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‘Spider-Man,’ streaming wars, a strike (almost) and everything that defined Hollywood in 2021

A collage of images: Spider-Man and Zendaya, a remote control, a car window with writing that says "Local 705 votes Yes!"
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / L.A. Times; JoJo Whilden / Sony Pictures; Jenny Kane / AP; Myung J. Chun / L.A. Times)

This is the Dec. 21, 2021, edition of the Wide Shot newsletter about the business of entertainment. If this was forwarded to you, sign up here to get it in your inbox.

I’m doing something a little different this week as we approach the holidays and get closer to the first anniversary of this newsletter.

I was asked to write a year-in-review piece summarizing the main themes of 2021, to which I said, “Sure, no problem.” Then I started recalling everything that happened since January and I was like, “Yeah, 2021 was long, and this is going to be a disaster.”

Anyway, here’s my best attempt to distill the year that was. If you’re a Wide Shot subscriber, I can’t thank you enough. If you enjoy it, please share it with your friends and colleagues.

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OK, deep breath, here we go...

MGM film bosses Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy held their holiday party at the swanky Houdini Estate in the Hollywood Hills last week to fete films like Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza.”

But amid the year-end celebrations, an uncertain future looms. Unless Lina Khan’s Federal Trade Commission blocks it, one of the most storied brands in entertainment will soon become the property of Amazon in an $8.45-billion purchase.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc on the traditional entertainment industry, the tech business’ takeover of Hollywood moved into a new phase in 2021.

Netflix hit 214 million subscribers and released a star-studded movie, “Red Notice,” that hardly played in theaters but was watched for 364 million hours in its first four weeks. Apple TV+ won Emmys, thanks to “Ted Lasso.” People went to the theater for Marvel superheroes and not much else.

The accelerated transition to a streaming-dominated world produced a wave of experimentation at the studios and networks as traditional players tried to adapt, causing new levels of anxiety for top-tier executives, filmmakers and crewmembers.

With theaters struggling, studios put their biggest movies on subscription services and adopted new strategies that changed film distribution forever. Entertainment companies were bought and sold for staggering sums. A near-strike by workers almost shut down the business, just as production was surging back from the pandemic doldrums. Now, the Omicron variant is causing yet more worries.

And that doesn’t even come close to summing up the year of change and disruption. Here’s what we saw in 2021.

Box office. Ouch!

The state of the once-preeminent yardstick known as the theatrical box office remains on shaky ground despite some reasons for hope.

Let’s start with the good news. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was easily the biggest winner this year, grossing $260 million in its first weekend of release in the U.S. and Canada. That was not only the biggest debut of the pandemic by a lot. It was also the second largest domestic opening ever, not adjusting for inflation. Only “Avengers: Endgame” opened higher.

With more than $600 million in global ticket sales in its debut, “No Way Home” could cross the $1-billion milestone even without opening in China. That’s something for the business to celebrate.

But while Sony’s “Spider-Man” multiverse sequel had a spectacular launch, it also highlighted the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots at the multiplex. Nonsuperhero movies struggled to attract audiences to theaters. Many acclaimed films, including Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” barely registered.

Total ticketing revenue from the U.S. and Canada in 2021 is on track to end with a projected $4.4 billion, down more than 60% from 2019 grosses, according to Comscore. That’s a far cry from a full recovery. Good thing AMC Theatres has that meme-stock money.

domestic box office 2021

Streaming’s money heist

collage of photos from an HBO Max presentation, the Disney+ show "Loki" and the Netflix show "Squid Game"
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Presley Ann / Getty Images for WarnerMedia; Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios; Youngkyu Park / Netflix)

Given the persistent challenges at the box office, it’s easy to understand why entertainment firms are pursuing streaming dollars at the expense of their traditional businesses. People don’t always want to go to theaters, so companies want to meet them where they’re at.

Wall Street is rewarding growth in subscriptions as much as it values quarterly profits, if not more so. Studio chiefs who used to prize opening weekend grosses above all else now make decisions based on what will best serve the parent companies’ goals of bringing in more subscribers.

Thus, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. are sending movies to their sibling streaming services just 45 days after they hit theaters. Many filmmakers hated WarnerMedia Chief Executive Jason Kilar’s controversial same-day-release experiment of 2021 (dubbed “Project Popcorn”). But next year, Warner Bros. will put half its films exclusively on HBO Max.

But although investors are demanding these kinds of moves, it’s far from certain that the march to streaming will usher in a new era of prosperity for the studios.

Even Disney, which astounded competitors when it launched Disney+ two years ago, has confronted challenges. Analysts increasingly question whether Disney+ will hit its target of 230 million to 260 million subscribers by 2024, given a recent slowdown in sign-ups. Its $8-a-month price brought in a lot of people, but that also means lower revenue per user (RPU, pronounced “ar-poo”).

To speed up growth, the Mouse House plans to spend $33 billion on content in fiscal 2022, with much of that going to streaming.

Everyone is still trying to catch up with Netflix, which has continued to grow by showing that international series like “Squid Game” and “Money Heist” can appeal to global audiences. It’s still early in the streaming race. But this heat goes to Ted Sarandos.

Parks Associates infographic
Parks Associates infographic of the top 10 U.S. subscription OTT video services.
(Parks Associates)

Deal demolition derby

The Amazon-MGM tie-up sparked a goldrush for buying content companies, turning celebrity-backed production firms into $1-billion enterprises. Reese Witherspoon sold her company Hello Sunshine in a deal valuing the shingle at $900 million, while LeBron James and Maverick Carter locked in an investment valuing SpringHill Co. at $725 million.

While some earth-shattering deals came together, others fell apart.

Debt-ridden AT&T, deciding it couldn’t afford to compete in the entertainment business anymore, will unwind its $85-billion purchase of Time Warner, now known as WarnerMedia. AT&T agreed to merge its media assets, including HBO, Warner Bros. and CNN, with Discovery in a $43-billion transaction, pending government approval. Better luck to Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav as he tries his hand at battling Netflix, Disney, Apple and Amazon.

Lionsgate is looking to unload Starz, after paying $4.4 billion for it in 2016, shortly before streaming made pay-cable far less relevant than it had been. But who’s buying?

For the most part, though, analysts are still talking about the need for the entertainment giants to get bigger and bigger. Are NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS big enough to make Peacock and Paramount+ viable on their own? Or do they need to combine?

An industry-wide quest to bulk up applied not only to studios but also to talent agencies, which staked out their strategic positions in the last year. Ari Emanuel finally took WME and UFC owner Endeavor public. Creative Artists Agency agreed to buy ICM, raising speculation that CAA would itself will do an initial public offering.

With all this, “scale” could make a strong case for buzzword of the year.

Talent’s revolt

photo collage featuring Scarlett Johannson and images of Hollywood crews union protests
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times; Al Seib / Los Angeles Times; Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

How do these moves affect the talent and production crews — the people actually responsible for making all the content that’s supposed to fuel the streaming revolution?

It’s a challenging time for many. Camera operators and set designers don’t often feel much kinship with movie stars like Scarlett Johansson, but pressures to funnel more movies and shows to streamers have created common enemies.

Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney, in which she accused the Burbank colossus of bilking her out of box office bonuses by selling “Black Widow” on Disney+, dovetailed with broader anxieties of how talent and workers ought to be compensated for streaming. (Johansson and Disney settled their dispute.)

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the union that represents crew members, nearly went on strike for the first time ever to demand more money and protest grueling demands of the job. Their concerns were amplified when cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot on the set of the movie “Rust,” after members of the camera team left the production in a rebellion against working conditions.

IATSE’s rank and file narrowly voted to ratify a last-minute deal that union leaders struck with the studios. But it was approved by the slimmest of margins, indicating that this is not labor’s last bout.

Awards season in the abyss

There’s some strange symbolism in the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally opened its museum on Wilshire Boulevard, a tribute to the craft of moviemaking, in the same year that Oscars ratings hit a record low.

On those ratings: If we’re going to blame a crop of nominees few people saw, we shouldn’t expect much better next year, unless Spidey makes the cut. Judging by the box office, if “West Side Story” is the designated popular film of the bunch, the awards are in real trouble.

It’s not just the Oscars facing a crisis. The Golden Globes are still trying to chart a path forward after The Times’ investigation into alleged self dealing and a lack of Black members at the group behind the Globes, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. The idea that a body like the Critics Choice Awards might replace the Globes warrants heavy skepticism.

The collapse of awards shows as meaningful cultural-industrial institutions is, in certain ways, representative of Hollywood as a whole. Movies are no longer the powerful force in the zeitgeist they once were. As distribution models multiply, the audience is more fragmented than ever.

The Academy Museum features a hallway of quotes from filmmakers, including this message from Whoopi Goldberg: “The future of cinema is in your hands now.” It could be read as a warning to attendees. Or even a plea.

You should be reading...

Here are the best recent entertainment business stories from The Times and rest of the web. Some of these links may require a subscription to read.

The Duggars built a wholesome reality TV empire on TLC. Now it’s in ruins, writes Meredith Blake. (LAT)

Music acts see 20% no-show rates. Fans who have tickets to concerts like George Strait and the Eagles haven’t been using them, another development rattling the music industry. (Wall Street Journal)

What is a bidding war? CBS and NBC could chase ‘Jeopardy!’ for their TV stations. (LAT)

Why Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence couldn’t say no to Netflix comedy ‘Don’t Look Up.’ Josh Rottenberg interviews the stars and filmmaker Adam McKay. (LAT)

Peloton can’t catch a break. The company deleted its Chris Noth ad after the “And Just Like That...” actor was accused of sexual assault. (Variety)

Wendy Lee takes us inside Spotify’s new podcasting hub in downtown Los Angeles. The new facility is emblematic of the Swedish audio giant’s rapid transition. (LAT)

The digital upstarts of the last decade have hit middle age. A strong analysis of the state of digital media as Vox buys Group Nine. (The Rebooting)

Seriously, what’s going on with the former ArcLight Hollywood? We have some answers... (LAT)

The Cinerama Dome
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Finally...

Barack Obama’s year-end lists are always fun. I just want to echo the former president’s endorsement of Mdou Moctar, the Tuareg singer and guitarist whose record “Afrique Victime” came out on Matador this year. This 2018 video feature with Dweezil Zappa is a cool intro to his music.

Lastly (and not is definitely not on Obama’s list), Khemmis is a doom metal band, but the kind that can pull off a pretty wicked cover of “Rainbow in the Dark.”

The Denver group has a new album called “Deceiver,” and it has so many guitar solos. This is less of a recommendation and more of what you might call a “one for me” pick. A good choice if you like Black Sabbath and don’t mind the stuff from the Ronnie James Dio years. Which is awesome, for the record.


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