Screen: 2020 Year in Review

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2020 in a word: dumpster-fire. The Dutch refer to 1672 as the ‘Rampjaar’, the disaster year, so too will 2020 be remembered as a time of sudden disaster. Unless you happened to own shares in PPE companies this time last year, the last twelve months likely haven’t been kind to you. Most industries have faced many setbacks and have adapted accordingly, and this is certainly no less true for film and television production and distribution and game development. So, just how much has changed in the disaster year of our generation?

The film and cinema industries had a strong start to the year: Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, Sonic the Hedgehog overcame an initial storm of negative publicity to light up the box office, and cinema attendance was actually up compared to the first quarter of 2019. Then an epidemic became a pandemic and you know the rest. Cinema attendance plummeted as sure-fire hits like Birds of Prey and Onward felt the shock COVID-19. As lockdowns were enforced in most major international markets, television, film, and game production ground to a halt. What then?

Each component of each industry adapted differently. Film studios gave their lower risk titles premium video-on-demand releases, much to the chagrin of the exhibition industry, as already beleaguered cinema chains were counting on these titles to drive up attendance once it was safe to re-open. Perhaps the greatest controversy came when Universal unilaterally decided to release Trolls World Tour in both a select number of cinemas and video-on-demand at the same time. This action prompted AMC, the world’s largest cinema chain, to declare it would not show any future Universal films in retaliation.

After a long saga of public disputes, AMC repaired its relationship with Universal in a deal in which they receive an undisclosed share of the studio’s subsequent PVOD sales. The fallout from this saga reignited in December as Warner Bros unilaterally announced that their entire slate of new releases for 2021 would debut simultaneously in theatres and on streaming, becoming the next domino to fall in this series of drastic measures which may completely reshape the economics of film exhibition. It remains to be seen if other major studios will jump on this bandwagon, but if it proves especially profitable for studios then both large and small theatre chains alike may be in jeopardy.

In the summer, cinemas did attempt to re-open, but under social distancing and scheduling guidelines that severely limited capacity and revenue. Besides this, the one major tentpole released over the summer, Tenet, failed to prove the profitability of this new normal, prompting a second wave of release schedule postponement.

It was a different story in the streaming market. The established services Netflix and Amazon were initially unaffected by the pandemic since more people stuck home means more views and subscriptions, and both had a catalogue of upcoming releases ready to go without the need for a theatrical release. Although, like their competitors, they were initially unable to continue production on new content due to lockdowns, and after they were able to resume production many projects such as The Witcher had to abruptly stop due to cast and crew testing positive for COVID-19.

Disney+ continued to launch successfully in more and more markets, although it has yet to prove itself a ‘Netflix killer’ as some analysts predicted. It seems buying out your competition and hoarding intellectual property isn’t enough to monopolise a market. Additionally, the Disney+ PVOD exclusive Mulan reportedly underperformed in sales expectations, as well as tanking in Chinese cinemas. In fact, as China was able to re-open most of its cinemas in the summer and continually reduce its cases of COVID-19, the Chinese market has been open and thriving since the summer. This has led to Chinese films out-grossing Hollywood for the first time ever, which will doubtless change the landscape of film production in the future.

Broadcast television similarly faced a sudden inability to produce new content, leading to long-running staples such as EastEnders grinding to a halt, to which companies have responded by repackaging old episodes and highlights as quarantine comfort viewing. An interesting (if sometimes gimmicky) adaptation to the current environment is the quarantine special, in which both current shows or classics of yesteryear such as Parks and Recreation produce episodes filmed over a group video-call. It will be interesting to see how we look back on this years from now.

Meanwhile, as March proved to be a cliff-edge for most companies, Nintendo was able to release their highly anticipated Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which proved to be not just a game but a social experience as people were able to virtually escape being stuck at home by immersing themselves in the great outdoors of Animal Crossing. The game’s popularity drove demand for the Nintendo Switch to skyrocket, causing the console to become a precious commodity for most of the spring, selling out in most stores seconds after new stock arrived.

Despite the doom and gloom of pandemic life, Microsoft and Sony pressed ahead with the launch of their latest generation of consoles. The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 experienced the typical waves of excitement and controversy that have accompanied the previous few generations. In particular, limited supply of the PlayStation 5 at launch led to scalpers re-selling the in-demand console at far above its RRP and making it impossibly arduous for many consumers to get their hands on one. Additionally, the debate over the ethics of crunch time in game development continued as developers made little change to the now normalised process of dramatically over-working their employees in order for their titles to be ready to launch on the most lucrative release date.

And here we are, at the precipice of the now longed-for 2021. Obviously, it’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows, but the feeling of a fresh start is helpful. We won’t be saying farewell to COVID-19 for a long time, but (hopefully) an end to periodic lockdowns is in sight. As with previous generations, the next year should yield some quality games for the new consoles, providing a more substantial line-up than that available at launch. The major film studios will inevitably start releasing their growing shelf of new titles, even if it’s a little later than we would like. And the upcoming Oscars ceremony should be mercifully short this time. Happy new year.

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