The global film industry storylines set to dominate 2020

Streaming launches, Disney dominance, and changes at major festivals will be among the big talking points for the film industry in 2020.

By Jeremy Kay 6 Jan 2020

The global film industry storylines set to dominate 2020
Credit: Richard Hubner/Pixabay/Disney

The streaming wars intensify

First there was Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu. Then in late 2019 came Disney+ and Apple TV+. 2020 brings Peacock from NBCUniversal in April, and HBO Max from WarnerMedia in May. Other streaming platforms will follow from companies we know and others that don’t exist yet.

How all these players will fit into a crowded media space is the subject of a debate that will only intensify next year. A recent report that one million subscribers left Netflix for Disney+ may not mean much once everybody settles into their game plan.

Most will spend vast amounts of money buying coveted shows, making original content, and maybe trying to win an Oscar or two. New players must gain traction fast, and the winners will be those who scale their business most effectively and differentiate themselves in the eyes of discerning consumers.

Eventually streamers will co-exist. However before that happens, there will be casualties.

Festivals face up to changing times

All eyes immediately turn to Berlin in 2020 where Carlo Chatrian unveils his first selection as artistic director. Rotterdam, where Vanja Kaludjercic prepares to take over in 2021 from Bero Beyer, will also be much discussed. A packed Sundance (with John Cooper bidding farewell this year), three competitions at Rotterdam and Chatrian - known for championing new, daring talent – also adding a new competitive section, means there’s a concern as to how these three festivals can both make a mark and work together in the space of a packed month.

The issues regarding streaming services are set to continue to plague all festivals, from Cannes, which is tied by audiovisual laws and cannot show their films, to festivals such as Toronto where venues experience problems playing their films.

Other festival circuit discussions will centre around Lili Hinstin’s second year at Locarno – 2019 wasn’t quite ground-breaking – and Alberto Barbera’s swansong at Venice. The question of who will replace him should burn through the Lido, as the relatively new directors of London and Busan bed down on their programmes. Expect festivals on a global level – with the glaring exception of Venice – to build on some significant advances made in representation for female talent, with Berlin, Toronto and London typically leading the way. Disability, meanwhile, is a glaring issue for the entire industry, on and off the screen and in access to many of the festival circuit’s own screening venues. 2020 could be time to address that.

Don’t expect such a dominant year for Disney

The dominant position of Disney in 2019 – both in North America and internationally – is unprecedented in Screen International’s lifetime. The Mouse House delivered six of the eight films that earned $1bn at cinemas worldwide in the calendar year: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4, Aladdin and Frozen II. Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker is expected to provide a seventh. Share of the North American box office was 31.6% for the year to December 12, and in the UK it was 34.7% – not counting the titles distributed by 20th Century Fox.

But 2020 looks set to be a whole different story. Universal Pictures has a strong slate, led by Bond film No Time To DieFast & Furious 9 and Minions 2. Warner Bros has Wonder Woman 1984, Suicide Squad spinoff Birds Of Prey, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Christopher Nolan’s latest original film, Tenet.

Over at Disney, suggests Robert Mitchell, head of theatrical insights at international forecasting service Gower Street Analytics, each pillar of the studio – Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Disney animation and Disney live action – seems to be delivering fewer safe bets than in 2019. For example, Marvel titles Black Widow and The Eternals look less-known quantities than 2019’s Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, and there is no Star Wars film. “Despite Disney’s dominance in recent years, and its acquisition of the Fox slate, I think they’ve got more of a fight in 2020,” sums up Mitchell.

Will China’s ‘cold winter’ continue?

The so-called ‘cold winter’ in China’s film industry extended for most of 2019, with a continuation of the slowdown in production and censorship approvals, several high-profile local films pulled from release, an unofficial ban on US indies and more than 2,000 local companies reportedly going bankrupt. 

While it all started in 2018 with the tax scandal and regulatory reshuffle, the government’s caution continued this year in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in October. The official narrative is that this is just a recalibration of an over-heated industry, but the casualties have included some big local studios and filmmakers and US indie imports have had a brutal year. 

Industry insiders expect a slight easing in 2020, but 2021 is another major anniversary year when the country celebrates 100 years since the founding of the Communist Party. For the US industry, Hollywood’s market access depends a great deal on how the US-China trade war plays out next year.

The Harvey Weinstein criminal trial

A true disruptor whose take-no-prisoners approach to movie-making shook Hollywood to the core, Harvey Weinstein prided himself on being in the public eye. After two years of being under scrutiny for a very different reason, the former mogul enters 2020 aware his days as a free man could soon be over.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against Weinstein, 67, first emerged in late 2017 and kick-started the #MeToo movement. Since then his accusers have snowballed to around 80. Weinstein denies everything, although news of a tentative $25m settlement with multiple women – former employees and actresses – tells its own story.

On January 6 he will enter a Manhattan courthouse charged with five counts of rape and predatory sexual assault against two women. He has pled not guilty and will fight tooth and nail. If convicted he faces life imprisonment and will almost certainly appeal. Yet if he is eventually jailed, the pendulum will have swung away from power and privilege.

Emboldened accusers and law enforcement will act with renewed vigour, and industry predators will know their expensive attorneys and time-wasting antics may no longer count for much.

Will this be Africa’s year?

Regardless of whether Mati Diop’s debut film Atlantics is nominated for the best international film category on January 13, its very presence on the Oscar shortlist points to an increasingly vibrant cinema scene across Africa.

Senegal’s submission was among a record 10 African entries to the category for 2020, although Nigerian submission Lionheart was disqualified for being predominantly in English.  

These films are just the tip of the iceberg of a burgeoning film and TV industry across the continent, the rising economy of which was boosted this year by the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area, worth an estimated $3 trillion and encompassing 54 countries and a population of 1.3 billion people. 

“I’ve been producing films in Africa for 25 years and I’ve never seen so much interest in African cinema and the growth of so much infrastructure,” says Steven Markovitz at Cape Town-based Big World Cinema, whose credits include 2018 Cannes Un Certain Regard title Rafiki.

The driving forces are internal and external, he says, pointing to a proliferation of local film funds and development and production programmes as well as the increasing numbers of international players attempting to gain a foothold in the territory.

Among these is Netflix. Its acquisition and release of Atlantics was part of this strategy. France’s Canal Plus is also on the offensive in the region. It acquired African studio and channel operator ROK last July while parent company Vivendi has opened some 14 cinemas under the CanalOlympia banner over the last decade. Pathé is also building a network across the continent. Conversely, Africa is increasingly present on the international market and festival scene. 2019 saw the launch of the inaugural African pavilion at the Cannes Marché while the Berlinale’s European Film Market expands its Africa Hub this year, moving it out of a pop-up venue in the carpark of Martin-Gropius-Bau into the more prestigious venue of the Marriott Hotel. 

What future for culture and cinema under the new European Parliament?

When incoming European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced her preliminary team of new EU commissioners last September, there was consternation within cultural and creative industry circles that there was no mention of culture.

Closer inspection of the different portfolios revealed the culture mandate had been wrapped up with the responsibilities of the proposed commissioner for innovation and youth Mariya Gabriel. 

The omission of the word “culture” from her title sparked widespread protest from across the EU’s cultural and creative sectors, the #BringCultureBack hashtag and an online petition calling for the word “culture” to be reinstated into Gabriel’s title, which was signed by 3,000 individuals.

There was a rethink and by the time Gabriel was finally formerly announced two months later her title had been renamed to EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. Was this a sign culture will not be a priority under this new commission, which gets down to business against a backdrop of an impending Brexit and growing calls for serious action on climate change?

Cultural and creative industry bodies are taking any chances. They have been lobbying hard to ensure culture and creativity are not forgotten as member states negotiate the so-called EU multi-financial framework for the 2021-27 period, fixing priorities and budgets.

At the end of November 2019, some 90 cultural and creative bodies from across the EU sent an open letter to EU leaders asking them to invest more in the Creative Europe Programme for the period. 

They emphasised the fact the Creative Europe programme represents just 0.15% of the EU’s overall budget, while its the culture and creative industry sectors generate $564bn (€509bn) in value added to GDP and more than 12 million full-time jobs, representing 7.5% of the EU’s workforce.

The European Parliament has proposed an increase nearly doubling the programme’s budget to $3.1m (€2.8m) for the 2021-27 period. It remains to be seen if the proposal goes through as negotiations around the framework continue in the New Year.

Can the industry get serious about sustainability?

In 2020, sustainability efforts need to move beyond just giving out reusable water bottles. Les Arcs, which has been offsetting its carbon footprint since 2009, is launching a €10,000 ($11,153) prize aimed at developing features exploring ecological and mountainous issues.

Doc Society continues to support climate-related stories with its Climate Story Lab, which will move to the UK for its second edition in March 2020.

In terms of productions going green, more funding will hopefully be linked to sustainable methods, already a requirement for some backing from Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF).

The 2020 Berlinale will serve meat-free meals at all its official events. Rome-based market MIA sought ISO 20121 certification - the international standard for the sustainable management of events – a move that more festivals and markets are expected to follow. The European Film Awards will be held in Reykjavik in December 2020; EFA and Icelandic partners plan to plant trees to balance the carbon footprint.

On screen, strong buzz is building for Greta, Swedish director Nathan Grossman’s feature documentary about Greta Thunberg. Cinetic handles sales and Hulu is already on board.

Gender equality - more action, less talk

This is the year we will see if the mantra ‘5050 for 2020’ is moving beyond talk to delivering action. One festival proving it means business is Goteborg, which kicks off on January 24 with a programme that will be comprised of 50% of films by female directors. This marks the first time a major international film festival will hit that target.

The Swedish Film Institute, a leader in the field, will launch a new report looking at the specific challenges of women of colour. WIFT Ireland chair Susan Liddy will publish a new book about policy and practice of women in 17 countries, to be launched at the CARLA conference in Karlskrona, Sweden in August. At the Athena Film Festival in New York, a new $25,000 breakthrough award grant will be sponsored by Netflix. Other new events will include the Reykjavik Feminist Film Festival in January.

Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood plans an early 2020 launch for a new online global community for female creatives.

Will the indie film industry start embracing AI? 

Netflix’s use of AI, data science and machine learning to improve its subscriber experience and guide it on which shows and films to greenlight, acquire or cancel is seen as being at the heart of its success.

The independent film world, meanwhile, has been largely reluctant to make use of these tools up until now.  The general perception among indie produces is that the sorts of productions they work on are prototypes driven by individual creativity and not suitable for analysis by a computer. 

But this could be set to change this year as a slew of start-ups court independent producers with predictive analytical tools tailored to suit their needs.

The Paris-based European Producers Club, gathering 100 independent film and TV drama producers from all over Europe, is due to start trailing a data-assisted predictive programme developed by Largos this year. The software analyses scripts and assesses their box office potential and target audience on the basis of the data from 30,000 previous feature productions that have been fed into the system. It is an experiment that is sure to spark debate.

Additional reporting by Melanie Goodfellow, Charles Gant, Fionnula Halligan and Wendy Mitchell.

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