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What Hollywood Wants From a Biden Presidency: Fix China, Handle Coronavirus
After a rocky relationship with Trump, the entertainment industry will be looking for better ties to the coming Biden administration
What does Hollywood want from a coming Biden administration? A more stable relationship with China and control of the coronavirus pandemic, according to analysts, executives and experts in the entertainment industry.
“I’m hopeful that it will breathe some new life into China-Hollywood relations in terms of financing, distribution and production activity,” Lindsay Conner, partner and leader, Manatt Entertainment Group, specializing in U.S.-China entertainment deals, told TheWrap. “The fundamentals of the U.S-China relationship won’t change with the election, but I would expect the tone of the relationship to be more stable, firm and calm, with a decreased level of surface tension.”
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But a more urgent priority is tackling the pandemic that has decimated the economy — and Hollywood in particular. “There’s no electoral change that is going to breathe life into the theater business and live entertainment business until the coronavirus is under control and on the way out,” Conner said.
In interviews with a half dozen leading figures, those two priorities emerged as the most important for a Biden administration to address — even as many also anticipate a shift in tone following four years of frostiness from Donald Trump’s White House toward Hollywood.
Many hope that a Biden White House could positively impact the U.S.-China relationship, which has been strained first by Trump’s trade war and then by his blaming the country for the coronavirus pandemic.
For studios and movie theaters, reeling with the prolonged closures because of the pandemic, restoring relations with China is an urgent matter since it’s become a critical market for films. In mid-October, China became No. 1 in worldwide box office with a reported $1.988 billion in ticket sales compared to $1.937 billion in North America, according to Asia’s leading movie industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway. (Last year, China generated $9.2 billion in ticket sales, trailing North America’s $11.4 billion.)
China is further along than the U.S. on its handling of the pandemic — China’s confirmed daily cases are only in the double-digits, but over 100,000 in the U.S. That means the Asian country is likely to matter even more to Hollywood’s bottom line in the near term since movie theaters in the U.S. won’t be operating at anything resembling normal for the foreseeable future.
“If there is one big thing that could change, 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 said. “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.”
The international community largely celebrated Biden’s victory over the weekend, with some cities like Paris and London parading in the streets (or in the case of Paris, blaring church bells). That has led to some in the industry to look forward to better treatment on international productions.
As one executive at Sony told TheWrap: “The impression of us Americans has dropped through the floor. We are not as welcome as we once were. There could be an impact at that.”
“The Eight Hundred,” China’s biggest 2008 box office hit (Huayi Brothers)
Outside of China, most argue that the most important change Biden can facilitate as president is by effectively curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Under Donald Trump, the pandemic has raged out of control, which has decimated movie theaters, amusement parks, music concert tours and even affected film and TV production.
“I don’t see production or exhibition returning to normal until summer at the earliest, and the President’s refusal to consider dealing with the problem is exacerbating exhibitor problems,” Wedbush’s Michael Pachter said, adding that the lackluster response to the pandemic means that “things are going to get worse before they get better.”
LightShed’s Rich Greenfield described it was “priority number one.”
The lack of desire from Republicans in Congress to pass a new stimulus bill is also painting a dire financial picture for many struggling entertainment businesses, though the hope is that with Biden in charge there will be increased efforts to pass some kind of relief bill.
“Biden will take the reins on a national plan to combat COVID-19, which is of upmost importance for an industry that has seen film production plummet due to COVID-19 concerns and restrictions as well as film insurance and bonding issues,” said Sally James, a partner at Greenberg Glusker. “The hope is also that there will be stimulus benefiting the film industry to help cover the increased production costs of the COVID-19 protections (testing, PPE, COVID officers) for productions to safely proceed.”
Though James added: “A Biden presidency could, of course, mean walking back Trump’s pro-corporate tax laws that greatly benefit the studios and streamers.”
Hollywood is looking forward to a less adversarial relationship with the Biden White House compared to Trump, which could harken back to the Clinton days.
Biden’s ordinary-grandpa-from-Scranton persona probably doesn’t cast a spell in Hollywood quite the same way Bill Clinton did when Clinton made the media-savvy move – and political history — by wailing on his saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992.
Biden also does not have a direct connection with top Hollywood producers the way the Clintons did back in the ’90s. Clinton was friends with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, producer of the then-hot TV sitcoms “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade,” and her husband and co-executive producer, Harry Thomason. Linda turned her expertise to producing the biographical film “The Man from Hope,” the centerpiece of the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
Of course, the relationship also drew some skepticism as being a little too close. The Thomasons’ production company, Mozark, became known as a second campaign headquarters for Clinton. And Bill Clinton’s brother Roger landed a job as a $500-a-week production assistant on “Designing Women.”
Still, experts say Biden’s relationship with Hollywood will be less prickly than Trump’s and may even help bridge the rift between Hollywood and Big Tech.
“One area hasn’t been much discussed is that both Hollywood and Big Tech have been at odds in many ways for some time, and the Trump administration was sufficiently disengaged from both that it could not play an effective role in mediating and moving the situation forward,” Conner says. “Because Biden much more engaged with both Hollywood and Big Tech, I suspect there will be a much greater initiative to bring these two critical industries together.”
If nothing else, Conner expects the Biden-Hollywood relationship to be more engaged “than what we’ve seen in the last four years.” It certainly doesn’t hurt that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is from the Golden State.