Here’s our rundown of the 10 storylines set to dominate the international film business in 2021.

Covid, of course

What a difference a year makes. The pandemic that pretty much no one foresaw has re-shaped the entire world, including the entertainment business. 2021 will give us a better idea of which aspects of that re-shaping will be permanent. The pandemic has disturbed every aspect of the film and TV sectors, from development right through to distribution. Many have lost their lives and businesses have been brought to their knees. The film and TV calendar for early 2021 is already being re-shaped. Releases dates continue to be pushed, the same for many productions, and most of us continue to work from home. All eyes will be on the vaccine rollouts in the hope that some of what we knew can return in the coming year.

Distributor woes

What’s the biggest trend of 2021, I asked a leading European sales agent last week. “Survival,” they said. Outside of the online giants, 2020 was a nightmare year for traditional movie distributors. Even studios that found success with their in-house streaming services, like Disney, have laid off thousands of staff across various divisions (Disney also continued to enact cuts from its Fox merger). NBCUniversal unveiled a radical new structure in October that led to hundreds of job cuts, as well as more focus on its Peacock service; AT&T cut staff at WarnerMedia on several occasions and is putting greater focus on HBO Max; meanwhile, Paramount owner ViacomCBS has also been streamlining. The indie space has hardly been more encouraging, as Lionsgate cut 15% of its Motion Picture Group last month in its latest round of cuts (this included cutting right back on its previously lucrative UK operation). Smaller companies may have been able to find the odd success story with a virtual cinema release, but the reality is that many have just been treading water. There are glimmers of light on the horizon thanks to the vaccine rollout but the economic impact of this period is going to be felt for years to come, even if the distribution landscape was already evolving at a rapid pace. As Marv founder Matthew Vaughn told us recently: “Covid has highlighted issues in the industry that needed to change; it has hastened change that was already coming.” Distributors will need to be even smarter in 2021 if they want to be around in 2022.

Streamer surge continues

In a year of memorable headlines, WarnerMedia’s decision to put its entire 2021 theatrical slate on HBO Max first may have caused the biggest outcry across the industry. From an international perspective, the fact that HBO Max is only in the U.S. and will not be available in Europe or Latin America until the end of next year makes this an exceptionally unclear picture. For now, the example of Wonder Woman 1984 gives us the best indication – the movie’s international rollout is seeing some form of windowing put in place, including in the UK where it is getting a four-week cinema run before becoming a Premium VOD release on Sky. Other studios such as Disney — which has dabbled with PVOD releases this year on Disney+, as has Universal — have also made it clear that their strategies going forward are digital-first. As the U.S. streaming audience plateaus, the majority of growth is going to come from overseas, so expect increased investment and competitiveness in international territories throughout 2021 as more of the major services arrive. Whatever transpires, one thing is clear: As theatrical hobbles to get back on its feet, the streaming wars will continue with all guns blazing. In 2021, the new distribution models will test industry relationships like never before with new alliances potentially emerging. It’ll also be worth keeping an eye on growing EU regulation of the streamers, which will see the likes of Netflix and Amazon needing to fulfil higher quotas of local productions.

Exhibition blues but can glut of delayed tentpoles re-energize?

No Time to Die

Consign 2020 to the gutters of time — this was an abysmal year for theatrical exhibition. The studios are seizing their opportunity to disrupt the theatrical window, and Warner Bros has sunk the knife in by moving their slate online. But industry veterans are quick to remind us that cinema always bounces back. TV, cable, VHS, DVD, SVODs…cinema has survived them all so far. The question now becomes will the studios and big-screen exhibitors compromise and accept a shattered window? The situation looks especially complex for the likes of Cineworld, which operates a major chain in the U.S. (Regal) as well as in Europe and will be looking to sync plans. It seems unlikely Cineworld will play any Warner Bros films in 2021, unless it reaches some kind of arrangement like Universal and AMC have struck, where the exhibitor gets to cut into a PVOD release that happens after a drastically reduced window. One potential boon to cinemas is that there’s a lot of content out there. Delayed blockbusters like Bond pic No Time to DieA Quiet Place Part II and Black Widow are all dated for Q1 and Q2. Ghostbusters: Afterlife, F9, Godzilla vs Kong, Top Gun: Maverick, Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad, Death on the Nile, Matrix 4, Mission: Impossible 7 and a new Spider-Man movie are just some of the tantalizing films on deck. If the pandemic lets us, audiences could be in for a cinematic feast like never before this year. But that’s one hell of an if.

Will festivals get their mojo back?

It has been a punishing year for the world’s major film and TV festivals. Early 2021 isn’t looking much better. Sundance, Berlin and MipTV have already announced plans to go online, which will hurt financially. Venice was pretty much the only major film festival in 2020 to manage a physical edition. And what a joy it was. But as the industry becomes accustomed to doing business entirely online and from home, will we go back? Netflix said in the fall that they hoped to be back at festivals in 2021, but does the pandemic offer the streamer an out from having to splash the cash at these celebrations of cinema? Eyes are already turning to Cannes. What magic it would be for the great event to re-open the doors to world cinema. But given soaring infection rates across Europe and slow vaccine rollouts, May is suddenly looking very soon for a major international get-together.

The Covid effect on content

The pandemic has led to a slew of contained, scaled-back shoots and pandemic-themed content. From Doug Liman’s Lockdown to the Michael Bay-produced Songbird, an untitled Neill Blomkamp thriller to starry lockdown anthology pic With/In, creatives and producers have adjusted their filmmaking and storyline parameters accordingly. We’ve even had a lockdown horror hit in the shape of Rob Savage’s Zoom-based chiller Host. Get ready for a steady dose of contagion-related content and more intimate pieces. Meanwhile, even as bigger-budget, big-canvas productions such as the Jurassic World sequel, Mission: Impossible, Fantastic Beasts and the latest Batman instalment have managed to plough on, many have had to adjust. Jurassic World had to reduce a second-unit shoot in Malta, for example, and George Miller’s 3,000 Years of Longing has had to forego planned shoots in Morocco and London.

The interminable saga of Brexit is rounding a corner with the UK officially leaving the European Union tonight [December 31]. At the eleventh hour, the two sides finally struck a post-Brexit trade deal, which is still being pored over for clarity over the future relationship. What’s clear is that business is about to get harder for UK industry with less film funding available (from European funding bodies) and more red tape such as visas and work permits for shoots on the continent. The UK government has predicted a significant hit to GDP in coming years as a result of Brexit. The UK’s strong position as a home for U.S. studio shoots and international post-production may well be tested.

Animation on the rise?

Japanese anime Demon Slayer was one of the true theatrical bright spots in 2020. The film overtook Spirited Away as the top-grossing of all time in the market, no mean feat amid the pandemic. Japan has a deep tradition in animation, but the genre has also seen gains around the world. Netflix paid a huge amount for 21 films in the Studio Ghibli library earlier this year and the streamer is also going hard at building its own slate of animations. The streamer’s stable includes Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Aardman’s sequel to Chicken Run, starry pic The Magician’s Elephant, comedy Back to the Outback, Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10½: A Space Age Adventure, The Sea Beast, Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild, and Nora Twomey’s My Father’s Dragon. Dealmakers  tell us indie animation is going like a train right now. In 2021, we should also get the return of major franchises such as Minions, SpongeBob and Boss Baby, as well as originals such as Raya and the Last Dragon, Clifford the Big Red Dog and Wish Dragon. 

Vying for audiences in India

The streaming boom in India was already reaching fever pitch before the pandemic closed cinemas across the region, sending numerous high-profile titles online. In May, Amazon made one of the most headline-grabbing moves when it swooped on a slate of six local features, all of which had been destined for theatrical runs. Among them, the Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana comedy Gulabo Sitabo was expected to be a big box office hit, but instead went exclusively to Prime. Netflix meanwhile was also busy, striking a deal for seven features including the Abhishek A. Bachchan-starring comedy Ludo, as well as two TV series including the BBC show A Suitable Boy. The market king, however, remains Disney+ Hotstar, which has been downloaded more than 400 million times and is now closing on 30 million paid users in India, offering Disney studio content as well as local originals. Like much of the rest of the world, the big question for 2021 is whether the theatrical business can bounce back. The country is famously cinema-mad, but will the sector be reshaped for good? Cinema owners have already expressed concerns about Warner Bros’ plans, and will more local producers be thinking about taking the Disney/Amazon/Netflix buck as the online giants continue to aggressively fight for market share in the booming territory? A recent report suggests that up to 2,000 local cinema screens could close permanently in coming weeks due to the lack of available films. The streamers are moving fast to grab the attention of India’s 1.4 billion population in the meantime.

Will China’s box office remain above the U.S.? 

(By Nancy Tartaglione)

The Eight Hundred

China’s box office surpassed North America’s for the first time ever at the end of October. It’s a feat that had been presaged over the past several years, but it perhaps would not have been achieved in 2020 if not for Covid. There wasn’t a large amount of money separating the two countries when China overtook North America, and that’s with U.S. movie theaters in key markets shuttered for months on end and with almost no significant major studio product. (Of course, had the big-ticket Hollywood titles released this year, they would have also boosted the Middle Kingdom’s takings.) China, which lost out on the hugely lucrative Lunar New Year period due to the coronavirus, has been back up and running since July and benefitted from a surge of patriotic National Day pictures that released in early October as well as late-summer behemoth The Eight Hundred. Whether the trend continues in 2021 depends on a number of factors including if the studios continue to hold back product or punt titles even further down the line; the success level of a vaccine that will affect North American audience confidence in returning to cinemas; and how Chinese movies do beyond the February Spring Festival. One thing that appears assured in China is a blockbuster performance from Detective Chinatown 3, the third in a series whose first two films grossed a combined $660M+ in the Middle Kingdom and whose wannasee factor is through the roof. It releases February 12, 2021.

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