Hollywood Wanted to Go Back to Business as Usual. The Delta Variant Had Other Plans

·6 min read

On Monday night, as the sun set in New York City, 200 people gathered at the Directors Guild of America screening room to watch Ryan Murphy’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” before heading to an exclusive dinner at The Pool restaurant.

It was a star-studded affair, bringing out the likes of Beanie Feldstein, producer Monica Lewinsky, and CAA super-agent Bryan Lourd, and aside from the ubiquity of masks over easily recognizable faces, and socially distanced seating at the after-party, it almost seemed as though Hollywood was lurching back toward a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy. But there were still stark reminders that coronavirus remains stubbornly present more than a year after it brought life to a standstill. The A-list guests, for instance, had to show proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter the screening.

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“We asked people to come a little earlier than usual to allow for time for check-in. Everyone was patient and cooperated and they followed the rules,” says Darin Pfeiffer, the veteran event planner behind the screening. “Guests seem to understand that this is the new normal, that we have to follow the guidelines to keep everyone safe.”

In recent weeks, the movie and television business has resumed hosting in-person premieres for the likes of “Ted Lasso” and “Jungle Cruise,” while major industry events such as the Cannes Film Festival have returned at full capacity. Filmmakers and actors are looking ahead to a busy awards season, one that will see them touching down in Venice, New York and Telluride as they move from one festival to another. And studios and agencies are gearing up for a return-to-work in the fall.

And yet, the highly transmissible nature of the Delta variant, and stories of the breakthrough infections it occasionally causes in vaccinated people, are clouding those plans. Apple recently pushed back the reopening of its offices to October, delaying the return by a month. Other entertainment companies had pegged the resumption of office life at Labor Day, but many now privately expect that date to be moved back by weeks if not months.

“You can’t ask people to sit at their desk with masks on for nine or 10 hours a day,” said one film executive, noting that mask-mandates are back in force in Los Angeles.

Studies show that vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID infections. Research also demonstrates that vaccinated people who do suffer from a breakthrough infection are far less likely to be hospitalized or to die than unvaccinated people. But many studio executives are worried about spreading the disease to their children or to friends and relatives with underlying health conditions that may make them more vulnerable.

The shifting public health situation is creating logistical headaches for the fall festival season. Major studio films such as “Dune” and “The Last Duel” are headed to Venice, but the Toronto Film Festival has struggled to land as many high-profile projects, in part because Canada isn’t easing travel restrictions on U.S. visitors until early August. There are pressing questions regarding the number of celebrities who will feel comfortable attending the gatherings given the uncertainty surrounding the virus. Both festivals are committed to hosting in-person screenings, but with certain safety measures put in place.

The Venice Film Festival — which last year was the only top-tier fest to pull off an in-person edition — is sounding an upbeat note and is clearly hoping the Delta variant won’t spoil the party.

“I am confident that we can hold the festival in total safety, like we did last year, but with more talent, attendees, spectators. And with more user-friendly controls,” says Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera. He also confides the Lido’s COVID-19 safety measures will be “much less complicated than Cannes’.”

Venice organizers “will not impose a COVID test on people who have been vaccinated in other countries,” Barbera vows, though it’s still unclear how they will certify proof of vaccination for those coming outside the E.U. which has a digital proof of vaccination called Green Pass that the Italian government has made mandatory to enter indoor screening venues. Toronto organizers say the festival will require guests to wear masks during screenings and will institute social distanced seating. It has yet to announce if audience members will be forced to present proof of vaccination.

Even for executives and artists in Europe, travel can be daunting during the pandemic era. Endeavor Content’s London-based film associate Harriet Harper-Jones was the member of her team on the ground in Cannes. She’d hoped to make the journey to the Lido as well, given that Endeavor Content is selling both Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” and newcomer Mounia Akl’s “Costa Brava Lebanon” at the festival. However, the five-day quarantine currently in place for U.K. residents makes the trip to Venice a non-starter.

“As much as I’d love to come and celebrate the success of both ‘Costa Brava Lebanon’ and ‘The Lost Daughter,’ the quarantine is inhibitive,” she tells Variety. “Praying they lift the quarantine for those who are doubled vaccinated so we can be active contributors to the European market and support our films and the filmmakers that are competing.”

Studios send talent to these far-flung festivals to raise the visibility of the films they produce, but the spike in COVID infections could scramble release plans for fall movies. It’s already impacting the box office, with recent surveys suggesting that coverage of the Delta variant has made moviegoers less comfortable going to cinemas. Studios like Disney and Warner Bros. are already hedging their bets by debuting movies concurrently on demand or on streaming platforms, and if infections keep spreading that could continue. It may also spark a new rash of delays.

“We might be in for a few more release date changes if this ramps up into fall and if we start seeing lower grosses because of it,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

If studios start shifting movies that could be devastating for movie theaters, which are only slowly starting to rebound after months of closures or capacity restrictions. They need big-budget movies to lure audiences back to multiplexes.

On Monday night, however, those concerns were overshadowed as the glossy machinery of Hollywood continued to churn. Just a half-mile away from the Clinton “Impeachment” party, hundreds of people gathered at Jazz at Lincoln Center for the premiere of “Stillwater” to watch as stars like Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin walked the red carpet.

“The pandemic isn’t over yet, but here, where we’re vaccinated and social distancing and masked, it feels safe,” Breslin told Variety. “And it’s exciting to be out with a project like ‘Stillwater,’ which we’re all so proud of and excited to bring to the theaters. After the year that we’ve all had, it’s exciting to be having that communal experience of watching a film on a big screen. Hopefully we’re all heading to a new normal.”

Manori Ravindran, Rebecca Rubin, Nick Vivarelli, and Michael Appler contributed to this report.

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