In January of 2020, a 2011 film called Contagion directed by Stephen Soderbergh catapulted to the top of many personal watch-lists. This is not the result of some clever marketing. The film wasn’t even available in any popular subscription streaming services in the U.S. This started as an internet subculture phenomenon. By the time the mainstream caught on, the film went from the 270th spot on the Warner Brothers catalogue in December 2019 to going straight to the top (just under the Harry Potter franchise) in a few months. Contagion’s eerie prescience and high-budget realism combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased use of social media due to lock-downs all contributed to its unexpected rise in popularity. This phenomenon is unprecedented, and it’s worth noting.
In March of 2020, The Verge published an article entitled “Contagion shows the lengths people go to watch a movie they can’t stream.” The magazine partnered with TorrentFreak to analyze pirating data and found the downloads for Contagion spiked each time there was a significant news event between late January and early March. The film was only seeing a couple of hundred downloads before January 25th, when interest skyrocketed to over 1,500 downloads a day. By January 29th, when coronavirus was headline news, it was around 18,000 daily downloads. Add streaming piracy to the numbers, which is more popular, but not measurable; the stats would be significantly higher.
The Verge also reported that according to Google Trends, “Contagion Netflix” and “Contagion full movie download free” were some of the most popular search queries in late January. With not much to do, panicked at home, people had time to find an illegal copy instead of paying a rental fee on iTunes. In The New York Times, writer and director Barry Jenkins said that he had never paid $12.99 to watch a 10-year-old movie before, and “It was shocking. It felt like I was watching a documentary that has all these movie stars playing real people.”
According to Global News, Netflix also saw a sudden rise in viewers for virus-related programming content; the 1995 film Outbreak starring Dustin Hoffman and the documentary series Pandemic both reached the Top Ten on the streaming service in March. Global News also noted that in the App Store, one of the most downloaded titles at the time was a game called Plague, Inc., which lets the user “control a lethal virus.” There was a surge in virus-related books, including Ling Ma’s Severance and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
“Conventional wisdom would suggest that human beings seek out escapism in times of trauma…” writes Jack King of Vice magazine. So how do you explain the sudden interest in pandemic media? King cites Dr. Michael Muthukrishna of the London School of Economics. “People are just seeking any relevant information — a kind of ‘how-to’ guide in the event of a catastrophe,” he says. Dr. Ashok Jansari, also quoted in Vice, says it’s “attentional capture.” When your “attentional system is activated,” it makes you “disproportionately drawn towards relevant stimuli.”
Experts have their say. Consultant psychologist, in Metro, Dr. Elena Touroni says, “Watching movies about viral epidemics…might give someone the sense that they’re gaining mastery over the phenomenon by attempting to ‘understand’ it in some way.” Boston University lecturer Lindsey Decker explained in The Washington Post, “We can experience fear and tension and suspense, but…” she said, “[With a film] We can hit pause any time we want.”
“Plague remains a powerful and infectious metaphor,” writes Dahlia Schweitzer in Going Viral, “as a way to demarcate ‘dangerous’ people, a way to draw attention to the flaws and frailties of the bonds between people and between nations, and a way to spread and construct fear.” In the book, UK researchers Brigitte Nerlich and Christopher Halliday present an analysis of media coverage in 2004 which found an increase of pressure groups, politicians, and professional bodies motivated to heighten awareness of an “impending pandemic” to spotlight medical experts and ultimately flow more funds toward public health initiatives. The sophistication of advanced propaganda has made it invisible except for those who keep a vigilant watch on media techniques used in modern storytelling.
In June of this year, Forbes magazine, coverage of the world’s wealthiest, featured a story on billionaire Jeff Skoll, behind the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which spun off into a nonprofit called Ending Pandemics. It turns out, Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness since 2009, “ — six years before Bill Gates’ now well known TED talk,” Forbes reports. In April 2020, Jeff Skoll donated $100 million to the foundation, specifically toward fighting COVID-19. His nonprofit rolled out the COVID Near You symptom trend tracker that “lets people anonymously report if they’re feeling healthy or not, with zip code info, as a way to track current potential hotspots.” Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media also happens to be the money behind the film Contagion.
Intended in 2011 to present a pro-vaccine counter-narrative at the height of Jenny McCarthy’s “Green our Vaccines” anti-vaccination movement, the film could be read almost a decade later as effective use of “persuasion narrative” techniques to dissuade vaccine-hesitancy in the age of COVID-19. Authors Mark Davis and Davina Lohm coined the phrase “persuasion narrative” to mean “a quality of storytelling that inspires the listener to address oneself, self-question, and inspire gradual self-recognition.” Like Barry Jenkins, who is quoted above, many viewers early in 2020 mentioned Contagion’s documentary-realistic feel. It was easy to place oneself in the film’s fictional setting as it mirrored the global transition that was occurring.
However, once a terrifying monster-in-the-house horror movie (where the house is the entire globe,) Contagion has now become the subject of parody1 in present-day November in 2020. The film has rapidly aged as COVID-19 continues to make history. Real life has strayed far from the “reality” that the film had gone to so much effort to portray. The comment “It was a fun movie…now it’s hard to watch,” was recently overheard in a class.2
In March, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns spoke out against the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak. He said, while he was researching for the film, he worked with “a Department of Homeland security that had a pandemic-preparedness team in place.” Also in March, director Stephen Soderbergh sent a text the screenwriter linking to a story about the rise in popularity of elderberry holistic remedies which resembles the forsythia cure promoted in the film. As observed by users in a site for film reviews called Letterboxd, Contagion may have gotten some things right but it entirely missed predicting the “toilet paper crises.”
The film is praised for its critical depiction of disinformation. Its ham-fisted vilification of Jude Law who played conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede included him wearing a set of ugly false teeth to lessen his good looks and cast him even further as an undesirable villain. The producers interestingly left out Jude Law from the project to reunite the cast of Contagion for a series of COVID-19 public service announcements early in the year. It’s as if the producers wanted to extend the fiction his character played into the real world. Only actors Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, and Jennifer Ehle, who all portrayed “good guys,” were featured in the video. Created in partnership with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, “Each actor filmed themselves speaking about the importance of staying home, practicing social distancing when you do go out for essentials and,” of course, “listening to scientists.”
Popular media is in a “unique position to contribute to public education, as engaging the emotions and promoting identification with characters is often a primary goal of fiction,” writes Evie Kendal (quoting M. Nussbaum.) The authors of Pandemics, Publics, and Narrative claim that a critical examination of the “persuasion narrative” would help in crafting a more effective response in the future and could offer a way to convince skeptics. “Efforts to influence publics through news media, at least, will need to take this situation into account,” say authors Davis and Lohm.
Trent University Professor Kelly McGuire writes “…the vaccine is the true hero of the contemporary outbreak narrative, and in the case of Contagion, it is continually aligned with sacrifice.” Contagion’s consistent portrayal of its heroes in varying modes of self-sacrifice is epitomized by the brutal smash edit to Kate Winslet in a body bag just after her character manages to offer her coat to a shivering patient. The filmmakers also seem to have other agendas beyond the positioning of a pro-vaccine narrative, especially if one observes that the bulldozer’s name that displaces the bats from the coconut tree at the end of the film is the same company that employed Gwyneth Paltrow’s character. This moral at the end of the story has an environmental twist but is so brief that it’s almost subliminal.
Consider also the possible symbolism near the end of the film: the shot of freezers containing “secure” samples of deadly viruses is followed by an image of a silver bow on a gift-wrapped present. The shape and silver of the bow suggest intentionally but subliminally an opening of a Pandora’s Box in a future scenario.
Could this mean a sequel?
1For example, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020) features the comic Borat in a sketch about lock-down and other humorous takes on the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.A.
2Eli Hansen said this in the Imagining Immunity class when we covered the film Contagion as part of the section “Immunity as a Gift,” at Trent University, with Professor Kelly McGuire, Zoom meeting, 11 November 2020, 9 AM.
Adejobi, Alicia, “Why are we watching pandemic movies like Contagion? Psychologist warns it could ‘amplify anxiety.’” Metro News, 1 April 2020, https://metro.co.uk/2020/04/01/watching-pandemic-movies-like-contagion-psychologist-warns-amplify-anxiety-12493880/
Alexander, Julia. “Contagion shows the lengths people go to watch a movie they can’t stream.” The Verge, 7 March 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/7/21164769/contagion-streaming-netflix-hulu-cinemax-itunes-download-torrent-coronavirus.
Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. “Contagion Team Reunites to Create Coronavirus PSAs.” 27 March 2020, https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/contagion-team-reunites-create-coronavirus-psas.
Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. “Control the Contagion.” Videos, https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/control-contagion.
Contagion. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh. Warner Bros. in association with Participant Media. 2011.
Davis, Mark, and Davina Lohm. Pandemics, Publics, and Narrative. Oxford University Press, 2020. DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190683764.001.0001.
Dolan, Kerry A., “How The Billionaire Behind the Movie ‘Contagion’ is Working to Stop this Pandemic — and the Next One.” 24 June 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kerryadolan/2020/06/24/how-the-billionaire-behind-the-movie-contagion-is-working-to-stop-this-pandemic-and-the-next-one.
Einbinder, Nicole. “How former ‘The View’ host Jenny McCarthy became the face of the anti- vaxx movement.” Insider. 29 April 2019, https://www.insider.com/jenny-mccarthy-became-the-face-of-the-anti-vaxx-movement-2019-4.
Kelly, Heather. “People have found a way to cope with pandemic fears: watching ‘Contagion.’” The Washington Post, 6 March 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/03/06/contagion-streaming/.
Kendal, Evie, “Public health crises in popular media: how viral outbreak films affect the public’s health literacy.” Med Humanit Pub ahead of print, 2019, Accessed: 25 November 2020, doi:10.1136/medhum-2018-011446
King, Jack, “The psychology behind obsessively watching pandemic movies.” Vice Magazine. 27 March 2020, https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/8847e3/why-watch-film-about-pandemic-during-coronavirus-contagion.
McGuire, Kelly. “What Visual Pandemic Narratives Can Teach us about COVID-19 (And Vice Versa).” Pre-publication copy, Accessed: 25 November 2020.
Schweitzer, Dahlia. “Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World.” Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, 2018, https://doi.org/10.36019/9780813593180.
Scott, Katie, “‘Outbreak’ cracks Netflix Top 10 amid coronavirus spread.” Global News, 17 March 2020, https://globalnews.ca/news/6690910/outbreak-netflix-top-10.
Sperling, Nicole. “‘Contagion,’ Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Thriller, Is Climbing Up the Charts.” The New York Times, 4 March 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/business/ media/coronavirus-contagion-movie.html.