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Lessons for the Movie Industry from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic (Reprint) By Richard Brody

Date: 2020-04-10    Author: Original Site


During the 1918 pandemic, pessimists doubted whether moviegoing had a future.


The dam on streaming new movies has broken: the L.A. Times reports that, this Friday, one studio, Universal, will make its current releases (including "The Invisible Man" and "Emma.") available on video-on-demand and streaming on a variety of services. More notably, it's going to do the same with upcoming movies, making them streamable on the same dates as their would-be global releases, starting with "Trolls World Tour," on April 10th. It remains to be seen whether other studios will follow suit. Either way, the significance of the move is double. First, it risks drawing the wrath of multiplex chains, which have long demanded a ninety-day window of exclusivity on new releases; if other studios hold out, does Universal risk a boycott of future titles by the chains? Second, Universal's parent company, Comcast, owns two of the many services on which their movies are being issued?which is to say that Universal is partly following Netflix and Disney in directly releasing to consumers the movies that they produce.

The practice of production companies owning the sites and venues where their films are released is called vertical integration. It was effectively banned by a Supreme Court decision in 1948, when the studios' ownership of theatres was deemed to be pushing independent producers (such as Disney, which owned no theatres) out of the movie market. With streaming, the practice has nonetheless made its incremental return by way of a variety of loopholes and regulatory decisions (though concerns were raised as early as 2011, with the Comcast acquisition of Universal), and, with lax enforcement?and the Trump Administration's endorsement?it's growing. Yet one difference between the current environment and that of the postwar years is that streaming sites are far less costly to build than theatres. (The difficulty is in monetizing them.)

Remarkably, that earlier environment, of a movie business that was concentrated in the hands of a few studios, arose in the wake of a public-health crisis similar to the one the world faces now: the influenza pandemic of 1918. I've been reading "History of the American Film Industry," by Benjamin P. Hampton, published in 1931, which contains a brief but dramatic recap of what happened to the film industry at that time. The First World War was still raging when the flu hit, and, in many parts of the United States, theatres were forced to close. (Then, as now, regulations were issued locally.) "No New 'Movies' Till Influenza Ends," a headline in the October 10, 1918, issue of the New York Times announced. (Note the quotation marks around the word "movies," which was still a slang term at the time.) Production companies decided to withhold new releases, because theatres across the country?though not yet in New York City?were being closed. "One thing the verdict would do," the Times article adds, "would be to force New York to content itself with 'old' pictures instead of the weekly arrival of new reels."

Of course, there was no home-video distribution option at the time, and, as a result, Hampton writes, the closing of theatres had a vast ripple effect on film production: "Studios closed entirely, or operated on part time, and pessimists croaked that this was the beginning of the end." Productions didn't shut down (as they are doing today) because of fear of contagion on the set but rather because, with the closing of theatres, demand for new movies suddenly stopped. Then, a few weeks later, Hampton writes, when the Armistice was signed (on November 11th) to end the war, the public instantaneously lost interest in the vast number of war movies that production companies big and small had been producing?at exactly the moment, Hampton says, that they also wondered whether, as a result of the theatre closings and the flu, the very appeal of moviegoing had become obsolete.

Here's where Hampton's conclusions are especially relevant: "The producers who hesitated lost ground in the struggle that was shaping its lines for the final test of industrial survival, and those who disregarded common business prudence and rushed ahead on a showman's hunch saved their skins." Many smaller companies went out of business, and the resulting shakeout led to a consolidation that made the big ones bigger, creating the studios that became the masters of production, distribution, and exhibition together; the flu, combined with the end of the war, gave rise to the mega-Hollywood that's being duplicated again today. (Hampton tells a fascinating wider story, stretching into the nineteen-twenties, involving huge investments in Hollywood, an influx of capital from Europe after the war's end, shifting audience tastes, a decline in the popularity of stars?and a rise in the power and prominence of directors.)

It's impossible to know whether the opportunity to garner new home-viewing audiences during the current crisis will be as short-lived as the chance to rescue production companies was in late 1918. But I suspect it'll be longer-lasting?that the hunger for entertainment will drive viewers to new releases online whenever they show up, and that studios will begin calculating their online streaming drop dates with the same care that they devote to their theatrical-release calendar. The big question, of course, is whether, after the pandemic subsides?be it in a matter of weeks or months?studios will instantly go back to a theatrical-first model. It's not implausible to imagine theatrical releases being transformed into special events, strictly limited runs of a week or a month that will coexist with, or briefly precede, streaming releases (as Netflix has done with such films as "Roma," "The Irishman," and "Marriage Story"). Certainly, in doing so, the studios would be leaving a lot of money, from ticket sales, on the table?but, whereas theatrical exhibition gives the multiplexes substantial cuts of the box office, streaming gives the studio that owns its own site nearly the whole pot. (Of course, that's a business model based on pay-per-view rather than subscription, which is a different matter altogether.)

The stockpiling of movies pulled from release is only one of the crises studios currently face. Another is the longer-term threat of a dearth of new ones, as more and more productions have been shutting down. In the Times, the producer Elizabeth Cantillon, whose shoot of "The Nightingale" was halted last Friday, said, "Movie theaters, television networks, Netflix?they all need content all the time. If we can't produce it because we can't be next to each other, what happens? It's just going to be a lot of YouTube videos of people in their bedrooms." Depending on who those people are in their bedrooms and what they're doing, their creations could well be an improvement over many movies currently put out in Hollywood. I'm reminded of one of the great recent movies, "This Is Not a Film," from 2011, which the Iranian director Jafar Panahi made under house arrest and during a ban on making films, with an iPhone and a video camera that a colleague brought over to his apartment, set down, and left running. In the film, Panahi sees neighbors, takes the elevator, sticks his head out the door?but, for much of it, he is inside, speaking to the camera alone. (It's streaming on Kanopy and Mubi.)

I'll bet there are some stars, or some actors not yet stars, who'd create something equally amazing at home, and that there are writers who can write it and directors who can control a camera remotely. (Perhaps the logistics of the direction, by the phone or text messaging or video chats, would itself be part of the film.) I'm also reminded of Roberto Rossellini's intimate yet virtually operatic spectacle "The Human Voice" (1948), which is based on a play by Jean Cocteau and stars Anna Magnani alone, in her bedroom, speaking on the telephone. (It, too, is available to stream, in the two-part film "L'Amore," on the Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime, and elsewhere.) Just as in 1918, it's not inconceivable today that movies made "before"?before the crackdown against the novel coronavirus, which seems like its own kind of wartime?will seem as dated, and prove as unpopular, as war movies did after the Armistice. Now, as then, the big decisions to be made, and the ones that will determine the future of the movies, are the artistic ones, the bold and imaginative ones.

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