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Will Swine Flu Topple Summer Tentpoles?

As flu wreaks havoc in Mexico, U.S. plans stay firm.

The swine flu is taking its toll on Hollywood, as studios have spent the last week shutting down movie premieres and launches in Mexico on the eve of the movie industry’s biggest season.


But ask around, and the resounding call seems to be, "What, us worry?"  

Though the epidemic, which has already been named the "probable" cause of death for around 150 citizens in Mexico, has yet to have as serious repercussions in the States, the recent activity abroad is already putting conglomerates on edge.


Mexico is one of the biggest overseas box office markets, and the widespread illness there has prompted several studios to shift release dates for their upcoming tentpoles. 

On Thursday, Sony moved the release date of "Angels & Demons" in Mexico from May 15 to June 12, and "Terminator: Salvation" is shifting from June 5 to July 31. (See what’s moving to when in Mexico.)

"We have been closely monitoring the situation in Mexico all week, and we continue to be extremely concerned about this health crisis and its impact on the people who live there and especially those who have been affected by the flu," a Sony spokesman said.

Warner Bros. followed suit by pushing the start date of "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" from May 8 to June 12.  


The delays in Mexico could cost the studios big bucks in revenue as international box office revenue rises. Foreign ticket sales comprised 65 percent of the $28.1 billion worldwide box office total last year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.    


Mexico is one of the top 10 movie markets, accounting for nearly 6 percent of foreign ticket sales. The last installment of "X-Men: The Last Stand" banked $16.5 million —  its third-best territory gross — in the country. The "Da Vinci Code" brought in $19.3 million in Mexico, one of the top 10 highest-grossing territories for that film as well.  


Earlier in the week, Paramount called off its May 8 launch of "Star Trek" because of the epidemic. No new date was given for the launch.  


And 20th Century Fox had already canceled this week’s "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" premiere at the National Auditorium in Mexico City, where movie theaters are also closed to prevent the flu from spreading. The Mexican government has said it has tentative plans to reopen theaters on May 6 in the country.   


But while Mexico has taken huge steps to stem the outbreak — soccer matches have been played with no fans, schools have been shut down and hospitals guarded with armed officials — the studios are so far holding firm on their release dates in the U.S.

"As of the time being, we’ve only delayed the release in Mexico and we don’t have any new dates as of yet in the U.S.," a Paramount spokesperson told TheWrap. When asked if the studio was concerned that fear of the flu may curb box office attendance domestically, the spokesperson said: "as of this point, no."

And according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, most theaters were going to "wait and see" how bad the outbreak gets before shutting down operation. 

"We’re taking our cues from the government and waiting to see what they do about it," said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for NATO.


"Most companies have a plan in place to deal with things if their employees or audiences or communities are the site of an outbreak. We didn’t see any drop-off this past weekend, so we’ll just have to wait and see."

Paul Dergarabedian of box office tracking firm Media by Numbers said he didn’t think the threat of illness would cause a slowdown at the box office. At least not immediately.


"If people are bound and determined to go see ‘Wolverine’ this weekend,’ I don’t think the swine flu threat is going to stop them," he said. "If the media hype gets so huge that people perceive going out of the home is too scary, it’ll be different. But if the recession couldn’t stop people from going to the movies, I don’t think the swine flu is going to."

But Dr. Richard Wenzel, chairman of the department of internal medicine and the Medical College of Virginia, told TheWrap that it is possible to acquire the swine flu if you’re within the ‘breathing zone’ of a sick person — which is about three to four feet — for a sustained period of time, like in a movie theater.  

Despite this, he said Americans shouldn’t be afraid to go out in public.

"The CDC strongly said today, ‘don’t worry about getting on a plane or a subway,’" he said. "Sick people shouldn’t come to public affairs. If we were having a rip-roaring epidemic where we were doing social distancing, it’d be different."