Like many industries around the world, the dream factory of Hollywood has been closed for business for most of 2020—and even as it staggers back to its feet at reduced capacity, we’ve only just begun to see the impact on film and television. After the unprecedented era of plenty that gave us both Peak TV and a surge in tentpole filmmaking, are we headed for a content desert?
Maybe not quite a desert, at least when it comes to TV. There were 532 scripted shows in 2019, so if only 400-something made it to air in 2020, that’s still more than even the most binge-happy housebound viewer could take in. When the pandemic first hit and TV production ground to a halt, Rolling Stone’s chief TV critic, Alan Sepinwall, was bracing for a drought that never came. “I kept moving the goalposts,” he says. “ ‘Oh, we’re probably going to run out of things when we get to July,’ or ‘Fall will definitely be a trouble spot because the broadcast networks won’t have anything ready.’ The amount of programming so far has slowed but certainly not stopped.”
For the steady flow of entertainment thus far, we can thank the quick thinking of TV execs like WarnerMedia’s Brett Weitz, who found himself staring at a 500-hour hole in the schedule when live sports shut down on TBS, TNT, and TruTV. “You have two options,” he says. “Curl up in a ball and just never come out of whatever cave you’ve crawled into, or stand side by side with your teammates who are brilliant programmers and brilliant marketers and reconstitute the air.”
Bumped twice from theaters, Soul hits Disney+ on December 25.
Courtesy of Disney/Pixar.
Weitz’s solution, and he wasn’t alone in this, was to accelerate the premiere of shows like the adaptation of Bong Joon Ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer. “We pulled all of our original programming up into the year,” says Weitz. “We had Samantha Bee all of a sudden doing things from the woods in her home.” A slightly less congested schedule meant a show like Snowpiercer—a long-gestating project that lost several showrunners and completely reshot its pilot—had more room to breathe and attract viewers. “A show like that would have gotten lost in the shuffle,” says Television Critics Association president Sarah Rodman. But in the new normal, Snowpiercer wound up the number one new cable series of the year.
Because new TV shows will be scarcer in early 2021, executives are patching gaps in their schedule with docuseries and reality programs that are cheaper and easier to produce under strict new COVID safety guidelines. The result, of course, may not be to everyone’s taste. “That makes me kind of fear that we may return to that early mid-aughts glut of all things reality, which yielded things like the American version of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!,” says Salon TV critic Melanie McFarland. “The Circle isn’t as bad as Joe Millionaire, but there are certainly some shows that are headed in that direction.”
Over on the film side of town, there’s concern about what’s left of 2020 as well as about early 2021, but also a feeling that anyone who can deliver fresh content could make a fortune, given the paucity of competition and the hunger for new content. “What I see happening is a hopscotch where it’s going to be pretty thin the rest of this year,” says Joshua Grode, the CEO of Legendary Entertainment, which produced the upcoming Dune movie, now rescheduled for October of next year. “Q1 is going to be a little thin because everybody thinks it’s going to be a continuation of 2020 due to COVID, and things closing down during spikes.”
If the pandemic can be brought under control by early spring, Grode expects a surge in the summer film business as movies that have been sitting on the shelf finally arrive in newly opened theaters. Still, there will be some turbulence. “You’re going to hit a little bit of a wall because the bigger movies that had to finish may or may not make that date,” he says. “You’re going to have a little bit of a peak, a valley, and a peak and then kind of a return to normalcy.”
For large and small FILMS, the CHALLENGE is the same: Should they move forward if they COST significantly HIGHER because of COVID precautions?
Movie studios have pushed their biggest bets all the way to the end of 2021 to avoid having to move them more than once. “When I looked at the available dates, there was a date in March that we were thinking about,” Grode says of Dune. “There was a date in the end of May, or beginning of June. I figured March is probably too soon to really have a full return to this theater experience. People need to put their toe in the water and then they put their ankle, then they go up to their knee in order to kind of get back to daily life. That takes time.”
What happens when the movies that were already in motion run out? COVID remains such a threat that, to date, only a fraction of film and television projects have resumed production. “There was a fairly predictable rhythm of the major studios making an average of 12 to 20 movies a year and independents popping up here and there,” says Erik Feig, CEO of Picturestart. Unfortunately that model is unsustainable in an industry where new safety guidelines will inevitably balloon budgets.
As a former executive for Summit and Lionsgate, Feig shepherded franchises like The Hunger Games and Twilight, but now he’s focused on more intimate fare like Unpregnant, an HBO Max comedy that premiered in September. For small and large films trying to get off the ground now, he says the challenge is the same—should it move forward if it costs significantly more? “For the same exact movie, to make it right now, it is more expensive than it was in January of 2019, by probably about 20 percent,” he says.
The same goes for TV shows, of course. “TV producers know they’ve got to produce more efficiently in order to put COVID costs on top of whatever that number is,” says Weitz, from WarnerMedia. “We have to spend in order to keep people safe, but we’re going to continue to do that. That’s an investment in content for the future, and it’s important to keep these airways alive.”
Both film and TV studios are being forced to be much choosier about which films and shows they send back into production. TV networks are, of course, starting with the jewels in their crown. For TV Land, the shiniest gem is Darren Star’s Younger, the soapy Sutton Foster-led dramedy about the world of book publishing that recently started shooting its seventh season. Star is a veteran of the industry who saw one show, Sex and the City, weather 9/11 and its would-be follow-up, Cashmere Mafia, crash and burn in part due to the writers strike of 2007–2008. But for all that he’s seen in his career, the COVID era, Star says, is “certainly new territory”: “We were supposed to start shooting at the very beginning of [last] April. We had our sets built in March, and we were in preproduction. The attitude on the set is super positive, and people are happy to be there despite the restrictions and despite the fact that we’re all wearing masks.”
Younger hopes to return next year with its seventh season.
Courtesy of HBO.
Even before the pandemic, the wall between television and film was already coming down, and now the distinction between them is hurtling toward negligibility. In many cases, studios with completed movies have opted not to wait until theaters reopen and passed their wares along to streamers. Legendary sold its charming girl-power mystery Enola Holmes to Netflix, which debuted it in September. Disney released Mulan as a premium option on its Disney+ service, where it will premiere the touching, metaphysically minded Pixar movie Soul on December 25. Warner Bros. also decided on a Christmas Day release for Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, a politically themed period piece about the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, was intended for theaters but rerouted to Netflix in the fall.
“There are certain films that are timeless—meaning, if you hold onto them, it’s not going to matter,” says Paramount distribution president Chris Aronson. “There are others that are timely, and holding them does not do justice for them. I think you could put Borat 2 into that category. I think you could put The Trial of the Chicago 7 into that category. I mean, Aaron absolutely wanted audiences to see that film prior to the election. So every film has its own set of characteristics.”
Some smaller movies have been released on demand because the studios know that, once theaters do open, there will be an influx of big movies dominating the screens, like Top Gun: Maverick, which Paramount bumped to July 2021. “There’s such a lineup of massive T. rex movies that once [moviegoing] starts, it’s going to be relentless,” says one veteran producer and studio executive who requested anonymity. “The franchises are like the ocean liners, and you’re a little boat trying to find your space. How do you find opportunity in a world which is going to have fewer theaters and fewer screens? If you’re off 10 to 20 percent in your ability to generate box office [due to COVID-19 precautions], those movies which aren’t at the highest percentage of revenue generators—and can’t fight to stay in theaters—are going to start to be pushed out even further.”
He’s right about the T. rexes. “IMAX is in the blockbuster business, as you know—bigger, high-value productions,” says Richard Gelfond, CEO. “And I don’t think there’ll be a drought in IMAX kind of movies. There are a lot of films in the can already from 2020. So whether it’s Top Gun, or whether it’s No Time to Die, or Venom, there’s a lot of content that’s already completed and ready to go. Mission: Impossible, which we’re playing in IMAX next year, is in the middle of production in Europe. Jurassic World is open and in production in London at Pinewood. Avatar is back in production in New Zealand. I don’t think that the big-budget blockbuster films are going to have a gap, because of this backlog.”
Top Gun: Maverick finally lands in July 2021.
By Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures.
Here’s the worrisome part, though: Not many tentpole movies have actually been greenlighted since the shutdown. Those films are now harder to launch because of the scale of production, the need for multiple locations around the world, and the army-size crews, which have to be sequestered in housing and repeatedly tested. (The same concerns stand for tentpole television, although, as yet, there have been no meaningful delays on the Game of Thrones follow-up, House of the Dragon.) Epic films are also tougher to insure, which would mean hundreds of millions in losses if repeated illnesses devastate the production.
So, to put it simply, after the flood of 2021, there may very well be a drought. With so many midsize movies originally destined for theaters making their debuts through subscription streamers and premium video on demand, fewer new projects will be available for the lean times when theatergoing is safe again.
“I see opportunity,” says Joe Drake, chairman of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. “I think there’s a historic supply-demand imbalance in favor of content creators.” Survival, though, may mean looking past theaters and focusing on in-home viewing, or by hyping the back catalog. “You have consumers wanting new content. They’re looking deeper and deeper in libraries. They’re going deeper and deeper into all these search funnels to find something that they might not have seen a couple of years ago, because they want something new. There’s more optionality than ever before. And this moment has forced us all to reimagine how we’re doing business. Those who can provide content should be in a very good position.”
One upside to the demand for new stories could be viewers expanding their horizons. Last year, Bong Joon Ho’s South Korean Oscar juggernaut, Parasite, became the first-ever foreign language film to win best picture, transforming what once would have been considered a niche film into a blockbuster. American viewers are more open than ever to entertainment from other cultures, which could fill the void.
That’s the goal of SK Global Entertainment, which made the 2018 international box office powerhouse Crazy Rich Asians and now produces the Netflix hit series Delhi Crime out of India, among other projects. “One of the sort of phenomena that has taken place during this quarantine is that people have really embraced subtitles,” says Charlie Corwin, a co-CEO at the company. “People are watching things from all over the world. It’s obviously self-serving to some degree for me to say that, because that’s what our company is set up to do. But this time has accelerated the inevitable shift toward global content because America, and Hollywood specifically, is no longer the only epicenter of creativity.”
TV is also leaning more heavily on global entertainment with imports from the U.K., Canada, and beyond while fleshing out the many new streaming platforms. But the TV industry has to be as cautious as the film world when it comes to which projects to greenlight—and that, some fear, may put a cap on the boom in creativity and inclusiveness that’s been a hallmark of Peak TV.
Because of the PANDEMIC, streamers and networks have had to REVERSE COURSE on some shows, leading to the coining of the odd, 2020-ish term “UNRENEWED.”
Weitz doesn’t see a narrowing of voices as part of the future for WarnerMedia, which includes HBO and the newly minted HBO Max. “Look at what HBO Max is doing and the amount of content and the stories they’re going to be telling from very niche to much broader. You can’t narrow the funnel of consumption when people are getting more broad-based in their consumption. If [you don’t] let these voices shine through, viewers will go somewhere else and they’ll never come back to you.”
But the fact is that, in the wake of COVID, streamers and networks have had to reverse course on shows that expected more seasons, leading to the coinage of the odd 2020-ish term “unrenewed.” Netflix, once the greenest greenlight in all of television, had to unrenew GLOW, The Society, and I Am Not Okay With This.
ABC unrenewed the private detective show Stumptown. TruTV let go of the Andrea Savage sitcom I’m Sorry. And Showtime shut down the Kirsten Dunst dramedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida.
“If you look at all these shows that have been unrenewed,” says TCA president Rodman, “they were either by, about, or run by women. It’s very concerning to me that the things I don’t want to think of as niche voices are being treated as niche voices. Seeing what’s happening is a big concern to me not just as someone who covers the industry, but as a consumer.”
But, McFarland, from Salon, believes the overall deals at Netflix and elsewhere are a source of hope for those who worry that a shrinking TV schedule might mean a less diverse lineup. “Networks and streaming services have some very powerful people—like Ava DuVernay, Kenya Barris, Shonda Rhimes, and Issa Rae—and they are very invested in making sure that that talent stays because it’s not always going to be lean times. There may be fewer of the shows that networks take a chance on, but they’re not going to disappear altogether.”
That may be as much certainty as anyone can ask for these days: We can’t entirely predict the future, but at least we know there will be one.
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