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On Dec. 5, the cast of Netflix’s Don’t Look Up converged on the stage of Jazz at Lincoln Center for the film’s glitzy world premiere. With stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep looking on, director Adam McKay recalled the night of March 11, 2020, when everything changed. “We were in Boston [in preproduction], and I’ll never forget that night because there was an NBA game with the Jazz, and they just shut the game down, and from that point on our lives were never the same again,” McKay said from the stage.
Nearly two years later, Hollywood is still living the surreal life, this time bracing for the latest COVID-19 wave: omicron. Four days earlier, Netflix nixed the premiere’s afterparty “out of an abundance of caution for the health and safety of our guests” and quietly canceled the entire international press tour of the awards-season hopeful that would have seen DiCaprio and a pregnant Lawrence promoting the film everywhere from London to Paris.
While Don’t Look Up marks the biggest film to tweak its plans to date, it isn’t alone, with similar moves expected in the coming weeks. In fact, the global spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has got the film industry worried about the whole winter season. As of this writing, the new COVID-19 variant has been found in at least 45 nations worldwide, with the spike of new cases reported in the U.S. and much of Europe over the past few days, leading to concerns over how omicron will impact upcoming festivals and film markets, primarily Sundance (set to run Jan. 20-30) and the Berlin Film Festival (Feb. 10-20) and its accompanying European Film Market (Feb. 10-17).
Traditionally, Sundance and Berlin mark the start of the year for the film industry. The two went online-only in 2021, a first for both festivals. Execs had been hoping Sundance-Berlin 2022 would mark a return to normalcy.
“[Dec. 6] was the very first day of the European Film Market’s early bird registration, and we were planning to sign up right away, [but] we’ve changed all our plans until we know more about this new omicron thing,” says Miyuki Takamatsu, of Free Stone Productions, a boutique films sales outfit that handles titles for such Japanese auteurs as Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Naomi Kawase. “But now we’re going to wait awhile and see how things develop as more becomes known about the new variant.”
Likewise, a Sundance regular handling several films featuring high-profile talent says she has booked office space and lodging in Park City but is waiting to confirm flights out of fear that the festival may be scaled back. “People are definitely starting to freak out about omicron,” she says. But Sundance festival director Tabitha Jackson is determined to move forward as planned — in person with virtual components — and has begun doing her press interviews to discuss the slate of films that will be unveiled Dec. 9 and 10.
“We are looking at Sundance as a festival that is crucial to attend in person, and we are committed 100 percent to attending even if we have to wear hazmat suits, which I’m confident will not be necessary,” says Submarine’s Josh Braun, who is U.S.- based and remains on the fence about Berlin.
With cases involving the new coronavirus variant rising in Europe — and Germany has been among the hardest hit — producers, sales companies and international buyers are rethinking their plans. A handful of sales companies have canceled their hotel reservations for Berlin and are playing wait-and-see before committing.
“We are planning to attend the Berlinale in person and therefore really hope things won’t get any worse,” says Yunjeong Kim, director of international business at Korean sales agent Finecut, “[but] if there are stricter travel restrictions or worsening cases, we may need to change our plans, sadly.”
For its part, the Berlinale is unwavering about not going virtual again. The last in-person incarnation in 2020 attracted such stars as Johnny Depp, Elle Fanning and Hillary Clinton, who was promoting her titular documentary. “We would like to emphasize that there are no plans to postpone the festival or the market to a later date or to go virtual,” the Berlinale, led by exec director Mariette Rissenbeek and artistic director Carlo Chatrian, said in a statement, noting it planned to hold both the festival and the European Film Market as in-person events “under 2G conditions,” meaning all attendees will have to be either fully vaccinated or recovered from a COVID-19 infection (the 2Gs of the German system, standing for geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)).
The 2021 European Film Awards, which had planned an in-person ceremony in Berlin on Dec. 11, moved to a hybrid model in response to rising infection rates in Germany, while film and TV fund Medienboard, which holds an annual blowout tied to the Berlinale, has canceled its plans for a bash next year. But conditions at the moment would still allow an in-person festival. But conditions at the moment would still allow an in-person festival. Germany has tightened COVID-19 regulations — essentially banning the unvaccinated from most indoor public spaces, including movie theaters — but the country is not in lockdown and there are no signs yet the government wants to go there. Both the Cannes and Venice film festivals were held in person this year, albeit under strict COVID-19 safety protocols.
One worry is that fears around Berlin become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the number of companies canceling their travel plans reaches a tipping point and the European Film Market becomes less attractive for other attendees. “I have booked hotel rooms, offices and flights [for Berlin] and have every intention of going, but only if everyone else shows up too,” notes David Garrett of London-based sales operation Mister Smith Entertainment.
The experience of late 2020, where the delta variant derailed the winter festival season, has made everyone cautious this time around. In addition to tracking daily infection rates and travel restrictions, executives looking to travel to either Berlin or Sundance will need to check they have the proper shots. For Berlin, only those vaccinated with one of the four COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the European Union — Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — are considered vaccinated under the festival’s “2G” regulations.
This could be a problem for attendees from China and Southeast Asia, where the Chinese-manufactured Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines have been widely used, or Russia and parts of Eastern and Central Europe, where the Russian-made Sputnik jab is common. There is unlikely to be much of a Chinese presence in Berlin next year in any case. The Chinese New Year, Feb. 1-15, falls right in the middle of the festival, and China’s strict COVID-19 regulations — all returning travelers have to endure a mandatory three-week hotel quarantine — makes travel impractical.
Sundance will open its doors to a wider group. All participants and employees must be fully vaccinated “with a WHO-approved vaccine,” which covers Berlin’s four plus Sinopharm and Sinovac and India’s Covaxin.
“We will be closely following the developments of the new omicron variant and looking at any new recommendations once scientists have more definitive information around it in a few weeks,” a Sundance spokesperson says. “We feel confident in our model and currently are not altering our plans.”
For now, many are cautiously optimistic. “I was pessimistic, but now my optimism is getting the better of me,” says Thorsten Ritter of German sales group Beta Film. “Despite omicron, I expect that Sundance will be held as a hybrid [event] and Berlin will take place in person. And that the buyers will come. In our virtual AFM meetings, most of the distributors had already booked their hotels.
A version of this story appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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