a week after Marvel's The Eternals, and the same weekend as Godzilla vs Kong. At the time of writing, Mulan, Black Widow and A Quiet Place Part II are all drifting dateless.

Yet even successfully moving a film entails taking a serious financial hit. For Bond alone, which had reached the saturation phase of its ad campaign, about US$200m in publicity costs have effectively been lost. But with the enforced closure of cinemas around the world the likely loss in ticket sales would have been immeasurably greater.

Disney could yet push the nuclear button, bypass cinemas entirely, and release Mulan directly on their streaming platform Disney+. Doing so would give subscriber figures an instant, Everest-sized bump - but it would also forgo the potentially history-making profits Mulan was set to make at the Chinese box office, after the film was expressly tailored to that market's tastes.

More humiliatingly, it would also concede that Netflix had been right all along. The streaming service's policy of releasing films online and in cinemas simultaneously has long been decried by Hollywood's old guard as suicide for the industry. Now it might be the only thing saving it.

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