How the film industry survived amid Spanish flu & COVID-19

The Cineworld cinema at New Mersey Shopping Park in March 2020 (Pete)

The film industry is being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 17, 2020, the largest cinema network, AMC Theatres, decided to close its operational activities to support the social distancing movement.

Vulture reported that the industry was initially predicted to attract more people throughout 2020. For the month of January, it has garnered 886.1 million dollars. Bad Boys for Life, for example, has posted no less than 200 million dollars since it was released in mid-January. With the implementation of self-isolation, a similar achievement is certainly impossible to repeat.

The problem facing the film industry in the midst of a pandemic due to the closure of the cinema network is basically a global problem. China, the second-largest film market in the world, has reportedly closed more than 70 thousand cinemas since January. As reported by Quartz, the incident caused global box office revenues to fall by five billion dollars and forced film producers to roll into digital networks.

"Theater attendance in many other Asian countries is down significantly from the same period last year. Hollywood studios are being forced to postpone the releases of blockbuster movies and to drastically alter production schedules around the world," wrote Quartz. "So far, no studios have said that they are canceling the theatrical release of a film and debuting it online instead."

The Spanish flu changed Hollywood

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first outbreak to hit Hollywood. More than a hundred years ago, cinema witnessed a deadly plague that infected sixty percent of the world's population and killed fifty million people worldwide. As a result, the film industry experienced a crisis for several years until finally, entrepreneurs had to turn their minds to keep their business going.

Influenza A virus subtype H1N1 or known as Spanish flu was estimated to have arrived on the East Coast in March 1918. Soldiers who had just returned from the battlefields of World War I in Europe were the first people to be reported infected with this virus.

In September of the same year, the Spanish flu epidemic intensified. Small towns began to isolate as the prohibition of crowding in public places was implemented. Cinema became the earliest business sector ordered to be closed. As Gary D. Rhodes noted in The Perils of Moviegoing in America, this policy originated in Massachusetts and spread throughout North America the following month.

Although the cinema was closed one by one, people who worked in the film industry in Los Angeles refused to stop production activities. According to records collected by The Hollywood Reporter, at that time, the film devotees were convinced that the Spanish flu was a problem of people on the East Coast. At the same time, silent films were experiencing a golden period so that many producers were more afraid of losing momentum than contracting the virus.

Filmers only began to feel devastated when the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry stopped distributing the latest releases. According to William J. Mann, a writer who had researched much of Hollywood's history, this policy was taken when ninety percent of cinemas went out of business because of the loss of viewers. Film production also stopped following the closing of distribution networks and film screenings.

Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Massachusetts, built in 1914 (Troy Sankey)

In an interview published on the Deadline Hollywood page, Mann explained that the production sector at that time was not integrated with the film screening. Basically, these sectors were managed independently by Americans of Chinese and Mexican descent, mostly women. When a crisis due to the pandemic came, they could not do much except closed down their business temporarily.

Mann recounted, the Spanish flu outbreak then changed the Hollywood film industry forever. Adolph Zukor, one of the founders of Paramount Pictures, bought one by one the cinemas that were on the verge of bankruptcy. By taking over the distribution networks and film screenings, Zukor became one of the rulers of Hollywood. The film production model with the studio system he created was still in use today.

"He exploited the pandemic to build his new model in which women are cut out from positions of power, not to mention also people of color because there was a number of African-American and Chinese-American and Mexican-American filmmakers who were working in Los Angeles and had their own companies, had their own distribution networks," he said.

Moving to digital

The situation of production activities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is not much different from when the Spanish flu was endemic. However, in the digital era like now, entertainment content providers have various ways to distribute their products online.

A screenshot of Disney+ website

Responding to the closing of the cinema during the crisis, Disney announced that it had set a new release date for a number of box office films that were supposed to be screened in theaters during the first half of 2020. Marvel Cinematic Universe, which for the past ten years already had a planned release schedule, even had to retreat to six months.

Based on the report summarized by Vox, Disney and several other large film studios still want to respect the traditional way by releasing their flagship films like they used in cinema. Among the Disney productions scheduled to come out this year, only Artemis Fowl has actually moved from the cinema release schedule to the digital release via Disney+. The rest of them, Disney only moves some old films or new films with a medium budget outside the cinema. This step could have changed if the COVID-19 pandemic continued for months.

NBCUniversal actually goes further in utilizing digital platforms. As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, since March 16, Universal decided that it would release several films online on the same day as the release date in theaters. Movies are available in various streaming services in the form of subscription video on demand (SVOD) which can be rented for 48 hours at a price of 19,99 dollars.

Seeing the various adaptive steps taken by a number of film companies lately, William J. Mann stressed that this could have been the beginning of a change like that experienced by Hollywood cinema while surviving in the midst of the pandemic in 1918 to 1919. The Spanish flu plague, according to Mann, did not only change the whole industry but also the length of the film and the way people buy cinema tickets.

Film streaming services, Mann continued, basically have something in common with the Zukor creation model. A film company fully controls the production, distribution, and various kinds of policies related to film screenings. This situation will recreate big players and get rid of small people who do not have access to these fields out of the film business.