Berlin: Dealmakers Fret Over Industry Impact of the Coronavirus

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With China’s film sector essentially shut down and release dates for even Hollywood tentpoles still up in the air, sellers are reluctant to commit to the Middle Kingdom: "The situation for the film industry is terrible."

Chinese industry players were predictably scarce on the Berlin sales floor as the European Film Market got fully underway Thursday. Organizers confirmed that 118 Chinese companies and individuals had pulled out of this year's market, all of them citing the inability to travel because of the coronavirus crisis that continues to paralyze broad swaths of the world's second-biggest economy.

Many veteran Chinese buyers contacted by THR said they still planned to participate in the market from afar. "Most sellers have been very supportive in sharing their lineups with us by email and phone," said Cindy Mi Lin, CEO of distributor Infotainment China Media, at home in her apartment in Beijing. "It's not that difficult for us to buy remotely," she added.

The much bigger issue looming over prospective dealmaking, Lin said, is the growing likelihood that any film acquired in Berlin stands no chance of releasing in China anytime remotely soon.

Although new infections of the coronavirus in China have begun to slow, the country's 70,000 movie screens remain dark as health officials continue to urge the populace to stay home and avoid congregating in public places. The consensus among Beijing industry insiders is that cinemas are unlikely to reopen until May at the earliest. In the meantime, the backlog of Chinese and Hollywood tentpoles that will need to be rescheduled continues to accumulate. Disney's Mulan, tailor-made for a big earnings in China, stands little chance of retaining its original March 27 release date, most insiders believe. Universal's James Bond film, No Time to Die, already has scrapped its plans for a Chinese premiere in April.  

Once Chinese theaters finally reopen and the rescheduling of release dates begins, regulators are expected to favor local product as they try to shore up the badly damaged domestic industry. The six big-budget tentpoles that were postponed over Chinese New Year will crowd out the most lucrative upcoming holiday dates, while other finished and furloughed Chinese product will be piled into other weekends. Longstanding relationships with the Hollywood majors will also probably take some priority, allowing the studios the second pick for dates. Independent foreign films — whether from the U.S., Europe or elsewhere in Asia— will be left with the scraps.

"The real tragedy is the virus and the lives lost, but the situation for the film industry is terrible," says Jeffrey Greenstein, president of Millennium Media, which previously had sold two titles to China — Hellboy and Rambo: Last Blood — which were expected to open there in the first quarter of this year. Whether either title will ever eventually open in China is now "completely uncertain," Greenstein says. "I don't know how you make up for this lost time," he adds.

Cai Gongming, one of the few influential Chinese distribution executives on the ground in Berlin, said he was only seriously considering projects in very early stages of development, because those are the titles most likely to be ready for release by the time China's market has stabilized. "The backlog is going to be very difficult to unwind and competition for release dates will be very hard," he said. Cai's company, Road Pictures, acquired Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story and had begun marketing it for a Feb. 28 release when the virus crisis scotched those plans. The film is among the growing pile of titles awaiting the reopening of cinemas. "This market will be more about seeing friends for me," Cai said in Berlin with a resigned shrug.

Influential Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke, in Berlin for the premiere of his documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, said the work of rebuilding the Chinese theatrical business will only just begin with the restarting of cinemas. "Even if this is under control in June or July, it's hard to imagine whether the Chinese audience will feel comfortable going back to the cinemas to watch films together."

A version of this story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 21 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.