Everyone in a Horrible Position : Festivals, Awards Shows Scramble

The Oscars’ April 25 date appears safe, butthe Grammys are on the move and the SAG Awards may be next, while Sundance is slimming down and Cannes is drawing up COVID-19 contingency plans BY TATIANA SIEGEL AND SCOTT ROXBOROUGH .

With COVID-19 cases showing no sign of abating, organizers of Hollywood awards shows and global film festivals are grappling with whether to postpone or scuttle their planned industry events. On Jan. 5, Sundance opted for a version of the latter by canceling its Los Angeles-area drive-in screenings because of a spike in COVID-19 cases in Southern California. That move came on the heels of the Grammys’ postponement of its Jan. 31 ceremony. The SAG Awards, which are scheduled to take place March 14 — the same date now claimed by the Grammys — may be the next to move, sources say, while the Feb. 28 Golden Globes are a question mark. When Sundance pulled the plug on its planned outdoor screenings, it caught some filmmakers off guard. The festival sent an email to producers and directors just one hour before the news broke. In a letter to filmmakers obtained by THR, festival director Tabitha Jackson and  director of programming Kim Yutani wrote, “We ultimately came to the conclusion that it would not be safe or responsible to move forward with [the screenings].” A rep for one Sundance film affected by the decision described being “disappointed” by the move but seeing it as understandable. “It’s a mess here [in L.A.],” says the rep. “Everyone’s in a horrible position.” The Oscars’ scheduled date, April 25, looks safe for now, but location and format are uncertain. Writer-producer Eric Roth, who is on the Academy’s board of governors, tells THR that organizers are “doing everything possible in the world to have their Oscar ceremony.” Still,the prospect of convening industryites in theaters — be itthe Dolby for the Oscars or the Palais in Cannes — remains a challenge. As such, all eyes are on the 74th Cannes Film Festivalto see if it will move from its current dates of May 11-22 (Berlin already has pivoted to a stripped-down, virtual version of its festival in late February and moved we believe [Marcus’] real estate holdings should provide a baseline valuation for the company that the others cannot match, the meaningfully lower rent expense gives the company a lower fourwall break-even point as the theaters begin to reopen.” Marcus’ rent expense for all of 2020 will amount to only 10.3 percent of its revenue, compared to 42.6 percent in the case of Cinemark and 76.2 percent for AMC, according to B. Riley FBR estimates. Given the lower fixed rent expense, Marcus can turn a profit more quickly than peers with higher costs, analysts say. Barrington Research’s Jim Goss upgraded Marcus shares from “market perform” to “outperform” on Nov. 10, saying that the COVID-19 vaccine “should be an important contributing factor in pushing up the time frame for which consumers will be willing to return to theaters and studios advancing their release of films to these audiences.” The case for Marcus is bolstered by “positive” steps that have boosted its liquidity, including a recent debt issue and tax refunds, “enabled by the company’s strong balance sheet entering the crisis,” Goss noted. The firm has also earmarked some surplus real estate for sale, saying that the proceeds could raise “tens of millions of dollars.” While AMC and Regal owner Cineworld have struggled with high debt loads and diminishing cash, Goss said Marcus’ “level of liquidity should be sufficient to sustain operations well into 2021.” Marcus’ CEO says industry fallout from the pandemic, such as a likely reduction in the number of movie screens, could also provide buying opportunities as competitors rationalize their footprints. “We anticipate various real estate owners may be getting properties back from tenants,” Marcus notes to THR, but emphasizes: “We will continue to be disciplined in our investment approach as we evaluate any potential future opportunities.” the accompanying market online). Cannes Festival director Thierry Frémaux has outlined an alternative strategy, with plans to hold the French festival in late June or early July if COVID-19 figures make the May date untenable. But pushing Cannes too far would create disruption in the delicate fall festival ecosystem. Venice — set for Sept. 1-11 — could end up in a battle with Cannes for world premieres of top titles. The fall fests, including Toronto (Sept. 9-19), San Sebastian (Sept. 17-25) and London (Oct. 6-17), typically don’t compete directly with Cannes for titles and could even benefit from the prestige of screening Cannes’ buzzy films soon after they premiere on the Croisette. Similarly, trade fairs like April’s MIPTV are modifying plans, going online-only again. Even in Asia, where infection rates are low by global standards, expectations for a truly international festival calendar are dim. The Hong Kong Festival and Filmart industry confab in March have shifted entirely online. China’s Beijing and Shanghai festivals both took place last year after lengthy delays but became domestic affairs with the country’s borders closed. The same arrangement is expected throughout the Chinese industry for 2021 when the Beijing festival arrives in April and the Shanghai event in June. Hopes are high that the regionleading Busan International Film Festival will be able to welcome global guests in October, but organizers say any decision remains far off. As for the Oscars, The Trial ofthe Chicago 7 producer Marc Platt sums up the sentiment of many right now, given bleak headlines about overflowing hospitals: “Sure, we’d love for there to be an awards ceremony, but it doesn’t seem like the world absolutely has to have one right now.”

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