Year in Review: quiz show questions, cinema challenges
The hunt for a host for Jeopardy! and the streaming threat to movie theaters made 2021 a notable year in entertainment news
A host of challenges
Sony Pictures executives knew it wouldn’t be easy to replace the late Alex Trebek on the beloved quiz show Jeopardy!, but they probably didn’t expect it to be this difficult. Instead of immediately naming a new host, Sony auditioned a slate of possible successors throughout 2021, beginning with former Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings. Jennings won 74 consecutive games in 2004 and remained friends with Trebek after completing his run. Trebek’s widow even gave Jennings a pair of Trebek’s cuff links to wear on his first day as guest host. But Jennings wasn’t a shoo-in: The job-search competition featuring such big-name guest hosts as Aaron Rodgers, Anderson Cooper, and Mehmet Oz generated buzz for the 58-year-old show. Actor LeVar Burton actively lobbied for the position, and almost 300,000 of his fans petitioned Sony on his behalf. In August, however, the studio gave the job to an insider, executive producer Mike Richards. Richards didn’t last long. A few days after being named the permanent host, Richards stepped down due to social media backlash over accusations of sexism and insensitive comments he made in the past. The studio chose Ken Jennings and actress Mayim Bialik to share hosting duties through the end of the year before making their roles permanent in December.
Direct to streaming
The coronavirus continued to shake up the movie industry in 2021. Theaters began reopening, and studios started releasing some shelved projects. But the industry still struggled to find a new normal. Warner Bros. Pictures provoked controversy when it announced all its 2021 theatrical releases would also debut on streaming service HBO Max. Theaters, relying on ticket sales at the box office, felt betrayed by the studio’s attempt to sell subscriptions to their premium streaming platform. In 2020 and 2021, Disney offered several of its films through Disney+ Premiere Access, allowing subscribers to stream movies the same day they hit theaters for an additional fee. In July, Disney released Black Widow through Premiere Access, and Scarlett Johansson, who starred in the film, subsequently sued Disney, claiming the streaming option hurt her income by depressing ticket sales. Johansson and Disney settled the suit in September, and Disney seemed to back away from the Premiere Access program. Jungle Cruise at the end of July was the last film simultaneously debuting on Disney+ and in theaters. In December, Warner Bros., whose box office numbers were lackluster this year, announced it would abandon simultaneous debuts on HBO Max in 2022. Superhero movies performed well in 2021, but theaters and studios recognize the industry hasn’t returned to normal yet. People over the age of 35 haven’t returned to cinemas, causing movies that are more adult-oriented and less action-packed to bomb.
A sports gambling tsunami
Sports betting has experienced rapid growth in the last few years, and it doesn’t seem like it will slow down any time soon. Sportsbooks have seen their revenue increase over 100 percent during the 2021 NFL season alone. In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports gambling, letting state and local governments create their own regulations, and since that ruling more and more states have succumbed to the temptation of legalizing sports gambling to create another source of tax revenue. Currently 28 states allow some form of legal sports betting, and perhaps as many as 10 more might join them in the next couple of years. Some states, such as Arkansas, only permit in-person betting at casinos, while other states such as Pennsylvania allow gambling through user-friendly mobile apps. Mobile apps lure new customers with sign-up bonuses and increased odds. States where gamblers have access to enticing easy-to-use apps see dramatically more betting, which leads to dramatically more tax dollars. Pennsylvania has collected more than $200 million in the last three years, while Arkansas has collected less than $2 million in about the same time frame. But critics point out that more gambling doesn’t just increase taxes, it increases social problems—problems that hit the poor disproportionately.
The delayed 2020 Summer Olympics took place in Tokyo this year, but pandemic protocols prevented the Games from feeling like a celebration of athletic achievement. Even though coronavirus infections declined during early summer, spectators weren’t allowed at events—not even family members—giving the Games a subdued atmosphere. Some athletes also complained the delay sabotaged their training plans and after a year some participants weren’t at their peak. The most talked-about event of the Games was gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from some of her events for mental-health reasons. We have one difficult Olympics behind us, but the next one won’t be a return to normal. The United States, along with a number of other countries, announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games because of various human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government. Athletes from 11 boycotting countries will compete if they want to do so, but those countries will not send government representatives. And with the competitions less than six weeks away, the spike in infections caused by the latest omicron variant puts a big question mark over the already precarious Games. The Winter Olympics will likely lead to more infections, and current Chinese COVID-19 rules could keep many healthy athletes from competing. The National Hockey League decided none of its players would participate in the Beijing Games because of health concerns.
Meme stocks take off
At the end of 2020, GameStop looked to be heading for irrelevance. Interest in video games soared during pandemic lockdowns, but users downloaded games from the internet rather than buy them at brick-and-mortar specialty shops such as GameStop. The company’s stock price languished even before the pandemic played havoc with the markets, and no one suspected GameStop would become the financial story of the year. In January—almost overnight—GameStop’s stock price spiked to almost 100 times what it had been the year before, making a group of small-time investors very wealthy while simultaneously costing some of the big hedge funds tens of billions of dollars. The hedge funds had bet too heavily against GameStop’s stock price, and retail investors, organized on Reddit, realized they could keep the price high through buying and holding the stock. The ensuing frenzy prompted popular trading app Robinhood to freeze trading, causing consternation in investors and relief in the hedge funds. After their success in boosting GameStop’s stock price, some retail investors looked for another company to buy up. They chose AMC Theaters, whose valuation had been hammered by the pandemic. AMC welcomed the attention and even began offering free popcorn to shareholders. AMC’s share price is currently up 1,200 percent compared with the beginning of the year.
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