Can Joe Biden save the movies?
It is mid-November, typically the heart of Oscar season, and there is only one major movie left on the calendar for the rest of the year.
Though Wonder Woman 1984 is still slated to come out on Christmas Day, with coronavirus cases exploding nationwide, there seems to be a fainter and fainter chance that anyone will be seeing it in theaters next month. Even the CEO of the world's second-largest theater chain, Cineworld, believes the blockbuster should be delayed — no minor statement, as cinemas are hemorrhaging money every minute the pandemic wears on. The National Association of Theatre Owners, which represents over 35,000 movie screens in the U.S., claims that "probably around 70 percent of our mid and small sized members … will either confront bankruptcy reorganization or the likelihood of going out of business entirely by sometime in January."
For now though, with President Trump a lame duck and Congress seemingly far apart on aid negotiations, the prospects of government help seem extremely slim. To say the industry is hoping for swift action when President-elect Joe Biden takes office is an understatement. But they have reason to be optimistic he'll be the hero they need.
President Trump, really, would have been the more fitting savior for Hollywood, given his background. A showman at heart, he's always been obsessed with his fellow celebrities, and loves weighing in on the Oscars (even pretending he has one). But Tinseltown never loved him back, except as a reliable punchline, and the president has taken to bashing the "elites" in a way that seems nearly resentful, calling Hollywood "racist at the highest level," and a "tremendous disservice to our country." His biggest endearment to the studios during his presidency was his tax cut bill that mostly benefited corporations and wealthy individuals, a "silver lining" for the "many in Hollywood [who] weren't happy with [his] election," The Hollywood Reporter and Marketplace report. But while theater owners have taken to lashing out at Democrats over studio delays and lockdowns in the past few months, it is ultimately Trump's gross mismanagement of the pandemic that is to blame for the bankruptcy and closures to come.
Biden is already on Hollywood celebrities' good side just by virtue of not being Trump, although admittedly he's not as rich a target for late night hosts, who'll have to relearn how to cover boringly competent politicians over the next four years. But there's also reason to believe Biden will be embraced for industry-friendly policies, too. His vice president, Kamala Harris, of course, comes from California herself, and brings with her cozy relationships throughout the entertainment industry. When she was a primary candidate, she "received more contributions from the entertainment industry than any other Democrat," Variety reports, and helped bring in similar money for Biden. And as conservative commentator John Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, told the publication at the time: "If you're on the business side, it helps to have good relations with the senator from California." Better yet, a vice president.
Harris, though, isn't the only one with ties to Hollywood. Biden has a number of advisers and aides who also have links to the industry: His deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield, his national press secretary T.J. Ducklo, and his close friend, former Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, all formerly worked at the Motion Picture Association, the lobbying group that represents the five major film studios and Netflix, Deadline reports. ("Joe was our champion inside the White House," Dodd, who led the MPA during much of the Obama era, told the Los Angeles Times last year). Add to the list the current MPA chairman, Charles Rivkin, a veteran Obama administration official who "knows Biden well." Former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican who served with Biden and now leads the National Association of Broadcasters, added in a message to members also reported by Deadline that he and Biden "became friends, and that is a friendship that has continued to this day. And so I know that I am going to have the chance to make the NAB's case to the president-elect when and if that should become necessary."
Indeed, Biden has a reputation for having a "long a history of delivering for the [film] industry," the Los Angeles Times writes, so much so that Biden's campaign has needed to insist "that his advocacy for the industry had no relationship to the industry's political support." Biden, further, has always been a fierce champion for copyright protections and anti-piracy laws, which are perennial concerns of studios. In the Obama White House, for example, the Los Angeles Times says he reportedly advocated for the Stop Online Piracy Act, which was introduced in 2011 and backed by Hollywood and other entertainment giants and would have led to a crackdown on online copyright infringement; the law, though, was opposed by tech giants, which staged massive "blackouts" in protest and argued it threatened free speech, creativity, and supposedly had the potential to shut down websites like Etsy or Vimeo. Obama eventually sided with big tech, but already some in the industry are celebrating Biden for potentially taking up their cause again, only this time while in the driver's seat.
But perhaps the biggest curiosity of all will be how Biden handles China — a famous foe of Trump's. In 2012, Biden and then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping reached an agreement to make it easier for American films to be exported to the "fast-growing Chinese audience, supporting thousands of American jobs in and around the film industry," as Biden said at the time. Trump of course has put tension on that relationship: "If there is one big thing that could change [under Biden], it would be perhaps a more comprehensive trade deal with China that could expand the number of U.S. films that are allowed to be distributed in China," analyst Michael Nathanson told The Wrap. "The Chinese box office is larger than the U.S. now and has restrictions on the number of U.S. films that can be released." But Hollywood's financial relationship with China has its repercussions; as I've written before, Tinseltown doesn't have too many qualms about ceding free speech to Chinese authorities for the sake of making a buck. Chasing the Chinese box office, too, has led to situations like Disney turning a blind eye to massively concerning human rights violations.
It might be good for Hollywood to be major donors to the president and count on deals with China, but there are fair reasons to have reservations about Biden's eventual approach. In truth, though, the best thing Biden could do for the film industry would be to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, so sooner rather than later it becomes safe to shoot movies and see them again in theaters. Industry-specific aid is still hugely important, but getting people back to the box office with minimal risk is a close second.
Biden has a lot to tackle in his first 100 days, and there are certainly going to be more pressing concerns on Jan. 20th than movies. But one thing is for sure: the industry is going to need that hero. And they can count on Biden to be their man.