Trump's Europe Travel Ban Sows Confusion Within Film Industry

Boulevard de la Croisette_Cannes - Getty - H 2020
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As Americans abroad scramble to get home, international execs are uncertain who exactly will be affected by the new ban and what the business repercussions will be.

President Donald Trump's Oval Office address on Wednesday night, in which he announced a new ban on most travel from Europe, aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus, has sowed confusion and concern within the international entertainment industry, with little certainty about what the new restrictions will mean and who, exactly, will be affected.

Trump imposed a 30-day ban on U.S. entry to foreign nationals who, in the past 14 days, had been to one of the 26 countries that make up the European Union’s Schengen Area, a group of “borderless” territories with the EU that includes countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Poland, but not the U.K. or Ireland. American citizens will be exempt from the travel ban as will, more confusingly, “travelers from the U.K.” The ban is set to begin at 11:59 p.m. ET on Friday. By midnight Friday, the new restrictions will be in full force. They will not apply to anyone aboard a flight to the U.S. that left before that time.

The Hollywood ecosystem relies extensively on easy travel to and from Europe. One of the most common reasons that studio executives and talent visit Europe is to promote movies. The travel ban appears to have pushed the studios into pulling a number of films from their schedules on Thursday morning, including Fast and Furious 9. For Paramount's A Quiet Place Part II, which was also pulled Thursday, eight days ahead of its May 20 release, the cast and studio executives had been scheduled to visit the continent in the coming days but had not yet left. Publicists are among the most vulnerable to be caught in the travel ban crosshairs, but a number of PR firms already had limited travel in recent days and are not anticipating staffers being stranded in Europe.

"We have been monitoring the situation for weeks. I had my New York staff begin working remotely on Monday of this week and we began with our L.A. staff as of today,” says ID’s Kelly Bush. “No one is stranded anywhere. The administration corrected Trump’s remarks and said U.S. citizens would be allowed to come home." That said, she expects the number of flights to be reduced.

Sunshine Sachs also says its staffers won’t be affected by the ban and is assessing the impact on clients. On the studio front, several of the majors already had banned non-essential travel, including Sony and Warner Bros. Universal has recommended that employees not travel unless absolutely necessary. That has trickled down to its specialty label, Focus Features, whose executives have largely moved to working from home.

But Trump's announcement has caused widespread confusion as to how exactly the new restrictions will be applied. American talent and crews currently in Europe are scrambling to get home and studios with U.S. staff abroad are weighing their options.

Warner Bros.' The Matrix 4, the latest in the sci-fi mega-franchise, is deep into preproduction at Berlin's Studio Babelsberg, as is the Mark Wahlberg and Tom Holland actioner Uncharted from Sony Pictures. So far, according to sources near Babelsberg, no decisions have been made to pull crews out, but “the situation is changing by the hour.”

President Trump in his address also noted that American citizens who had traveled in the Schengen Area would have to be "appropriately screened" before being allowed to enter the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, speaking Thursday on Fox News Channel's Fox & Friends, said Americans returning from Europe in the next 30 days would be “funneled through 13 airports” and asked to self-quarantine for 14 days, but he did not specify which airports.

In the U.K., Brits are unsure if the new ban will apply to them or not. Travel from the U.K. is not affected, but British or Irish citizens who have been to Europe over the past two weeks — a time period that includes the last few days of the Berlin International Film Festival — may be caught up in the ban. The acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security has said that further guidance on the travel suspension will come within the next two days.

"Honestly, don't ask me," said one Brit TV exec when questioned about who was affected by the ban. "But we’ve got events happening in the U.S. that are being arranged as we speak, and at the moment we’re just carrying on as if it’s business as usual. We can still go there until we get some official guidance, we think."

The Trump ban follows a slew of new restrictions within Europe that have already curtailed business and free movement within the continent. In Italy, the European country hardest hit by COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, the nation is on lockdown, with supermarkets and medical facilities virtually the only public places still open. Austria and Slovenia have introduced tight border restrictions with Italy, going against the Schengen protocols, in a bid to stem the spread of COVID-19. Several countries, including Poland, France, Spain and Germany, have introduced local or national restrictions on public gatherings and numerous events have been canceled over coronavirus fears.

Ireland, one of the countries exempted from the Trump ban, on Thursday announced it would close all schools, colleges and childcare facilities from 6 p.m. Thursday local time until March 29 and is canceling all indoor gatherings of 100 people or more and all outdoor gatherings of 500 or more.

The European Commission, the governing body of the European Union, on Thursday condemned Trump's ban as irresponsible and ineffective.

“The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” the Commission said in a statement. “The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.”

The 30-day ban, which President Trump has said he will extend if he sees fit, makes it even more likely that the Cannes Film Festival, scheduled to run May 12-23, will be canceled or postponed. French President Emmanuel Macron is set to address the nation on Thursday evening and may announce new restrictions in his efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the film industry is reeling from the impact of cinema closures, production delays and a feeling of general uncertainty.

Exhibition giant and Regal owner Cineworld Group on Thursday said it did not currently expect a major impact from cinema closures as a result of the coronavirus, but outlined a negative scenario whereby the firm could lose between two and three months' total revenue as a result of COVID-19 effects. Under that scenario, Cineworld said "there is a risk of breaching the group's financial covenants, unless a waiver agreement is reached with the required majority of lenders."

Several territories have been hit by partial or complete cinema shutdowns, including China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, France and Poland.

Meanwhile, for independent film companies, the COVID-19 disruption of the market and festival calendars — SXSW was canceled by Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler last week; television events MIPTV and Series Mania have been dropped; and CinemaCon in Las Vegas was scrapped following the Trump travel ban — means new risks and a lack of planning certainty.

“Our business, if our employees can travel and to where, whether we can market and sell our films and how, is all being determined by these government decisions,” said Jean-Christophe Simon, head of Berlin-based sales and distribution outfit Films Boutique. “We are proceeding as normal for now, but we really don't know what will happen.”

COVID-19 got its first celebrity patient on Wednesday when Tom Hanks confirmed via Instagram that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, tested positive for the coronavirus. The couple are currently in Australia, where Hanks is shooting Baz Lurhmann's as-yet-untitled Elvis Presley movie for Warner Bros. and Wilson is performing concerts of songs from her new album Halfway to Home. They are currently receiving medical treatment in a hospital in Queensland on the Australian Gold Coast. 

Australian officials on Thursday said all newly reported infection cases in the Queensland region, including that of Hanks and Wilson, are believed to have contracted the coronavirus before traveling to Australia. All production personnel on the Luhrmann film have been sent home. Local news outlets report that the filmmaker issued a statement to cast and crew requesting they stay home and that “all work activity on the production is cancelled and will not resume until further notice.” Principal photography was due to start next Monday on the film, which has a release date of October 2021.

Several other international productions are currently shooting in Australia, including Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. So far, no other film shoots in the country are known to have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Alex Ritman contributed to this report.