Biggest Entertainment Stories Of 2020: A Year That Rocked The Industry

Biggest Entertainment Stories Of 2020: A Year That Rocked The Industry

There is no way to truly recap the biggest entertainment stories of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the world in ways that will take years to document, whether the public wants to revisit or reflect on this time or not. And it also made some stories, even from a movie or television industry perspective, seem inconsequential. But there were either pop culture events or business dealings that need to be documented. And, you might be surprised by some of them.

READ MORE: The 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2021

Keeping all that in mind, let’s revisit twenty-twenty and hope some lessons were learned along the way.

READ MORE: The 25 Best Films Of 2020

An industry hits the brakes
Most of Europe and North America came to a full stop in March with the initial stay-at-home orders. Film and television programs ceased production. Late-night talk shows began filming out of their hosts’ homes. Even news networks became a mostly-zoom endeavor (and, yes, you should have invested in Zoom). Movie theaters closed. Broadway turned the lights off. Concerts, tours, and music festivals were slowly canceled one by one. Film festivals were put on pause. Amusement parks shuttered. And within weeks the layoffs and furloughs began for jobs many assumed were “safe” from such economic crises. Even during World War II, Hollywood kept the wheels turning. This was something different. Something historic. And if it ever happens again, you’ll know the world taken a turn for the worse.

READ MORE: The 20 Best Performances Of 2020

Hollywood slowly gets back to work with COVID delays
It happened in fits and starts and after months of negotiations with the appropriate unions, but eventually, film and television production began to ramp up again. Somewhat surprisingly, it was reality programs such as “The Bachelorette,” the “Real Housewives” franchise, and “The Masked Singer,” among others, that returned to television production first. There were, however, independent films that shot in relative secret during the quarantine such as “Malcolm & Marie” with Zendaya and John David Washington. Major franchises such as “Jurassic Park” and “Mission: Impossible” found ways to film overseas with weeks of COVID prep and testing. On the flip side, productions in New Zealand and Australia, where life has been relatively “normal” compared to the rest of the world, have been booming. In North America, studio lots were busy again by fall, but major series delayed by the stay at home orders such as “Succession” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” were just returning to production by year’s end. The kicker, unfortunately, is that despite testing protocols, many films and programs have had to shut down for weeks at a time due to positive tests including “The Batman” (with star Robert Pattinson getting infected), “Dear White People,” “The Flash,” “Young Sheldon” and more. But as 2021 rounds the corner, cast, and crew are becoming used to new standards that find talent waiting in bubbles between shots, digital crowd scenes, and fewer inclosed sets.

Television gets a historic ratings bump
A funny thing happened during the stay-at-home orders. Not only did streaming viewership surge, but people actually got so bored they started watching – gasp – network television again. In March and April, ratings were up a substantial 28% from pre-stay at home orders. Programs such as “The Voice,” “X-Factor,” “Survivor” and “Chicago” saw their highest ratings in years (and that’s not an exaggeration). According to Neilsen, viewership overall spiked the week of April 6 when 170 billion minutes of streaming occurred in the U.S. alone. By June, however, the bump had almost entirely evaporated as much of the nation saw restrictions lifted. On the other hand, ratings for abbreviated seasons of the major sports leagues (NFL, MLB, and NBA) were down compared to previous years. A genuine surprise for many who believed viewers would flock to more live event coverage.

Theatrical distribution goes on life support
Outside of the music industry and live theater, you could argue the almost global stay-at-home orders damaged the theatrical distribution business more than any other. In 2019, 1.2 billion tickets were sold and generated $11.2 billion in revenue in the U.S. alone. At posting, 2020 is looking at just a little over $2 billion in box office grosses. Much of that figure, however, is thanks to major hits in January and February, before the pandemic hit. While studios pushed some of their 2020 films to PVOD or sold them to streamers (“Coming to America 2,” “Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Greyhound”) Christophe Nolan’s “Tenet” was seen as the industry’s great hope to reopen theaters in the summer. While it earned $304.3 million overseas, it took in just $57 million stateside. Local restrictions in the top two markets in the country, Los Angeles and New York (where movie theaters never reopened), cut into much of those grosses. After those disappointing results, studios began pushing most of their year-end releases far into 2021. That forced some chains to cease operations and close locations in the interim. The very small silver lining was a resurgence of Drive-In movie theaters where business has been booming and even once shuttered locations have reopened. (Drive-in concerts, comedy shows, and drag shows have flourished during the shutdown). With COVID numbers still skyrocketing and theaters in LA or NY unlikely to reopen for months, the question no one can answer is when major releases will finally return to your local cineplex.

HBO Max and Peacock stumble out of the gate
2020 was always a key year in the battle for the public’s streaming dollars. The pandemic was an unexpected boost to those efforts with established options such as Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple TV+ seeing a surge in app downloads and adoption during the early months of the stay-at-home orders. Two players who had a very rough start though were HBO Max and Peacock. The Comcast operation says it has amassed 26 million subscribers for a service that offers more of a “free” channel experience full of traditional advertising. From a content perspective, however, Peacock has already canceled its pricey flagship series, “Brave New World” and has one critical hit, the “Saved by the Bell” reboot (although it’s had and out of the blue controversy). But, shockingly, that’s it. Peacock is almost an afterthought in most streamer conversations. HBO Max, consequently, has been fashioned as more of a direct competitor to Netflix and Disney+. With a library of classic WB movies, HBO series, and DC Universe content, in theory, it should already be a prime player. But, it’s all in the details, isn’t it? Consumers were confused at launch on the differences between HBO, HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO Max, and many didn’t understand they could get HBO Max for free if they already had an HBO subscription. Like many networks or services, the pandemic also delayed what series it could debut with and while Anna Kendrick’s “Love Life” and the reality competition show “Legendary” earned Season 2 renewals, neither show truly broke through in the public consciousness. That all led to a very disappointing 12.6 million subscribers/activations by December. The good news for HBO Max is that HBO’s creatively progressive Casey Bloys took the reins of the streamer in August, it’s had one minor hit with “Raised by Wolves” and (seemingly) a major one with “The Flight Attendant.” A big test will come on Christmas when “Wonder Woman 1984” kicks off a year where Warner Bros. films will now debut on both the streamer and in theaters. Will that be enough for HBO Max to even catch up with Peacock? WarnerMedia is counting on it.

WarnerMedia causes chaos at year’s end with HBO Max decision
Speaking of HBO Max, consider the following scenario. Imagine if your company funded almost three-quarters of a $200 million+ movie and then your partner, whose responsibilities were to market and distribute said movie, decided to not only release it in theaters, but on their fledgling streaming service at the same time? A movie that even in a pandemic could seriously undercut its monetary performance. Do you think they’d be happy? That understandable fury is what WarnerMedia has dealt with both publicly and privately since dropping a bombshell that it was releasing all of its 2021 films on HBO Max and in theaters at the same time (or on HBO Max for one month at least). The decision, seen as a major effort to increase subscribers to HBO Max, saw filmmakers such as Christoper Nolan and Denis Villeneuve publicly condemning the company not only for making the decision and undercutting their theatrical partners, but announcing it with no warning beforehand. That frustration doesn’t even take into account companies such as Village Roadshow and Legendary who have financed major 2021 tentpole players such as “Matrix 4” and “Dune.” They want a mechanism where they can actually get a return on their investment or, heaven forbid, make a profit. Somehow, WarnerMedia’s bosses at AT&T fumbled the announcement so badly that CEO Jason Kilar is still on a public relations tour trying to justify the decision. And if “Wonder Woman 1984,” the first film under this release scenario, disappoints in terms of box office and sign-ups, you can expect more stars, filmmakers, and producers demanding a change in policy.

Virtual live productions become a whole new thing
Maybe ten years from now, a new generation is going to dive into history on YouTube, and all of a sudden, they are going to find a creative period which we can only describe as “rough,” March through August, 2020. At first, talent was clearly unaware of the benefits of keeping ring lights in their home or either propping a laptop camera above or below for the best angle. Audio quality was…questionable. But during this same period, you’ll find some genuinely inspired digital musical performances. Artists such as Dua Lipa, Katy Perry, and Chloe x Halle were at the forefront in pushing creativity and COVID safe technology to their limits. By the time the BET Awards, MTV Music Video Awards, and Emmys came around, television producers had learned enough to pull off entertainment without real crowds in attendance (Emmy winner Glenn Weiss also deserves massive credit for an almost completely virtual DNC convention). And those lessons should be a staple for live event coverage for years to come.

Black Lives Matter
The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor struck a chord with millions in the U.S. and around the world. And while peaceful social justice protesters were attacked by police across the nation, Hollywood showed its ability to amplify messages during the pandemic beyond obvious solidarity. Familiar faces on social media used their Instagram and Twitter accounts to share protest march details, information on where to donate and, notably, as a massive platform for BLM activists at a pivotal moment in history. Media corporations also jumped on the bandwagon donating to causes and commissioning special programming. There were smaller moves too. White actors who played PoC roles on animated series such as “Big Mouth” and “Family Guy” stepped down to give the voice role to Black actors. It also prompted another surge in reconsidering development and hiring practices in Hollywood, a trend that has seen significant changes in the industry over the past three to five years. Will many of those pitched projects come to pass? All eyes are Hollywood.

Film Festivals find a way
The coronavirus pandemic meant that for most of the world, in-person film festivals were not possible. After valiant attempts, Cannes and Telluride were forced to cancel although the Colorado staple had a special screening in Los Angeles for “Nomadland” and the French mainstay saw some of its selections showcased at other festivals. Somehow, Venice managed to pull off an in-person event (with masks and limited attendance), but other festivals were relegated to virtual and drive-in screenings. For starved cinephiles, however, it was a godsend. The New York Film Festival estimated 70,000+ attendees (a 9% increase over the previous year) while the usually massive Toronto International Festival sold 48,280 virtual tickets compared to 307,000 in-person tickets in 2019. In fact, many smaller festivals survived in this manner. Even LA’s Outfest set up a Drive-In for screenings. The buzz wasn’t the same, but it did exist, at least on social media. Moving forward, Sundance, Berlin, and SXSW are already committed to virtual events in 2021, but there is hope that by summer some familiar events on the festival season will return to theaters. Fingers crossed.

Universal breaks the theatrical window
After being the first studio to release its films digitally on a higher price point PVOD (Premium Video on Demand) at the beginning of the pandemic, Universal raised eyebrows in the distribution world when it struck a deal with AMC Theaters over shortened windows. It was shocking considering how furious AMC was when the studio skipped sending the highly promoted “Trolls: World Tour” exclusively to theaters in April. Under the new arrangement, Universal and Focus Features releases will play at AMC Theaters for 17 days before also debuting on PVOD. The deal supposedly gives AMC a cut of the PVOD revenues for a set period of time. Moreover, if a film is killing it at the box office, Universal can keep it exclusively in theaters for a longer timeframe. By November, the studio had made a similar deal with AMC’s rival, Cinemark. At first, the agreement looked horrific to theater owners, but considering WarnerMedia’s decision to nuke any window altogether during the pandemic, in hindsight, it actually seems quite civilized. The question is when the pandemic ends whether AMC, Cinemark, and theater owners will balk at these new arrangements.

Quibi comes and goes
That was a quick bit, wasn’t it? After raising $1 billion to fund its efforts, the streaming startup launched on April 6 with much fanfare. By December 1 Quibi was simply no more. For founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman, it was a colossal failure. An idea, in theory, that actually wasn’t terrible. Short content “episodes” of 10 minutes or less with recognizable talent (Liam Hemsworth, Anna Kendrick, Kevin Hart, Keifer Sutherland, Chrissy Teigen, Jennifer Lopez, and Will Smith, among others) that played out over eight to 10 episodes. The problems were many, but the biggest might have been Katzneberg’s stubbornness in not launching on any other device but a phone. It took months before the app could even be mirrored on a TV. By then the adoption rates were so low that Quibi is now relegated to a long list of failed entertainment endeavors such as Qwikster, Moviepass, and Relativity Films.

“Parasite” makes Oscar history
Over 92 years of handing out Academy Awards, a non-English language film had never won Best Picture. In 2019, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” came close. So, did “Life is Beautiful” in 1999. Even “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” had a shot in 2001. But only Bong Joon Ho could climb that mountain as his dramatic thriller “Parasite” took Oscar’s biggest honor in 2020. It was an incredible night as the Neon release not only took Best Picture but Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and International Film (the first for South Korea). After the disheartening win for “Green Book” the year prior, “Parasite’s” triumph was a signal that the genuinely progressive and more inclusive decade of the 10’s was not a fluke for the Academy. And when Jane Fonda revealed the winner that night you could hear the screams of joy from the Dolby Theater to Seoul, Korea, and back again.

You can’t escape “Tiger King”
Netflix might have hoped that it’s docuseries on the insane feud between wild animal keepers Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin would do well, but we can’t imagine they thought it would become a key zeitgeist moment of 2020. Debuting on March 20, the first real weekend of the stay at home orders across the country, “Tiger King” became must-see TV for a global populace stuck at home. In fact, Netflix announced that 34.3 million people had watched the series in the US over its first 10 days alone. In less than two months at least three different live-action versions of the participants’ lives were announced, rumors over Baskin killing her former husband spawned a TikTok craze, Baskin somehow got the green light to compete on “Dancing with the Stars” and by year’s end Exotic sued the Department of Justice to get Donald Trump to grant him a pardon. “Tiger King” even made noise at the Emmys where it somehow lost all six categories it was nominated for.

The Kardashians might have just ended E!
When the Kardashian family announced that their signature reality TV series “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” was going to end in 2020, many naively assumed it meant that the polarizing family had grown beyond the cable network that spawned them. After twenty seasons, numerous spin-offs, and countless makeup and clothing lines, there was no way the Kardashian “empire” was going to be relegated to social media. Instead, less than six months after their announcement, Hulu dropped an exclusive contract with the family that begins at the end of their Comcast deal. It was a major coup for the Disney division and bad news for E! which has made the Kardashian programs their lifeblood. You simply can’t just replace that sort of ratings power overnight.

Netflix’s movie star strategy apparently works
The streaming giant has obviously had success with movie stars in the past. Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston’s “Murder Mystery,” Sandra Bullock’s “Birdbox” and Will Smith’s “Bright” delivered big viewership numbers according to the streamer over the past four years, but 2020 was the year their star strategy truly made its mark. And even if it was partially because so many movie theaters were closed across the globe due to the pandemic. “Old Guard” with Charlize Theron, “Project Power” with Jamie Foxx, “Eurovision” with Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, “Extraction” with Chris Hemsworth and “Spenser Confidential” with Mark Wahlberg were all massive hits not only according to the streamers questionable parameters, but independent third-party surveys as well.

MGM quietly makes major moves…and then puts itself on the block
At the beginning of the year, there was genuine optimism that outside of the James Bond franchise MGM could turn itself into a real studio again. Michael De Luca was named chairman of the Motion Picture Group and quickly put some high profile projects in the pipeline. Ridley Scott’s “Gucci” with Lady Gaga, Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” with Frances McDormand, Scott Z. Burns’ “Fake!” with Kate Winslet, Channing Tatum’s “Dogs,” Joe Wright’s “Cyrano,” a new live-action project from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, George MIller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” the long-awaited “Legally Blond 3” and, in a stunning coup, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest endeavor for 2021, plucked from the mitts of Focus Features. It’s a lineup fashioned over just 12 months that would make anyone in the industry take notice. Until, of course, the Wall Street Journal revealed in December that MGM Holdings, the investment group that owns the studio, had hired bankers to find a sale. And that means this potential rebound might not last very long at all.

Chadwick Boseman passes away
In a year full of shocks, a thunderbolt hit the globe on August 28. At the age of 43, and with no warning, Chadwick Boseman passed away of complications from colon cancer. The announcement of his death was stunning not just because of his relative youth, but because so few people outside of his family knew he’d been fighting the disease for four years. Even Walt Disney Studios and director Ryan Coogler believed Boseman was on track to shoot the sequel to their cultural reset and Best Picture nominee, “Black Panther,” only a few months later. But even they were stunned at the news. Boseman left a legacy of beloved roles in films such as “42,” “Get On Up” and “Da 5 Bloods.” His final on-screen performance, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” has already earned him Best Actor accolades from numerous critics groups including the LA Film Critics Association. But to his fans, he’ll always be T’Challa, the Black Panther. And “Wakanda Forever,” will always ring in his spirit.

Viacom changes streaming strategy once again
Looking to make any sort of mark in the streaming wars is ViacomCBS who decided that after remerging at the end of 2019 it might be time to finally beef up its own effort. In so doing, the conglomerate announced in September it will rebrand the six-year-old CBS All Access into Paramount Plus sometime in the first quarter of 2021. The current app already features a few “Star Trek” series, “Big Brother After Dark” and a “Twilight Zone” reboot. The new version will take legacy content from CBS, Paramount Pictures, MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, Comedy Central, and other networks and promises 30,000 movies and episodes. It will also feature live sports and CBS news. New content will include an “iCarly” revival, a reboot of the comedy series “The Game,” a “Behind the Music” revival, Taylor Sheridan’s “Lioness” and a 10-episode limited series around the filming of “The Godfather.” Whether that’s enough to grow it substantially larger than its estimated 8 million subscriber base remains to be seen. They all can’t succeed, can they?

The Snyder Cut actually happens
If you were a diehard Zack Snyder fan who used every possible means on social media to convince Warner Bros to release a new cut of 2017’s “Justice League,” 2020 might have been the greatest year ever. Despite the fact there was no real Snyder edit, WarnerMedia bowed to fan pressure, and on May 20, 2020, Snyder revealed a new version of the film titled “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” was in the works and would debut on HBO Max. In the months since the budget was revealed to be approximately $70 million, four to five minutes of new footage was shot and the final version is expected to debut in March 2021. The news that Warner Bros.’ upcoming films will be releasing both in theaters and on HBO Max for all of 2021 diminished some of the shine over the “new” “Justice League,” but, for better or worse, it’s still arguably the biggest fan service achievement in Hollywood history.

Disney+ puts on a show
After a year of existence, Disney+ has been an unequivocal success for the Walt Disney Company. The service now has 86.8 million subscribers, just under the 90 million goal they set for 2024. And despite a breakout series with the Emmy-nominated “The Mandalorian,” an exclusive “Hamilton” film and Beyonce’s critically acclaimed “Black is King” one major piece has been missing, Marvel Studios. On Dec. 10, Disney had an investor presentation like no investor presentation before it. And not only did they announce new Lucasfilm series such as “The Acolyte,” “Lando,” “Ahsoka,” “Andor,” “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” “The Rangers of the New Republic” and “The Bad Batch,” but six Marvel Studios series for 2021. These include “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Loki,” the animated “What… If?,” “Ms. Marvel” and “Hawkeye.” Oh, and “She-Hulk” and “Moon Knight” are on the way as well. Oh, but wait, those were public knowledge. There was so much more. “Secret Invasion” with Samuel L. Jackson, “Ironheart,” “Armor Wars” with Don Cheadle and “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.” And if you think that made the current streaming king, Netflix, nervous, that’s just the beginning. Walt Disney Animation is bringing “Moana: The Series,” “Zootopia Plus,” “Baymax,” a spin-off of “Big Hero 6,” and “Tiana,” a sequel to “The Princess and the Frog.” And Pixar will bring three programs to Disney Plus, “Up” spin-off “Dug Days,” the inevitable series based on “Cars” and an original concept, “Win or Lose.” Netflix currently has 190 million subscribers including 73 million in the U.S. How they strategize to keep their market share is just as big a story for 2021 as Disney’s oncoming onslaught.

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