By Rebecca Green
2020, a year like no other. It’s the phrase that has replaced ‘unprecedented times,’ ‘now more than ever,’ and ‘the new normal.’
It’s that time of year when we scroll through lists of the year’s top movies, podcasts, books, and music. We look at the photographs that captured the events that shaped the year and we say so long to the past and raise our glasses to the exciting unknown that lies in the year ahead.
However, this year the Times Square ball will drop without spectators for the first time since 1907, ushering in not a fresh start to a new year, but rather a transition into another year of hardship. As Sarah Miller wrote for the New Yorker, Yes, “We have vaccines. We have a new President, who is merely the devil we know and not the actual devil. Conversations with Friends will premiere on Hulu in the spring, and we are very likely to see thin, sexy Irish people smoking and cheating on one another. That’s all true. But 2021 is going to be bad.”
Streaming. The word of the year in the film industry. Vulture’s roundup of The 5 Stories That Shaped the Streaming Industry This Year reports that Netflix is still on track to add roughly 30 million new members by the time the ball drops in Times Square. It will also likely break the 200 million global subscriber mark by the end of this month, or early in 2021 at the latest. But Netflix isn’t the only one breaking barriers, Warner Bros shocked the industry by smashing windows and announcing that Wonder Woman 1984 would premiere to a day-and-date model, both in theaters where open and on HBOMax, on the same day. Shortly after on December 3, Warner doubled down and announced that it would apply this hybrid release plan to all 17 films on its 2021 slate, including event movies like The Suicide Squad and Dune.
On the surface, this new business model makes sense. Deloitte’s Digital Media Trends 14th edition survey released this month revealed that only 18% of U.S. consumers have attended a movie in a theater since the pandemic began and just over half said they were unwilling to go see a movie in-person in the next six months. And while the new coronavirus pandemic relief bill includes $15 billion in grants earmarked for independent movie theaters, these particular grants appear to disqualify the three largest players in the domestic movie theater business: AMC, Cinemark and Regal Cinemas owner Cineworld. While I fully agree that people will want to gather again once vaccinated, the big unknown is whether or not theaters will still be in business when that time comes.
One might argue that indie filmmakers don’t play in the same sandbox with the streamers and studios so this news is irrelevant. But as Ted Mundorff, president and COO of ArcLight Cinemas/Pacific Theatres and the former CEO and president of Landmark Theatres, writes in his guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, “It seems reasonable to think the major studios’ push to prioritize streaming will take away significant attendance from movie theaters. If this is the case, and I believe it to be, the theaters playing indie titles will not be able to keep playing them for multiple weeks because of low admissions — that word-of-mouth model is at risk. Indies may be the first financial casualties of broken theatrical windows. And in a recent interview, Tom Hanks said that he believes movie theaters will ‘absolutely’ survive the pandemic for big budget franchises, but that movies such as his upcoming News of the World “might be the last adult movie about people saying interesting things that’s going to play on a big screen somewhere.”
This push to steaming will also affect the indie filmmaker’s ability to raise money. Brian Newman once again writes about something no one wants to discuss in his piece Bye Bye Equity Pie, which is that “as the industry has shifted to SVOD and original content, there’s no longer any incentive for equity investors to get involved, because there is no upside.” He goes on to say that, “Over the past year, it’s become increasingly apparent that one can’t produce “on spec” anymore – you have to work on commissioned work, where distribution and financing are locked-in from an early stage. That’s because you can’t count on a decent sale – because not only are the major buyers (SVOD) not buying, that also trickles down to the mid-tier buyers. It becomes really difficult to see a path towards recoupment.”
When it comes to production in 2021, while the U.K.’s insurance scheme for film and television has been extended until April 2021, U.S. productions are still without COVID insurance, which explains Tom Cruise’s recent on-set rant and how film sets have become pressure cookers during the pandemic. With a vaccine now being distributed, many filmmakers believe that on-set COVID protocols will start to ease up soon, but Netflix executives interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter predict that “This is how we’re going to be making movies at least for another year or two.” For low to midsize budgeted independent films, another year of expensive COVID protocols and no COVID insurance will be paralyzing.
On the festival circuit, the Berlin Film Festival announced that it will go virtual in March 2021, in what I predict to be another full year of virtual film festivals. A survey published this month revealed the tensions and opportunities between filmmakers, festivals, and distributors in regard to issues such as revenue-sharing, networking opportunities, and data from online festivals. The survey polled over 100 filmmakers, some 50 festival representatives, and over 25 distributors. You can read the full report here.
The pandemic has no doubt upended the festival circuit, but my hope has been that while so much was lost, a lot would be gained with festivals left with no choice but to go back to their roots of true discovery and not pandering to behemoths such as Netflix. This proved true as Sundance announced the 2021 line-up which lacks big names and few distributors choosing to use the festival as a launchpad. Only time will tell if the Sundance brand can overcome the virtual marketplace when it comes to 2021 acquisitions.
At Disney’s massive Investor Day presentation earlier this month, executives had a three-word mantra for everything from Pixar to Marvel: Direct to consumers. I think it is far overdue for independent filmmakers to take this concept more seriously. I do not believe indie film is going to die, but I do believe only a few privileged filmmakers will have access to meaningful financing and distribution over the next several years unless there is a indie film distribution revolution of its own. It is a big idea to process after a year that has knocked us all to the ground, but let’s be honest, no one is coming to save us. It is up to our community to find a path forward if we want our stories to exist in the world.
All of this news is discouraging, I know. Those of you who are new Dear Producer readers may wonder why I’m sending such a message this time of year. However, those of you who have been with me for awhile, know that I will never lie to you. December has been the deadliest month in the U.S. since the coronavirus pandemic began. New Years day is not going to magically reset our industry, or the world, back to normal.
I am overwhelmed with not knowing how to do this, how to thrive during a time of great struggle, but I am not ready to give up. So as midnight approaches on December 31, I’ll be giving a big fuck you to 2020, and bracing myself for what comes next.