Movie trends in 2021: what’s the point?

NOW's senior film writer can't imagine people wanting to go back to the movies in 2021, and it's really depressing


Every January, I write a movie trends piece laying out my expectations for the year ahead in film and television: what trends I expect to see, where the industry needs to improve, what we can expect to change and what’s likely to stay the same. Does that even apply in 2021?

Here’s the one I wrote last year, before the pandemic derailed literally every aspect of the entertainment industry and rendered all of these things theoretical. The only thing that came to pass, ironically enough, was my prediction that “the grown-ups will stay home” – though I was referring to Netflix aggressively courting auteurs like Ben Wheatley and Gina Prince-Bythewood for in-house projects that would draw older viewers to their service.

We all stayed home, of course, because movie theatres shut down in March, reopening in late summer at a limited capacity before shutting down again in November. Distributors pivoted to on-demand options when they didn’t sell their films outright to streaming services, leading theatres like Hot Docs, The Fox and TIFF to embrace virtual cinema, making specific titles available for short-term rental on their bespoke platforms. And when entire film festivals went online, those platforms held up remarkably well. (All of this assumes a user has a decent internet connection and compatible streaming devices, of course – or at least a laptop with an HDMI output.)

So what’s going to happen this year? Who the hell knows? Warner announced it would be making its entire 2021 slate available to stream on HBO Max in the U.S. day-and-date with each film’s theatrical opening – and dropping them in Canada as premium VOD rentals, as it did with Wonder Woman 1984 and Roald Dahl’s The Witches last month – but not all the studio’s production partners are on board with this strategy.

And while Universal has finally negotiated the shorter theatrical window it’s been chasing for a decade, making it possible to release their films to streaming just 17 days after their theatrical opening, other studios are just trying to wait the pandemic out, holding back their slate until theatres reopen at full capacity. Disney put Mulan and Soul on its Disney+ streaming service, but its Marvel movies are still being delayed until a global theatrical release is possible: there’s just too much money on the table. (So is Kenneth Branagh’s next Hercule Poirot movie Death On The Nile, which, okay.)

Smaller distributors, like Canada’s Elevation Pictures, LevelFilm, Mongrel Media, Pacific Northwest Pictures and VVS Films, are rolling out titles on VOD every week or two, which is both smart marketing – putting fresh entertainment in front of a captive audience – and an acknowledgment that streaming is the way most people will watch non-blockbuster programming anyway, reserving the theatrical experience for the studio tentpoles that justify the price of a movie ticket. And now that entire families have watched WW84 at home for $29.99, some of them will realize tentpoles play just fine at home, too.

I also find myself wondering how many people have upgraded their home theatres in recent months, in much the same way we’ve been tricking out our home office setups.  But I also wonder how eager people are to just drift from one screen to another, whatever the size.

Anyway. How often have I written this story? How many times have we predicted that streaming will increase its market share in the coming year? It couldn’t get any larger than it did in 2020 … and so the big challenge of 2021 will be getting audiences back to the movies.

We don’t know when that’ll happen, or how it’ll work; it’s likely that theatres will reopen before mass vaccination is fully underway, which means social distancing protocols will still be in place, reducing capacity and therefore revenue, meaning studios will still be hesitant to release their biggest movies after the stunted returns on Christopher Nolan’s Tenet last summer. Which means release dates will continue to shift, individual titles will be sold to streaming platforms and the entertainment industry will continue to strain and wheeze with no real salvation in sight.

It’s not good! It kind of sucks, in fact! And it just adds to the general uncertainty we’re all feeling about 2021, which we’ve convinced ourselves will be different from 2020 but now looks distressingly samey.

I’d love to imagine new stuff happening this year – an explosion of film and TV production, driven by a mixture of veterans who’ve been refining those projects over the lockdown and emerging talents getting the shots they deserve, which will then screen at film festivals operating the way they used to, with everyone clustered (safely) together.

I want all the things I always want: new voices, original ideas, diverse representation that actively enhances the stories being told (as it does on shows like The Expanse, The Wilds and Bridgerton) rather than feeling like tokenism from producers desperate to tick a box. I want to run around a film festival trading recommendations with friends and colleagues, rather than watching movies at home on my own. It’s nice in here, but it’s not a movie theatre. I miss movie theatres.

I want a lot of stuff, is what I’m saying, and it just feels like I’m not going to get most of that this year. But I hope I’m wrong, and I hope I see you all soon.

@normwilner

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