Hollywood upended in 2020
This year drastically changed the entertainment industry—potentially for the long term
The modern entertainment and arts industries have never undergone a shake-up like the one they experienced in 2020. Trends that were well underway as the year started, like the streaming revolution, moved to warp speed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other well-established developments, such as the dominance of blockbuster superhero movies or the popularity of televised sporting events, stalled out or even reversed, though the virus wasn’t the lone driver of some of these changes.
Here was the big 2020 entertainment news.
Like confronting a monster out of Godzilla or King Kong, the entertainment industry discovered it was no match for the disruptive power of the coronavirus. Movies, television, sports, and live performers all found themselves scrambling for new ways to work, often learning they wouldn’t be able to do business at all.
The logistics of film and television productions left that industry less able to adapt. During the height of the summer lockdowns, stars turned to entertaining audiences virtually, to varying degrees of success. On a wider scale, traditional TV struggled, largely canceling the fall television season.
With major productions sitting on the shelf, studios experimented with releasing them to streaming platforms. In the spring, two of the nation’s largest theater chains—AMC and Regal—announced they were switching off their projectors indefinitely. As the summer drew to a close, they announced they would open for masked, socially distanced audiences, only to have to backtrack weeks later as studios continued rescheduling tentpole releases until later in 2021. This set up a stand-off between theater chains and studios. But investors, at least, closed the year bullish on theaters’ future business: When Pfizer announced its vaccine, the price of AMC and IMAX shares shot up.
It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good, as the old saw goes, and without other entertainment options, Americans turned even more frequently to binge-watching.
Netflix proved to be the biggest beneficiary of the rest of the industry’s suffering. But toward the end of the year the company squandered some of the subscriber gains it had made by platforming Cuties, a French film about 10-year-olds in a lewd dancing troupe. As outcry built against the film and Netflix’s role in bringing it to the United States, the company’s stock dropped and it found itself facing pornography charges.
Other streamers looked to turn ongoing restrictions to their advantage as well. In a bid to bolster its lagging platform, HBO Max, AT&T announced that its studio Warner Bros. would release all movies to the streaming service and theaters simultaneously through the end of 2021. Initial reaction was overwhelmingly negative, but it remains to be seen if similar synergy maneuvers are in the works at other companies.
Not every change in viewing habits was driven by a virus. The Black Lives Matter movement that sparked protests through the summer also led to seismic shifts in the arts and culture landscape.
A number of brands dropped advertising images like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Mrs. Butterworth out of concern they were based in racial stereotypes. The television industry made its own cuts in response to activist claims that positive portrayals of the police helps shield them from accountability.
But no facet of entertainment was more intertwined with BLM than professional sports. The NBA and NFL, especially, embraced more lax policies regarding political messaging from both players and teams. Citing their Christian faith, a few athletes declined to join their teammates in kneeling during the national anthem in support of the movement, including Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac and Giants’ pitcher Sam Coonrod.
By the end of the season, facing record low ratings, the NBA announced it planned to back off political messaging in the future.
The one trend the coronavirus showed little sign of slowing was the rise of cancel culture, though cries to cut ties with authors, actors, and others seem to be meeting with more resistance.
The publishing industry showed itself to be a particular hotbed of cancelers, with junior staff at two major houses calling for their employers to drop books by Jordan Peterson and J.K. Rowling (both proved too big to cancel). A young literary agent who was fired for posting critiques of the transgender movement on her personal social media accounts wasn’t so lucky. Still, Sasha White did decline to issue the sort of apology that often follows these types of events.
With fewer clear-cut cases of past inappropriate behavior or speech, cancel-culture warriors also grew more inventive in their complaints. Angry Twitter users attacked Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt not for something he said, but for what he didn’t say. They complained Pratt, a Christian, hasn’t made any comments in clear support of the LGBTQ movement (though he hasn’t said anything condemning it either). He also earned ire for not publicly endorsing a presidential candidate.
Woke Star Wars fans called on Disney to fire Mandalorian actress Gina Carano for jokingly posting beep/bop/boop as her preferred pronouns. The complaints only seemed to embolden Carano, who has since gone on to share right-wing memes and comments to her social media with some frequency. It’s also worth noting that in Pratt and Carano’s cases, the woke squeaky wheels received no grease. Marvel and Disney offered no response to the would-be cancelers.
Two final cases suggest it is possible to triumph over cancel culture even if you aren’t a major celebrity.
Politically engaged conservatives may be well-aware of Shelby Steele, but he’s not exactly a household name. Yet when Amazon blocked him from adding his documentary, What Killed Michael Brown, to the self-publishing arm of its video-on-demand service, bad press prompted the company to back down in short order.
Sometimes it’s not press but old fashioned pigheadedness that saves the day. No amount of coercion or name-calling could convince one book critic to sign off on an antiracism statement authored by the other board members of his prestigious literary body. Carlin Romano’s opponents promised to see him unseated. He threatened lawsuits and launched his own PR campaign. Long story short, while several of his opponents are no longer on the board of the National Book Critics Circle Awards, Romano will fulfill his full term.
If media coverage is any indication, Americans are becoming more aware of the entertainment industry’s hypocrisy when it comes to its relationships with human rights violators overseas.
It’s hard to decide which organization provides the starkest illustration this year, Disney or the NBA. To maintain its profitable relationship with China, in the end credits for Mulan, the studio thanked government authorities in Xinjiang, the region where officials hold Uighurs in internment camps that include torture, rape, sterilization, and forced abortions. And while it pats itself on the back for its progressive values stateside, in Russia it deleted the subtle gay moment in Pixar’s Onward and blocked an episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight in India because it made fun of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Meanwhile, though the NBA welcomed every sort of Black Lives Matter slogan to jerseys and courts this year, it banned pro-democracy for Hong Kong messages to appease China. Even worse, it established basketball camps in Xinjiang where it allowed abuse to occur.
Netflix, too, experienced pushback for its decision to develop a series based on the books of author Liu Cixin, who has praised China’s treatment of the Uighurs.
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