Covid Anxiety Finds a Sequel as Hollywood Confronts the Next Wave

·5 min read

This week provided an unwelcome, although not entirely unexpected, raft of Covid news in the entertainment industry: Rising case numbers, a canceled theatrical release, confusing protocols, uncertain futures, and a movie-star ultimatum. IndieWire editor in chief Dana Harris-Bridson and editor-at-large Anne Thompson stopped for a Double Take to assess what might happen next.

DANA HARRIS-BRIDSON: This was a busy week for Covid in Hollywood. We saw the guilds and producers tentatively negotiate a short-term deal that appears to be double-jointed in its flexibility: It simultaneously relaxes Covid protocols while “allowing” producers to require vaccinations in Zone A on sets. Meanwhile there’s a 15.7 percent positive test rate in Clark County, Nevada, where Las Vegas plans to host CinemaCon next month. In the U.K., A24’s “The Green Knight” was pulled from theatrical distribution two weeks before release in response to rapidly rising Covid fears — even though the country removed virtually all restrictions just a few days ago.

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In Los Angeles County, where the week closed out with positive test rates above four percent, 20 percent of those cases are now from vaccinated patients. And then there’s Sean Penn, who put his temper to use by declaring he won’t return to finish shooting the Starz limited series “Gaslit” until everyone on the set is vaccinated.

I estimate that the entertainment industry had maybe 10 days to believe that masks might move to the memory banks and — whammo! — here comes our old pal, existential dread! Hardly had time to miss you! How’s the industry taking in all of this?

ANNE THOMPSON: Those who went to Cannes grabbed an open window, and it is rapidly closing again. Talent talks, which is probably not good news for the Toronto International Film Festival. Canada has opened its borders, but for now the U.S. is still holding the line on allowing Canadians into the country. Technically, even if that U.S. ruling extended beyond August 21 that shouldn’t impact American stars who might fly to Toronto — but at a minimum it creates an environment that makes everyone think twice, or even three times, about potential red tape and health risks. It makes it easy to say no.

And with Covid cases spiking in Las Vegas, studio jets may not be delivering many celebrities for those storied CinemaCon dog-and-pony shows. even though attendees must prove vaccination status in order to attend, Disney, for one, under fire for releasing “Black Widow” day and date on premium streaming, will not be sending executives or talent to the exhibitor convention, and others will surely follow their lead. The beleaguered theater owners needed reasons to be cheerful. It’s not happening.

DANA: If we’re looking at a diluted CinemaCon, and the increasing likelihood of a remote TIFF, does that threaten Telluride? Is that window big enough, and open enough, to accommodate it?

ANNE: Well, Telluride takes place in a remote mountain village without rising Covid rates. The festival is demanding vaccination proof in order to attend. People will wait in line outside, wear masks inside. The festival has always been more about the movies than the talent. But I suspect everyone will feel more comfortable in the Rockies, in a more controlled “bubble” like Cannes, than a major metropolis that is harder to legislate.

DANA: That makes sense — but it’s all a calibration, isn’t it? All these things that the industry did as a matter of course are now a matter of weighing the circumstances, the latest data, or even the odds. Traditionally, the fall festivals and the awards season operate on a calendar that’s as reliable as the tides. It can run people ragged, but it also has its own logic and momentum that becomes an energy source in its own right. I know there was great energy at Cannes, but how do you see that energy playing out for the rest of the year if we’re inexorably pulled into a stutter-start rhythm?

Tom Cruise on the set of “Mission: Impossible 7” - Credit: P Photo/Andrew Medichini
Tom Cruise on the set of “Mission: Impossible 7” - Credit: P Photo/Andrew Medichini

P Photo/Andrew Medichini

ANNE: Remember Tom Cruise’s outburst on the set of the latest “Mission: Impossible”? There’s money and jobs on the line. Where it’s heading as more productions are shutting down is the inevitable Sean Penn demand: Vaccinate, or else. What other choice do we have? The GOP and Fox News are capitulating in the face of Wall Street’s dropping confidence. Nobody wants to retreat back into lockdown. How we go forward safely is the question. I was in a packed Rodeo screening room to see David Lowery’s “The Green Knight.” Masks on!

DANA: But will they vaccinate, or else? What I find fascinating is while this week’s Covid news creates a complex portrait of the industry challenges at hand, it doesn’t tell the full story. The guild agreement seems to head in two directions at once — reducing requirements but you could increase them, if you like! — but what’s unsaid is producers are already struggling to hire crews. There is So. Much. Work. Soundstages across the country are slammed as everyone plays post-pandemic catch-up across the board — movies, TV, commercials. Never mind the backlash from anti-vaxxers; I can’t imagine producers creating limits that would make hiring even harder. But Sean Penn is the original honey badger, and he can.

ANNE: When in doubt, follow the money. There’s never been more demand for content in the history of the entertainment industry, with multiple pipelines to fill. Nobody is going to let that process slow down or stop altogether. The most powerful players in that mix, and the most vulnerable, are the actors who must take their masks off in front of the camera. Any relaxed safety protocols are being swiftly tightened. And vaccination demands will become the norm.

DANA: I think vaccination requirements will become the production norm if/when there is enough outcry to make it happen — and while producers and studios technically have that power, I don’t think they will do it until they have to. And that “have to” will come from the Tom Cruises and the Sean Penns and the other players who speak up because they know they are too big to fail.

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