The entertainment business is by definition unpredictable. That’s what makes it such a magnet for the best and the brightest, the bold and the brazen, the born innovators and entrepreneurs.
Efforts to forecast the future are often folly, because the path is determined by financial agendas and the interests and discretionary income of American and, increasingly, global consumers.
But just because something is hard to do well doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. With the hellacious year of 2020 drawing to a close, Variety’s in-house team of soothsayers gathered around a virtual crystal ball to make some educated guesses about what the next 12 months will bring.
After enduring the pain of the pandemic, which has accelerated disruption in every facet of the industry, readers will forgive us for accentuating the positive and looking for some rainbows after an awful torrent of rain.
• Nothing created more opportunity, more agita and more industry debate this year than the emergence of on-demand streaming platforms as the driving force in Hollywood. Look for the agents of A-list filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Patty Jenkins and Christopher Nolan to dramatically rethink what studios have to offer up in order to ink deals for their clients’ next movies. After Warner Bros. alienated top talent with the decision to have its 2021 feature slate premiere day-and-date on HBO Max and in theaters, the price of doing business with major moviemakers for studios won’t just be a generous backend deal. It’s going to be a contractual obligation that the content be exhibited first in a theater. In other words, don’t send me into the stream.
• If the coronavirus vaccines are successful and herd immunity looks strong by early fall, Warner Bros. will reverse course on its simultaneous streaming plan with HBO Max. “Dune,” “Elvis” and “Matrix 4” will open only in theaters.
• The flip side of the streaming conundrum for filmmakers is the brutal impact of the pandemic shutdowns on the largest exhibition chains. They’ve faced a perfect storm of plummeting attendance, a lack of new buzzy titles and high rents. In short, the slow pace of vaccination and the rise of streaming services will spell financial ruin for top theater chains. At least one exhibition powerhouse, likely AMC Entertainment, will file for bankruptcy protection.
• Apple will buy ViacomCBS. With the media companies’ respective streaming services struggling to compete with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Disney Plus, Tim Cook will make an offer that Shari Redstone can’t refuse. MTV will start broadcasting music videos again thanks to a partnership with Apple Music. All CBS procedural cops will carry iPhones, and every contestant on “Survivor” will wear a waterproof Apple Watch. “Star Trek” fanatics and Apple fanatics — basically, one and the same — will rejoice.
• Music catalog sales — sales of artists’ IP troves, that is — will pick up. With the touring business temporarily sidelined, IP will consolidate its position as the most bankable asset in the music business. The publishing-catalog buying spree (paced in recent weeks by deals made by Scooter Braun and Bob Dylan) will cool down a bit once the Biden administration pushes for higher capital gains taxes. Increasingly savvy artists will fight to retain or gain control of their work.
• Meanwhile, the onetime crown jewels of the broadcast TV business — the Big Four network O&O stations — will also hit the open market. As the major media companies tout their streaming services as the future, they’re almost trying to hide that they’re still in the legacy network business. It’s a matter of time until either Disney, ViacomCBS or NBCUniversal decides it doesn’t need to be in the local broadcasting game and sells its station groups, something Disney has flirted with in the past.
• CAA will be involved in a significant transaction involving the agency itself. Whether it buys a rival or the agency’s current ownership picture shifts, look for some movement next year within the fortress walls on Avenue of the Stars.
• David Young will step down as executive director of the Writers Guild of America West after 15 years at the helm. The union leader is said to have indicated his intention to retire after seeing to conclusion the guild’s two big campaigns of the past two years: the battle with the major talent agencies (which it won) and the 2020 master film and TV contract that was inked in July.
• Big Tech will face brushbacks but not breakups. Tech giants will be the target of new laws or regulatory actions — in the U.S. and elsewhere — aimed at checking their grip on the internet economy. In the States, Facebook and Google have been hit with antitrust suits by the FTC and the DOJ, respectively. More likely than splitting up the internet behemoths, the litigation will result in settlements requiring them to make changes to their business practices.
• It’s not just in Europe or the U.S. that governments are pushing back against the tech giants. Throughout Asia, many of the same — sometimes contradictory — forces are at play. Australia (much like Europe) is pushing for local content quotas at streamers. In Southeast Asia, governments want platforms to do their bidding over content and be increasingly responsible for user activity. Across the region, states want tech firms to pay taxes in their jurisdictions.
• Over 92 years, some 72 filmmakers have won the Academy Award for director. Just one woman — Kathryn Bigelow — is included in that group to date, and only four other female helmers have been nominated. With Regina King and Chloé Zhao in the hunt for “One Night in Miami” and “Nomadland,” respectively, we will see at minimum the first woman of color nominated for the prized statuette. We might even see two.
• Netflix will win its first best picture Oscar. The streaming service has already demonstrated that it is corralling more subscribers amid pandemic conditions. While the major studios gnashed their teeth this year over repeated delays of tentpole titles, Netflix forged ahead with a robust release calendar — in theaters, no less — saving two of its strongest contenders for early 2021: “Concrete Cowboy” and “Pieces of a Woman.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will once and for all be forced to address the indisputable evolutionary fact that movies are no longer exclusively a big-screen experience.
• As for the big night, the 93rd annual Academy Awards will take place largely in a blended live and virtual format, and producers will transform the telecast into a fundraiser for COVID-19 relief. A red carpet will be rolled out, but glitz and glamour will be kept to a minimum. As a sign of the times, yoga pants, hoodies and fuzzy slippers may be in vogue for nominees, some of whom will participate in the ceremony from the comfort of their couches.
Contributors: Cynthia Littleton, Jem Aswad, Kate Aurthur, Rebecca Davis, Peter Debruge, Brent Lang, Marc Malkin, Manori Ravindran, Rebecca Rubin, Michael Schneider, Todd Spangler, Adam B. Vary