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The Morning Dispatch: Will the Pandemic Change Hollywood Forever?
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The Morning Dispatch: Will the Pandemic Change Hollywood Forever?

Plus, what a new study reveals about coronavirus mutations.

Happy Thursday! The Chicago Cubs have won six games in a row and are tied for the best record in baseball. We (editor’s note: “We”) just thought that merited a mention.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 54,968 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, with 8.1 percent of the 681,537 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,478 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 158,249.

  • The Trump administration and Democrats are still “trillions of dollars apart” on any coronavirus relief package, per White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters the Senate will push back its scheduled recess to remain in session next week.

  • Joe Biden will forgo a trip to Milwaukee later this month for the Democratic National Convention, according to the DNC, opting instead to accept the Democratic nomination from his home state of Delaware.

  • The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee outraised the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee by $25 million in July, $165 million to $140 million.

  • Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden attempted to interfere in the FBI’s investigation into incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn. She did, however, concede a key finding in last year’s Inspector General report: That the since-discredited Steele dossier played a role in the FISA application regarding Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

  • Acting State Department Inspector General Stephen Akard resigned abruptly from his position yesterday, just months after the department’s previous internal watchdog—Steve Linick—was fired by President Trump.

  • Days after President Trump threatened to ban TikTok nationwide if it isn’t sold to an American-owned company, Facebook launched a product—Instagram Reels—that closely resembles the Chinese-owned app.

Will COVID-19 Change Hollywood Forever?

The Walt Disney Company stunned the entertainment industry earlier this week by announcing that, due to the pandemic, the studio would bring its live-action remake of Mulan, once set to be one of the biggest box office hits of 2020, straight to the Disney+ streaming service in early September. 

The pandemic has “forced us to consider different approaches and look for new opportunities,” CEO Bob Chapek said on Disney’s August 4 earnings call. “In order to meet the needs of consumers during this unpredictable period, we thought it was important to find alternative ways to bring this exceptional family friendly film to them in a timely manner.”

In addition to the $6.99/month Disney+ fee, subscribers will have to pay an additional $29.99 for Mulan when it becomes available on September 4—a hefty price for an individual viewer, but a potential bargain for families with children, the move’s target audience. (Consumers aren’t purchasing the movie, though they can access it as long as they keep their Disney+ subscription.) Investors loved the idea: Disney’s stock jumped about 10 percent within minutes of Wednesday’s opening bell.

Chapek told analysts on the call the company views the ploy as a “one-off,” necessary only because its customers have been waiting on Mulan’s theatrical release “for a long, long time.” But he added that the company hopes to learn from the experiment and “see what happens” with subscriber and download numbers.

The entire entertainment industry has been flipped on its head since movie theaters and film production were forced to shut down in March of this year. Box office ticket sales have been slowly trending downward for years, but, unsurprisingly, fell off a cliff in 2020. Approximately 1.3 billion movie tickets were sold in the United States in 2018, ticking down to 1.2 billion in 2019. The annualized projection for 2020? 290 million.

Streaming services, meanwhile, are thriving during the pandemic. Disney+ had 28.6 million subscribers on February 4 after launching in November 2019; Chapek announced Tuesday that number had more than doubled, surpassing 60 million. Netflix added 26 million paid subscribers in the first half of 2020, compared to 28 million during all of 2019. Launching on May 27, HBO Max was able to attract 4.1 million subscribers in just one month.

Some studios have leaned into these trends, allowing some of their mid-tier releases to sidestep their typical theater runs in favor of streaming services or video on demand (VOD). Disney sent its latest Pixar film, Onward, to VOD just two weeks after it debuted on March 6, and it was available for Disney+ subscribers to stream two weeks after that. Universal Pictures scrapped its Trolls World Tour theater release entirely, opting instead to make it available on VOD for $19.99. It brought in more revenue in three weeks than the original Trolls movie did during its five-month run in theaters back in 2016.

Trolls World Tour’s success dealt a body blow to movie theaters nationwide. A trade association representing the theaters scrambled to dampen the news, releasing a statement arguing the movie’s performance “is indicative of hundreds of millions of people isolated in their homes seeking entertainment, not a shift in consumer movie viewing preferences,” but Universal obviously liked what it saw. The studio struck a deal with the increasingly desperate AMC Theatres last week that will cut the theater chain’s window of exclusivity down from up to 90 days to just 17. Under the agreement, therefore, Universal will be able to premiere its films on VOD within three weeks of their theater release. Now that the seal has been broken, other studios and theater chains will likely follow suit.

But besides Disney and Mulan, most studios have opted to delay their high-budget blockbusters until theaters reopen. Universal’s Fast & Furious 9 was pushed from April 2 of this year to April 2021. No Time to Die, the next installment in the James Bond series, was pushed from April 10 to November 20. Even Disney is only experimenting with Mulan, leaving its plans to release the Marvel Cinematic Universe film Black Widow in theaters after a six-month delay intact.

Depending on how the coronavirus situation develops, those release dates may end up being overly optimistic. Some theater chains—like AMC and Regal—are tentatively planning to reopen at reduced capacity in mid-August, but it remains unclear if states across the country will actually permit them to, with the coronavirus not going anywhere fast. As a result, some studios are forging ahead without the United States, rolling out their films in countries that have a better handle on the pandemic.

Do We Have To Worry About COVID-19 Mutations Now, Too?

Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, some researchers are beginning to find preliminary evidence that the virus is mutating slightly to become more transmissible. In a piece for the site, Audrey talked to a half-dozen virologists and infectious disease experts to get a sense of how big a deal this mutation could be—and whether it could throw off our efforts to develop an effective vaccine. Here are some key takeaways.

What kind of mutation do researchers believe SARS-CoV-2 is undergoing?

Researchers from Los Alamos Laboratory released a new study in Cell—a highly influential journal in the scientific community—that examines whether a particular mutation of the coronavirus increases the virus’ transmission rate. Of primary concern to the study’s authors is the G614 mutation on the spike protein of the coronavirus, the protein responsible for invading host cells. The authors contend that this mutation began circulating throughout Europe in early February and began displacing the D614 form of the virus that originated in Wuhan, China. According to the study, this G614 variant possesses a higher transmission rate, results in a higher viral load, and consistently becomes the dominant form of the virus wherever it spreads.

Is there a consensus within the scientific community on this?

Not quite. Some experts have embraced these findings wholesale, but others—like Drs. Raul Andino-Pavlovsky at UC-San Francisco and William Schaffner at Vanderbilt—believe it’s “too early” to come to any conclusions.

Do all viruses mutate?

Not at the same rate. Whereas some viruses—like polio, HIV, and influenza—are constantly mutating, other viruses remain stable over long stretches of time. Influenza is a single stranded RNA virus that serves as a perfect example of what scientists call a very “plastic” virus. The flu mutates so much from one year to the next that natural infection or immunization from the previous year does not typically protect individuals from the functional mutation of the new virus, hence the need for a new vaccine each year. Sometimes there is a carry-over effect, although this is quite rare.

But other viruses, like measles, hardly mutate at all. “The essential measles virus is the same virus that was around in 1934, just to pick a number out of the hat,” said Schaffner. “It’s pretty darn stable, and that’s why we have one measles vaccine. It works around the world, it’s worked for 50 years, and it’s going to keep working because this is a very stable virus.”

Where does COVID-19 fall on this spectrum?

SARS-CoV-2 is somewhere in the middle. According to Dr. Diana Griffin, a professor in the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, coronaviruses “have some editing function, but they still have an error prone polymerase.” This means that unlike most other RNA viruses, coronaviruses have some capacity to identify errors while copying nucleic material, thus reducing the mutation rate. Because of its low mutation rate, SARS-CoV-2 has remained generally stable, which is a good sign for vaccine research. 

Worth Your Time

  • Elaina Plott’s recent piece in the New York Times explores the transformation of the Tennessee GOP from a buttoned-up, moderate party to a hardline Trumpist one. Tennessee Republicans will go to the polls today to decide between the Trump-endorsed establishment pick, Bill Hagerty, and the “outsider”-style insurgent, Manny Sethi, who has made firing Anthony Fauci a key tenet of his campaign platform. “What is perhaps already clear,” Plott writes, “is that the Republican Party that [retiring Sen. Lamar] Alexander long sought to shape — a “governing party,” he once wrote, that translated “principled ideas” into “real solutions”—is not the one he will ultimately leave behind.”

  • A lot of political horse-race reporting focuses on fundraising numbers and polling. But one important metric often overlooked is ground game, including the number of actual doors knocked on by canvassers. Trump’s campaign is miles ahead of Biden’s in this regard—the former knocks on a million doors a week, whereas the latter knocks on zero. “People are not necessarily wanting someone to go up to their door right now,” a Biden campaign staffer said. Alex Thompson explores how COVID-19 has upended the traditional campaign, and whether this disparity will matter come November.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Tune in to this week’s Dispatch Podcast to hear Sarah, David, Jonah, and Steve discuss President Trump’s interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios, the latest on mail-in voting and the coronavirus. There’s also a fiery debate over America’s best sit-down diner chains and a strong endorsement of Moons Over My Hammy.

  • Over on the site today, Andrew has a piece catching up on the seemingly stalled-out congressional negotiations over the latest coronavirus aid package. Both Democrats and Republicans want to get a deal done that will, among other things, resume some level of expanded unemployment insurance benefits for people still without work, which lapsed at the end of July. But it’s still far from clear what the path to compromise is—and Senate Republicans complain that the White House is too eager to give away their policy asks. 

  • On Sunday, the citizens of Belarus will head to the polls to determine the political fate of Europe’s last remaining dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. After an opposition rally drew more than 60,000 people last weekend, there are reasons to believe Lukashenko’s time is up. But he’s not going down without a fight. The strongman has detained opposition figures in recent weeks (and overnight) and some members of the Trump administration are concerned about the possibility of a tainted election. In a piece for the site, Dan Twining and Scott Mastic of the International Republican Institute argue that the U.S. and our allies should be clear in our support for free democratic election. “For the first time in decades, the Belarusian people may be on the cusp of finally breaking free from the bonds of Soviet-style dictatorship. The United States should stand with them.”

Let Us Know

Do you miss going to movie theaters, or are you ready for the VOD future? Which delayed blockbuster are you most looking forward to seeing when studios get around to releasing it?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Nate Hochman (@njhochman), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Still from Mulan courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.