Paramount Pictures pushes the release of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ to May.

Lisa D. Small

Daily Business Briefing Sept. 1, 2021Updated  Sept. 2, 2021, 1:51 a.m. ET Sept. 2, 2021, 1:51 a.m. ET Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick.” Theater owners were counting on the movie to help salvage their year.Credit…Paramount Pictures, via Associated Press Maverick is disengaging. Paramount Pictures on Wednesday scrapped a plan to […]

Daily Business Briefing

Sept. 2, 2021, 1:51 a.m. ET

Sept. 2, 2021, 1:51 a.m. ET

Credit…Paramount Pictures, via Associated Press

Maverick is disengaging.

Paramount Pictures on Wednesday scrapped a plan to release a much-anticipated “Top Gun” sequel in theaters in November, citing uncertainty about the willingness of moviegoers to brave the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus, particularly overseas.

Top Gun: Maverick,” with Tom Cruise returning to the rebel fighter pilot role that made him a superstar, was rescheduled for theatrical release in May.

To make room, Paramount pushed back the release of “Mission: Impossible 7,” another sequel starring Mr. Cruise, from May to September 2022. Paramount also removed “Jackass Forever” from its fall release calendar.

Theater owners were counting on “Top Gun: Maverick” to help salvage their year, which has been filled with one pandemic-related setback after another. Several movies scheduled for the summer were rerouted to streaming services or made available simultaneously in theaters and online, cannibalizing ticket sales. North American multiplexes have sold about $1.9 billion in tickets this year, compared with $7.7 billion for the same period in 2019. (Many theaters were closed for most of 2020.)

Just last week, theater owners gathered for a convention in Las Vegas and used the moment as a type of pep rally: The big screen is back. Paramount even showed 13 minutes of “Top Gun: Maverick” to attendees.

Other studios may follow Paramount. The biggest movies that remain pointed toward exclusive theatrical releases in 2021 are “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (Sony), “Eternals” (Marvel-Disney), “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (Sony), “No Time to Die” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), “West Side Story” (Disney) and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Sony).

Studios have been paying close attention to moviegoer surveys by National Research Group, a film consultancy. On July 11, about 81 percent of American ticket buyers said they felt comfortable (“very or somewhat”) sitting in a movie theater. By late August, with the Delta variant surging, only about 67 percent said they felt comfortable.

Mothers have been particularly reticent, surveys have shown, imperiling movies aimed at families. As a result, studios have been trying to figure out what to do with films like “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” which Paramount pulled from its fall release calendar on Aug. 4, and “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” which Sony is selling to Amazon for streaming.

“The business has what it takes to recover, but as long as Covid persists, moviegoing will remain sluggish,” David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, wrote in a recent client note.

A Tesla Model S. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked Tesla to deliver data by Oct. 22, noting that it could impose fines of up to $115 million if the company does not comply.
Credit…Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The main federal auto safety agency has ordered Tesla to hand over a trove of data on its Autopilot driver-assistance system as part of an investigation into Tesla cars crashing into fire trucks or other emergency vehicles parked on roads and highways.

In a letter dated Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told the electric carmaker to produce detailed information on how Autopilot works, how it ensures drivers are paying attention to the road and whether there are any limits on where it can be turned on.

The safety agency is also seeking detailed data on how many cars Tesla has sold in the United States, any arbitration proceedings or lawsuits related to Autopilot crashes that the company has been involved in, and the complaints Tesla has received about Autopilot from customers.

The agency asked Tesla to deliver the information by Oct. 22, noting that it could impose fines of up to $115 million if the company fails or refuses to comply. The letter is signed by Gregory Magno, chief of the vehicle defects division in the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation.

The safety agency informed Tesla weeks ago that it was looking into the spate of crashes in which Tesla vehicles operating on Autopilot failed to detect stopped emergency vehicles with flashing lights. The regulator originally said it was looking into 11 such crashes. A 12th occurred on Saturday, when a Model 3 hit a police cruiser that had stopped behind a car that had broken down on an interstate in Orlando, Fla.

The driver told the police that the Model 3 had been in Autopilot mode, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The Tesla narrowly missed hitting a state trooper.

The request for data suggests that the safety agency’s investigation is moving quickly. Safety experts have criticized the agency for doing little to investigate a growing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities involving Tesla vehicles operating with Autopilot turned on over the last five years. The safety agency said this summer that it was looking into about 30 Autopilot-related crashes, including eight that resulted in 10 deaths.

Safety experts and another federal agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, have pointed out that Autopilot lacks effective safeguards to ensure drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel while using the system. It is supposed to be used only on divided highways but lacks mechanisms for prohibiting use on local roads — features that General Motors, Ford Motor and other automakers have built into similar systems.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is stepping up its scrutiny of small-business lending.
Credit…Eric Risberg/Associated Press

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed a new rule on Wednesday that would compel lenders to provide detailed information on the small-business loans that they approve and deny, a step toward scrutiny for a segment of lending that has faced limited regulatory attention for decades.

Lenders would be required to disclose the size and terms of their small-business loans, along with details such as the borrower’s industry, work force size, race and gender. Regulators hope to use that information to enforce fair-lending laws and spot signs of discrimination, as well track lending broader patterns.

Dave Uejio, the bureau’s acting director, said the data would help identify barriers that hold back small businesses.

“After homeownership, small-business ownership is the primary means by which families and communities build wealth,” he said in a statement. “Yet too often, small-business development is starved for want of access to responsible, fairly priced credit.”

The proposal, which will be open for a 90-day comment period, has been slow to arrive: Congress ordered increased collection of small-business lending data more than a decade ago as part of the Dodd-Frank Act.

Mr. Uejio compared the proposed rules to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, a 1975 law that requires financiers to publicly report data on their mortgage lending. Those reports “show how lenders are serving the housing credit needs of their communities” and have helped improve access to fair home loans, Mr. Uejio said during a news conference.

Lenders’ trade groups responded cautiously to the proposal.

The Consumer Bankers Association said it planned to submit comments about the “complexities” of collecting small-business data, which will require “significant changes to their systems and processes” for many financial institutions.

Ian McKendry, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association, said the group supported the proposal’s goals, but it would need careful execution.

“The complexity of collecting and reporting the data may reduce access to credit for those who need it the most,” he said in a statement.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi oil minister and chair of the OPEC Plus meetings. The group’s last production agreement followed an arduous series of negotiating sessions.
Credit…Saudi Press Agency, via Reuters

Officials from OPEC, Russia and other oil-producing countries decided on Wednesday to stick with their hard-won July agreement of increasing production each month by 400,000 barrels a day, a modest amount equivalent to less than 1 percent of global supply.

OPEC Plus meetings can sometimes go on for days, but this decision was reached in about an hour. Analysts say the group is concerned about the future health of oil market as the pandemic continues to inject uncertainty into the global economy, but officials did not see an urgent need to make changes.

A time when summer vacations are ending and schools are just beginning to resume is not the most opportune for making a statement in the financial markets, analysts said.

“They are taking the path of least resistance in the short term,” said Richard Bronze, head of geopolitics at Energy Aspects, a research firm.

In a brief statement issued after the meeting, OPEC Plus said that although the effects of “the pandemic continue to cast some uncertainty, market fundamentals have strengthened.”

When it came down to it, the oil officials did not have enough clarity about the direction of demand for oil to make changes that might have irritated members of the group, like Russia and the United Arab Emirates, that want more production. Officials are worried about the impact of the Delta variant of the coronavirus on the economies of their customers, but the global recovery has not yet derailed.

OPEC Plus has also come under pressure from the Biden administration to pump more oil. Last month, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said that higher gasoline prices “risk harming the global recovery” and that OPEC Plus “must do more.”

In addition, oil prices are at comfortable levels. They have risen through much of this year as pandemic lockdowns eased and economies began a boisterous expansion.

Prices fell sharply after the July agreement, causing concern that the production increase was too much, but they have recovered to about $71 a barrel for Brent crude, the global benchmark. Shutdowns in the Gulf of Mexico caused by Hurricane Ida as well as a large fire at a Mexican offshore facility have restricted supplies.

The meeting was the first after an arduous series of negotiating sessions in July that led to the deal to increase production by 400,000 barrels a day in each of the coming months. The producers also resolved a dispute with the United Arab Emirates over production ceilings.

With memories of that messy episode still vivid, OPEC Plus officials had little incentive to tamper with their agreed program.

If the supply increases continue as planned, OPEC Plus will add about two million barrels a day of oil to the market by year end. But there is doubt about whether the member states will have the ability to add the full amount. The group will also continue to meet monthly, giving itself time to react to a deterioration in demand.

A common scene across corporate America.
Credit…John Muggenborg for The New York Times

Google said on Tuesday that it would delay reopening its offices until Jan. 10. The new date is a postponement from October, which was a postponement from September, which was a postponement from July, which was a postponement from January.

Companies including Amazon, Apple and Starbucks have rescheduled with similar frequency, and it’s becoming difficult to take new announcements about back-to-office plans seriously. The New York Times, Twitter and others have decided not to set a new date for reopening their offices.

These shifts, of course, reflect constantly changing circumstances during the pandemic. A batch of surveys captured how workplace practices and policies are changing, the DealBook newsletter reports.

On vaccine mandates:

Before the latest surge of coronavirus cases, few companies had announced vaccine mandates. But according to a survey released Wednesday, most companies now have plans to require that employees get vaccinated by the end of the year. Conducted by Willis Towers Watson, the survey polled nearly 1,000 companies that together employ almost 10 million people:

  • 52 percent plan to have vaccine mandates by the end of the year (including 21 percent that already do).

  • 78 percent plan to track employees’ vaccination status (55 percent already do).

  • 17 percent are considering health insurance premium rewards or surcharges to encourage vaccination (2 percent already do).

On employee expectations:

Creating and putting these policies in place takes time. Companies may also be responding to their employees’ shifting expectations (and fears) about returning to the workplace. Another report released Wednesday, conducted by the Conference Board, surveyed 2,400 U.S. workers:

  • 42 percent said they were worried about returning to work for fear of contracting Covid-19 or exposing family members to the virus, up from 24 percent of respondents in a survey in June.

  • 29 percent said they were unsure if they would remain at their current job for the next six months. Among those looking for jobs, 80 percent said that their employer’s stance on flexible work arrangements was very or moderately important in their decision to look elsewhere.

On business travel:

After the pandemic, one of the things that workers can probably count on is less business travel, according to a survey out Tuesday by Bloomberg of 45 large companies around the world:

  • 84 percent of companies plan to spend less on travel after the pandemic, with a majority of those planning cuts of 20 to 40 percent of their prepandemic budgets. Put another way, all of those Zoom meetings aren’t going away.

Credit…Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Two Canadian railroads — Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific — have for months been jockeying to acquire Kansas City Southern, which would allow them to become the first Canadian company with tracks through Canada, the United States and Mexico. On Tuesday, the Surface Transportation Board, a U.S. agency that approves freight mergers, dealt a blow to Canadian National’s attempt to get that done.

The board, in a unanimous decision, declined to approve a voting trust, which would have allowed shareholders of both Canadian National and Kansas City Southern to reap the benefits of a deal while the companies waited for regulatory approval to complete their merger. The decision complicates the already complex situation and threatens to derail Canadian National’s $30 billion bid, which had trumped an earlier bid by Canadian Pacific.

Voting trusts have a long history in railroad deals, and the board had approved such a trust for Canadian Pacific’s proposed takeover before Canadian National outbid it. The denial of the voting trust for the Canadian National deal indicates that regulators could have concerns and that it may not be approved. It could also send Kansas City Southern back to Canadian Pacific.

In a May letter to the board, the Justice Department wrote that its concerns about use of a voting trust in the proposed Canadian Pacific transaction “apply with greater force to Canadian National’s proposed acquisition of Kansas City Southern because it raises additional potential competitive concerns.”

The Surface Transportation Board wrote that it had found “that using a voting trust, in the context of the impending control application, would give rise to potential public interest harms relating to both competition and divestiture.”

Kansas City Southern may consider itself lucky for having options. In a 2016 paper on voting trusts in railroad mergers, Russell Pittman, an economist at the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, wrote that these trusts served a purpose, protecting the interests of the acquired and acquiring parties. When the board rejects a trust proposal, it can make it harder for the target company to find a new acquirer, but with Canadian Pacific waiting and watching to see what happens, getting another offer may not be a problem.

Canadian Pacific last offered $27 billion for the American railroad this month. That number may be more appealing to Kansas City Southern now.

Kansas City Southern shares fell on the denial, while Canadian National shares rose and Canadian Pacific shares fell.

The stock market continued its quietly remarkable year in August, posting its seventh straight monthly rise.

Matt Phillips, who covers markets for The New York Times, surveys the state of the market.

The S&P 500 index is up more than 20 percent for 2021 and has more than doubled in value since it hit bottom in March 2020. The market has closed at a record high 53 times — the most by this point of the year since 1964, according to LPL Financial.

“I hate to say it,” said Ed Yardeni, a longtime market analyst and president of the stock market research firm Yardeni Research. “But it looks like we’re learning to live with this virus, and the market certainly has.”

The lingering pandemic has lifted the stock prices of companies whose profits are tied to it directly — Moderna’s 260 percent rally this year has made it the S&P 500’s best performer — and those positioned to gain from the messy economic recovery, like metals manufacturers, energy companies and semiconductor makers.

The breadth of the boom was clear in July. Second-quarter earnings results were expected to be generally strong, but trounced expectations: Nearly 90 percent of companies exceeded analyst forecasts, the highest such level of “beats” on record, according to Refinitiv data going back to 1994.

When the S&P 500 this month rose to double its pandemic low on March 23, 2020, it was the fastest 100 percent rise for the index since World War II, according to Yardeni Research. In roughly 17 months, the rally created nearly $20 trillion in stock market wealth.

Besides the sheer angle of the ascent, analysts have been struck by the smoothness of the rally. The S&P hasn’t suffered a 5 percent pullback since October, according to Mr. Detrick. Even with a 0.1 percent decline on Tuesday, the market is just a day removed from its most recent record high.

Not everybody expects the rally to continue unabated. Any disruption of interest rates and governmental supports could alter the persistently sunny outlook. READ THE ARTICLE →

“With the pandemic and labor shortages — the fact that for once we’re not totally disposable, they need us — it was the perfect time,” said Alexis Rizzo, right, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in the Buffalo area.
Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

Starbucks workers in the Buffalo area are asking the National Labor Relations Board to hold elections on union representation in one of the most serious union campaigns ever to confront the company.

Last week, the workers announced that they were forming a union called Starbucks Workers United, and on Monday they filed petitions for elections at three stores in the area. They proposed a vote in two weeks, our labor reporter, Noam Scheiber, reports.

Alexis Rizzo, a shift supervisor at one of the stores, said that she had had periodic conversations over several years with organizers for Workers United, the union with which the Starbucks workers hope to affiliate, but that until recently the timing for a union campaign had not felt right.

“With the pandemic and labor shortages — the fact that for once we’re not totally disposable, they need us — it was the perfect time,” Ms. Rizzo said.

She and several other workers said the pandemic exacerbated longstanding issues, such as the stress of understaffing, which became more acute as turnover and absenteeism increased and as workers were given additional responsibilities like sanitizing surfaces. The workers also said they felt pressure to come in when sick unless they could find a co-worker to replace them.

Despite periodic commitments by Starbucks to revise its policies, complaints lingered and appeared to intensify during the pandemic. READ THE ARTICLE →

  • The S&P 500 was little changed, while the Nasdaq composite rose 0.3 percent.

  • The S&P 500 has climbed more than 20 percent so far in 2021 and has more than doubled in value since it hit bottom in March 2020.

  • European markets gained on Wednesday, with the Stoxx Europe 600 closing 0.5 percent higher. Asian markets rose.

  • Oil prices dropped after officials from OPEC, Russia and other oil-producing countries decided to continue increasing oil production each month by 400,000 barrels a day. Futures for West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. crude benchmark, fell 0.3 percent to $68.23 a barrel.

  • Shares of the Campbell Soup Company rose 2.1 percent after the company reported profit of $288 million for its 2021 fiscal year, compared with $86 million in 2020.

New York City’s mayor has sought to push forward the city’s reopening, despite the arrival of the variant.
Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City has directed all of the city employees who are currently working from home to return to the office full-time starting in less than two weeks, a signal that he is intent on resurrecting the city’s office-dependent central business district despite the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

In a Wednesday email to agency heads that was acquired by The New York Times, the mayor’s reopening task force said the roughly 80,000 office workers employed at city agencies would “resume pre-March 2020 work schedules in the office beginning September 13.” There are more than 300,000 city workers overall, but many of them are essential employees who have already been reporting to job sites.

The move represents an escalation of the city’s requirements for its work force, and is bound to discomfit employees who are concerned about the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, or who have grown accustomed to the conveniences afforded by working from home.

In the first half of August, the seven-day average of new virus cases in the city reached its highest level since April, but cases have since declined slightly, to 1,844 on Tuesday, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

Hospitalizations in the city have also risen, to a weekly average of just under 1,150 as of last week. New deaths have remained relatively stable, with a seven-day average of 12 per day as of Tuesday.

Nearly 59 percent of the city’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to city data.

Mr. de Blasio has sought to push forward New York City’s reopening, despite the arrival of the variant. In August, he mounted a major concert in Central Park designed to signify the city’s reopening. Bad weather forced the concert to end early.

Mr. de Blasio first required city workers to return to the office in person starting May 3, but he instituted 50 percent occupancy limits on buildings, which necessitated a hybrid schedule — on some days, employees worked from home, and on others, they reported to the office.

The Wednesday email noted that “telework will only be allowed in limited circumstances.” It also said employees would be subject to an executive order, signed by the mayor on Tuesday after he announced the plan in July, that requires all employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo weekly testing.

All employees and contractors will be required to wear face coverings in all communal spaces.

“As the city finishes its return to office process, the mayor’s message remains the same: We know how to make workplaces safe, and public servants can deliver more for New Yorkers when they’re working together,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for the mayor. “City workers will have all the resources they need to complete this final step safely. There’s no time to waste in building a recovery for all of us.”

Daniel E. Slotnik, Alison Saldanha and Albert Sun contributed reporting.

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