How ‘Contagion’ became a must-see movie during the coronavirus pandemic

Jude Law in ‘Contagion.’ Warner Bros.
  • “Contagion,” a 2011 movie about a virus that cripples the world as it spreads, is one of the most popular films on numerous On Demand services.
  • Warner Bros, the movie’s studio, announced it’s only behind the “Harry Potter” franchise as the most in-demand title in its catalogue.
  • “Contagion” producer, Michael Shamberg, told Insider he is amazed by the movie’s current popularity.
  • The movie did not have good test screening scores. And when it opened it got a C+ from CinemaScore, which polls audiences after seeing a movie.
  • But due to the coronavirus pandemic, the movie suddenly has a second life.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When “Contagion” came out in 2011, the idea that a virus could cripple the world seemed like horrifying fiction. Today, the coronavirus pandemic has made it a reality.

The health crisis has also catapulted the 9-year-old film into one of the most-watched movies right now. It’s just the latest unlikely chapter for the film director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns teamed up to make when another project the Oscar-winning director was planning to do fell through.

Hollywood has made plenty of disaster movies over the decades, but often they are over-the-top and full of unrealistic scenarios. And when a virus is in the plot, it usually causes people to become zombies. Soderbergh and Burns weren’t interested in any of that. Inspired by a 2006 TedTalk by Dr. Larry Brilliant, the duo wanted to make a story on what would really happen if a pandemic spread around the globe.

Made for around $US60 million through Warner Bros., the movie included an ensemble cast of Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Marion Cotillard. It focused on a flu virus called MEV-1, which originated in Hong Kong and quickly spreads across the world killing millions and causing an apocalyptic-like existence for those still alive.

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Gwyneth Paltrow in ‘Contagion.’ Warner Bros.

“The movie never tested great,” one of the movie’s producers, two-time Oscar-nominee Michael Shamberg, told Insider, looking back on the making of it. “But people understood it.”

But would they come to see a movie about what happens to the world after a deadly virus cripples it?

The movie’s opening days in theatres had everyone involved in the movie a little worried, as the CinemaScore polling from audiences coming out of the movie gave it a C+, according to Shamberg. But in the first sign that the movie could go against the odds, it was the top movie at the box office its opening weekend with a $US22.4 million opening.

“Here’s a movie people didn’t love when they came out of it, but they told people about it and more people kept coming,” said Shamberg of the movie’s performance.

It went on to earn over $US136 million at the global box office.

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Anna Jacoby-Heron and Matt Damon in ‘Contagion.’ Warner Bros.

For any movie that would be the endnote. A successful run in theatres and going forward, DVD and Blu-ray copies of it would collect dust on shelves and a small thumbnail of the movie’s poster would appear as an option to watch on streaming services.

But then the coronavirus hit and suddenly “Contagion” didn’t seem like a horror or disaster movie, but a documentary. Everything in the movie was a mirror to what was on the news.

Both viruses originated in China. “Social distancing” – a term used in the movie – became a phrase for everyday life. And by the end of the movie, all you want to do is wash your hands.

As the coronavirus began to spread in January, the movie title spiked on Google Trends. By March, Warner Bros. announced that “Contagion” was only behind the “Harry Potter” franchise as the most in-demand title in its catalogue to view online (it was the studio’s 270th most popular in December 2019). And currently, the movie is the most rented/purchased title on FandangoNow out of its non-new releases, while over on iTunes it has been in the top ten for weeks of titles viewed.

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Steven Soderbergh on the set of ‘Contagion.’ Warner Bros.

Shamberg said he’s amazed by the movie’s popularity.

“I don’t think in the history of cinema anything has happened like this before,” he said, giving all the credit to Soderbergh, Burns, and the experts who were hired to be consultants on the movie. “We should not forget that we need cinema both to entertain us, take our minds off of stuff, but also it is the most powerful medium for informing people.”

Shamberg was working on a TV pilot with Soderbergh before the coronavirus caused all production in Hollywood to shut down, so he has been able to talk with the director about the movie’s second life. And it seems Soderbergh feels the movie did its job.

“I think he’s just pleased that his vision as a filmmaker is out there, which was wanting to scare people into learning something,” Shamberg said. “He accomplished his mission.”