The pandemic continues to act as a great cultural accelerant, bulldozing institutions that were lurching slowly towards irrelevance. The impending awards show season may be COVID’s last big cultural casualty before the dawn of the new normal.
The question is whether that damage is irreversible. For the entertainment industry, this question looms large over awards shows and, more importantly, movie theaters. As summer faded to fall, some in Hollywood optimistically believed the months-long national theater closure had created a pent-up demand that would boost new releases like “Unhinged” and “Tenet.”
They had solid data to suggest that could be the case. Ultimately, it was not. Now, as fall fades to winter, Hollywood is reeling from Warner Bros.’s historic decision to make all of their 2021 films available on HBO Max the same day as their theatrical releases. This has filmmakers reasonably upset because it’s not what they wanted for this particular slate of movies, artistically or financially.
More broadly, however, it seems some version of this model was inevitable, although it could have taken as long as five or ten years to solidify, and this transition may slow a bit as our economy opens back up. It’s also difficult to predict exactly what shape the stream-centric film industry will take when the dust settles. Will multiplexes fall? Will moviegoing become a special occasion reserved for beautiful big-budget films or indie fare screened in chic theaters with food and wine? How will this affect production?
If we’ve learned anything from the data that had people optimistic about films like “Unhinged,” it’s that consumer behavior is really unpredictable right now. And the answers to a lot of these key questions depend on it.
The decline of awards shows is easier to predict. Their ratings have slipped dramatically. Their season of champagne-fueled self-congratulations is an uncomfortable fit for this populist moment, as Ricky Gervais brilliantly argued at the last “Golden Globes.” They increasingly award films people are less likely to have seen.
Take a look at The Hollywood Reporter’s list of critic picks for the top ten movies of 2020. Have you watched any of them? More than one? Nobody is saying the Academy needs to shower “Holidate” in awards, but “Parasite” didn’t exactly help their cause.
That’s fine! The Oscars and other ceremonies don’t need to be major national events. But, of course, the shows are highly monetized, so the incentive is very much there.
This year, the downward trend is coinciding with a year of delayed releases, shuttered theaters, and regulations hampering large indoor gatherings and productions. In short, it’s a quagmire. With these shows set to draw comparatively dismal ratings, will viewers ever come back?
“I think political messaging will amplify this year and next. Ratings will drop. And Hollywood may wake up to a real problem that they have to fix re: awards shows and whether they want them to succeed,” Hollywood executive Chris Fenton told me on Tuesday. On theaters, Fenton, author of “Feeding The Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business” also predicted the Chinese market will rebound stronger than the American theater business, meaning it “will only become more and more important to Hollywood moving forward.”
That will render the inevitable awards show pablum even less appealing as viewers (or, more accurately, non-viewers) are increasingly aware that Hollywood’s domestic moralizing is made in the context of the industry’s complicity with Beijing. Again, this is becoming so glaring and untenable, Gervais made that case to the country during his opening monologue at the most recent Golden Globes.
Speaking of empty moralizers, Tom Cruise, who will perhaps go down in history as the last of the old Blockbuster movie stars, is absolutely right that “Mission: Impossible 7” is playing a role in bolstering “the future of this f-cking industry.”
In newly leaked audio from the set, Cruise excoriated crew members for allegedly violating pandemic protocols, shouting, “You can tell it to the people who are losing their f-cking homes because our industry is shut down. It’s not going to put food on their table or pay for their college education. That’s what I sleep with every night – the future of this f-cking industry!”
While it’s tempting to laud the likable Cruise for his perspective, like much of the “f-cking industry,” the actor is morally compromised by his starring role in the abusive Church of Scientology. “Creative destruction” does not conjure happy images, but it may be Hollywood’s best-case scenario going forward.
Back in April, Deadline published a fascinating interview on the pandemic with Hollywood historian William Mann, who offered some insightful comparisons with the Spanish Flu. “I think the COVID-19 closures could end up having as significant an impact on the movies as the 1918-19 influenza did,” he predicted. “It will be different, of course, but just as in 1918 the whole structure of the industry could change in a couple of years.”
The structure of the industry was already changing dramatically when the pandemic accelerated the shift to streaming, wrecking theaters and business models and productions. Crucially, our hunger for movies and television content shows no signs of abatement. There is still plenty of money to be made.
It’s a matter of how the movie business will meet that demand. Here, Mann is optimistic. “I look now at streaming services that now basically use [Adolph] Zukor’s model. They control production, distribution and exhibition. Zukor would be cheering them on,” he told Deadline. “And yes, it does get some of the smaller people out of business, but there’s also … it’s a very efficient model and maybe through this industry’s going to find another way in making sure that the product still gets out there.”
In that sense, it appears the Oscars as we know them aren’t well-positioned to define this new season in the life of Hollywood anyway.