The year in film: Pandemic caused chaos and posed dire threat to cinema-going
The last 12 months have brought seismic changes to most areas of life and the film industry has been no exception.
A year that began with a moment almost universally celebrated in Hollywood – Parasite’s best picture win at the Oscars – ends amid a raging debate over the future of cinema, after the shift towards streaming progressed at a rate sure to send shivers down the spine of any cinema owner.
Scrambling studios faced huge strategic decisions when the pandemic closed cinemas around the world in early 2020 and cut off a key source of income.
While many – including MGM with James Bond flick No Time To Die – tried to outrun the health crisis by delaying release, others – such as Disney with Mulan – turned to streaming.
Both decisions were decried by cinema chains.
No Time To Die was the first major blockbuster to be delayed as the enormity of the pandemic became apparent.
Its April release was pushed back to November, and then again to April next year. The latter move led to Cineworld temporarily closing more than 600 sites in the UK and the US as chains struggled to coax customers back through the doors after the initial lockdown.
Other films pushed from 2020 included sci-fi epic Dune, action sequel Top Gun: Maverick, Marvel tentpole Black Widow, horror flick A Quiet Place Part II and Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
Notably, one blockbuster did arrive in the summer – British-American filmmaker Christopher Nolan, a staunch defender of the cinematic experience, did his best to throw a lifeline to cinemas with the August release of his time-bending espionage thriller Tenet.
Warner Bros may wish it could turn the clock back to before it made the bold move, after its reward was a disappointing box office return, especially in the US where cinemas in the key markets of Los Angeles and New York remained closed.
Tenet’s relative failure may have played into WarnerMedia’s announcement earlier this month that its entire slate of 2021 films will arrive on the HBO Max streaming service at the same time as in cinemas in the US.
The move shook the industry and provoked fury in some quarters.
Nolan and his fellow A-list director Denis Villeneuve – whose latest film Dune will fall under Warner Bros’ new strategy – were among those openly criticising the entertainment giant.
Nolan was especially strident in his criticism, saying: “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”
Supporters of WarnerMedia’s strategy to boost subscriptions to HBO Max pointed to the success of Netflix and Disney+, which have gone from strength to strength during the pandemic.
A captive global audience fuelled market leader Netflix to more than 195 million subscribers, while Disney smashed its own projections.
Content rich Disney+, which launched in the UK in March, has almost 87 million subscribers, according to the latest figures. The entertainment behemoth had targeted 90 million over its first four years.
While the story of 2020 has been the films that did not arrive, fans were still treated to several major releases.
Bong Joon-Ho’s darkly comic Parasite arrived in the UK in February, a month after the Safdie brothers’ heart-in-mouth crime caper Uncut Gems.
After several delays, Wonder Woman 1984, with Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the main role, has been released in cinemas.
Netflix, unencumbered by the need for theatrical releases, offered a stream of acclaimed films, including Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, political drama The Trial Of The Chicago 7 and David Fincher’s black-and-white masterpiece Mank.
The latter, starring Gary Oldman as drunken screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz as he grappled with the script for Citizen Kane, is an ode to a bygone age of Hollywood.
The next 12 months may drag the industry into a new one.