A caption appears against a black background: “One year ago this weekend.”

In a montage we see scenes of people pouring through cinema foyers in China, Australia, India, Britain, France, Brazil, Mexico and the United States. They are stampeding towards sold-out showings of Avengers: Endgame, the most eagerly awaited superhero film in history. The crowds crave the emotional punch of a shared viewing experience in front of a big screen. Movie palaces around the world are rammed.

Thundering music swells. Mocked-up newspapers in various languages thud into the centre of the frame, informing us that from April 26 to 28, 2019, the finale to Marvel’s 22-film Infinity saga smashes records for the best opening weekend in history, before going on to become the highest-grossing film yet made and the biggest hit of one of the most lucrative years that Hollywood has yet known.

Cut to silence, and ghostly images of locked studio gates, closed multiplexes and shuttered theme parks.

Fade Out?

Hollywood is at a standstill. Production is mothballed nearly everywhere. Mission: Impossible 7 has left Venice. Filming on Amazon’s Lord of the Rings TV series in New Zealand is suspended. The sound stages at the Warner Bros lot in Burbank, California, where work on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In The Heights was under way only a few weeks ago, are eerily quiet.

Cinemas are closed in most parts of most countries. Streaming services are filling the void. Netflix released figures this week: 15.8 million people around the world subscribed to the service in the first three months of the year. The company is now worth more than the oil and gas giant ExxonMobil. Preparations for the Cannes, Venice and Toronto film festivals — the building blocks of awards season — are in limbo (while the Venice Biennale’s president said this week that the film festival would go ahead as planned on September 2-12, it’s questionable how many actors, film-makers and journalists will feel comfortable making the trip). At present, the Will Smith action film Bad Boys For Life and the video game adaptation Sonic The Hedgehog are plausible contenders for the 2021 Oscars.

Spring and early summer blockbusters have been shunted back to July or much later, including the new James Bond film No Time to Die, the Marvel adventure Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, Mulan and the return of Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick. Smaller releases have been postponed indefinitely.

Netflix is now worth more than the oil and gas giant ExxonMobil.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have been laid off, furloughed or otherwise lost their income streams. Fearful uncertainty looms over the film community and nobody can say, with full confidence, what the industry will look like when work restarts or when audiences will feel safe in cinemas again.

What a difference 12 months make.

Unsurprisingly, the entertainment sector is attracting less sympathy than other industries right now. Misjudged A-lister interventions, such as Gal Gadot’s notorious Instagram video of famous people singing Imagine or Jennifer Lopez putting an optimistic spin on confinement from her fiancé Alex Rodriguez’s spectacular Miami compound, have not helped.

But only a tiny top tier of big movie stars and studio moguls are anywhere near as well insulated against the turmoil as Gadot, Lopez and the like are. The US film industry supports 2.5 million jobs, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and a huge number of those livelihoods are at risk.

Because celebrities skew the public’s perception of Hollywood there’s an assumption that “everyone lives in a mansion”, says Annie Jeeves, a film and entertainment publicist based in Los Angeles. In practice, “most people are struggling to make rents and mortgages most days. The entertainment industry is event producers, it is costumers, it’s hair and make-up, it is PAs, it is managers and agents. It’s lighting, cinematographers and [independent] directors and writers.”

The big names are really only “1 per cent of the workforce that creates the content that you’re seeing and gets it out in front of the world”. Most of the others are self-employed, with no health benefits or company pension. In many cases they are paid by the hour or by the day, and only when they’re working. When a production shuts down their income dries up. Often they lack the savings to cope with more than a brief break in employment.

Fearful uncertainty looms over the film community and nobody can say, with full confidence, what the industry will look like when work restarts or when audiences will feel safe in cinemas again.

Some specialists have been fortunate. Animators are in high demand because they create the only new content that can fill television schedules without humans needing to get together. Some screenwriters are also working, but not in writers’ rooms. Editors are finishing off projects that were under way when the shutdown happened (in Hollywood it was finalised on March 15, when Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, ordered all non-essential businesses to close).

Film music composers are still writing scores, albeit for smaller numbers of musicians than before who then record their parts separately instead of together. But some hair stylists are having to chase wig-making jobs. Set builders, grips and make-up artists can’t do their regular work at all.

Economic stimulus cheques sent to millions of American taxpayers from the treasury this month will help, but will probably cover only part of a single mortgage or rental payment, particularly in Los Angeles, one of the costlier cities in the country.

The Trump administration also approved billions of dollars in rescue grants last week to small businesses in categories that include the film and television industries, but also incorporate fitness centres, telecommunications companies and software companies. Netflix and WarnerMedia have both committed $100 million to supporting unemployed industry workers through the crisis.

Tearing Up the Script

Even so, the shutdown has been “brutal”, says Jeeves, who was supposed to be busy preparing the American pavilion in Cannes, after back-to-back work trips to the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas and to New York, which were also cancelled. She is coping thanks to her two cats and her adaptable profession. She can run her company from her living-room sofa with a phone and a laptop. But other skilled film industry specialists face losing their homes and their businesses. “People are freaking out,” she says.

Adjacent industries have been hit too. Nate n’ Al’s, a beloved Beverly Hills delicatessen known for its industry clientele, has closed indefinitely, citing the virus. Industry advertising has crashed, hurting trade publications. The owners of The Hollywood Reporter, who were already battling staff over editorial independence, cut about a dozen jobs last week, including Todd McCarthy, their veteran chief critic. “It’s the end of something,” he wrote. “What the next something is — for everyone in our business — seems less knowable than ever.”

“Most people are struggling to make rents and mortgages most days. The entertainment industry is event producers, it is costumers, it’s hair and make-up, it is PAs, it is managers and agents. It’s lighting, cinematographers and [independent] directors and writers.”

Amid the desolation there is innovation. Studios have yearned to experiment with their release strategies for years and now, hoping to capitalise on the soaring demand for home entertainment, they have made February and March cinema releases including The Hunt, Birds of Prey and Emma available online well before the end of the traditional 90-day “window”. Universal premiered Trolls World Tour on video on demand and claimed a record for a digital release (but declined to release revenue data).

Stuck at home, viewers “are getting used to a new normal”, says Pete Hammond, the chief film critic of the industry news site Deadline. “Things move so fast now that it’s a big question mark as to how this is going to affect particularly the younger generations’ moviegoing habits.

“The big question is: will people come back [to cinemas], or have they gotten used to seeing entertainment in a different way? Will they want to go back into theatres? My guess is yes. I keep repeating a line that Jack Valenti, the former head of the MPAA, always said: ‘What kid on a Friday night is going to want to sit on his parents’ couch and watch movies that way?’ ”

But the impact of coronavirus on the industry has already been “earth-shaking”. Even the Walt Disney Company, the box-office juggernaut behind the Marvel films (and the Star Wars films, and the Pixar films, and last year’s Frozen II), is fighting to keep its empire intact. Bob Iger, the lionised chief executive who stepped down in February after an immaculately choreographed victory lap that capped 15 glorious years in charge, is now back in the bunker trying to fashion a survival strategy for the company.

Disney’s film division is confronting a devastating threat to its business model. But so too are the deserted theme parks and docked cruise liners of the company’s most profitable division. Meanwhile, ESPN, the crown jewel of Disney’s television portfolio, is a sports channel floundering with no live sport to broadcast for the foreseeable future. Recently Disney stopped paying 100,000 employees, almost half of its global workforce. Iger has agreed to forgo the remainder of his $3 million salary. Then again, last year he also received more than $47 million in bonuses, stock awards and options. He is also part of an advisory council set up by the California governor Gavin Newsom to plan the state’s economic recovery. Other members with ties to the entertainment sector include Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Apple chief executive Tim Cook.

The Directors Guild of America has announced its own committee to focus on getting Hollywood back to work. It will be led by Steven Soderbergh, who is not a disaster relief expert or an economist, but did at least direct the 2011 pandemic thriller Contagion.

Recently Disney stopped paying 100,000 employees, almost half of its global workforce.

The last pandemic that the US film industry faced shut down production in Hollywood for over a month, forced the closure of up to 90 per cent of American cinemas, infected several of the biggest movie stars in the world (including Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish) and killed two of them (the matinee idol Harold Lockwood and Russian cinema’s first great leading lady, Vera Kholodnaya). By the time the 1918 Spanish flu was tamed the industry was transformed.

Previously, most cinemas had been owned by small independent operators, but they struggled to weather the closures so “the studios came in and consolidated all those theatres into chains that they controlled”, says Tom Nunan, a former producer who lectures at UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television. That gave the big studios control of every stage of the industry, from making the films to putting them in front of an audience. The new business model ushered in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system and lasted until the Supreme Court finally ordered the studios to sell off their cinema chains in 1948 on fair competition grounds.

If coronavirus endures for as long as many forecasts suggest, the pandemic could prove just as much of a watershed. Before the virus struck, the industry was facing an existential challenge. Despite the huge 2019 box office revenues, attendance in North American cinemas had been shrinking for years because of the rise of streaming services, improved mobile technology and changing consumer habits. “Even though it’s a multibillion-dollar industry, it’s vulnerable,” Nunan says.

Arguably Netflix, Amazon and the like — makers of films who also own the pipeline to the viewer — have outflanked the studios by constructing 21st-century versions of the vertically integrated studios outlawed in 1948. Last November Makan Delrahim, an assistant attorney general in the department of justice, said that the Trump administration backed “the termination” of the 1948 ruling to clear the path “for consumer-friendly innovation”, which raises the prospect of the studios taking back control of the cinemas.

Much hinges on how and when most cinemas reopen. President Trump has indicated that he wants that process to begin soon. In China cinemas reopened in March, but then closed abruptly two weeks later. This week the Republican governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, said that cinemas in his state — which has had more than 700 deaths from coronavirus — could reopen from Monday, subject to social distancing and sanitation mandates.

Most US industry leaders and analysts have predicted a late summer return at the earliest for the box office, with cinemas initially screening classic old films or leftover March films while studios assess their options. John Stankey, the chief operating officer of Warner Bros’s parent company AT&T, said in an earnings call on Wednesday that the company was “rethinking the theatrical model” (ie: cinema release) in light of the virus.

Everyone in the industry is acutely aware that if a new outbreak is traced to a reopened cinema it could have a disastrous effect on public confidence. Cinema-going could even die out, Nunan says. “I don’t think people are willing to put their lives at risk over going to see the sequel to Avatar, you know?”

The growing backlog of delayed releases also adds intrigue. Studios won’t want to sit on them for ever. Could they be tempted to try an unprecedented video-on-demand world premiere for a blockbuster like the next Bond film or Wonder Woman 1984?

“If our movie theatres don’t open up again by November or December I think we’ll see some of those go online,” Nunan says. “If the theatres stay shut past Christmas I think you may see a whole new world afterwards.”