It was a tumultuous year for an entertainment industry rocked by media shifts and adjusting to an unfamiliar post-Harvey landscape. Yes, the 2018 box office wound up well ahead of last year, but the future is not rosy for two-hour movies in theaters, as Silicon Valley streamers from Netflix to Apple make studio chiefs and their theater partners reach for the Maalox.
Here’s how last year’s winners and losers will play out in 2019.
Having bought Twentieth Century Fox, Disney will thrive as it prepares to stock three late-2019 OTT ventures to compete with Netflix. While Disney will be building its subscribers from scratch, quality IP from Disney, Pixar, Lucasfilm and National Geographic will “obviously create a demand and gives us the ability to not necessarily be in the volume game, but to be in the quality game,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger on an earnings call.
On the movie side, Marvel scored two of the year’s top movies with “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther,” while Pixar released the likely animation Oscar-winner “Incredibles 2” and Disney delivered year-end hits “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Lucasfilm’s disappointing and troubled “Solo: A Star Wars Story” suggests global interest for the saga is flat. But what if Kathleen Kennedy allowed original directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord to take the movie in an untested direction? (Ron Howard replaced them.) Judging from the results of producer Miller & Lord’s late-year “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which reinvented the animated comic-book movie, added myriad and diverse characters, and earned rave reviews and boffo box office, their “Solo” might have been a movie folks would pay to see. “Spider-Verse” is so popular that it could challenge “Incredibles 2” for the animated feature Oscar.
Going forward, the 2019 Mouse House slate is mighty indeed: Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” and “Avengers: Endgame,” Tim Burton’s live-action “Dumbo,” Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” and Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin,” Disney’s “Penguins,” “Artemis Fowl,” and animated “Frozen 2,” Pixar’s “Toy Story 4,” and at year’s end, the return of “Star Wars,” J.J. Abrams’ “Episode IX.”
With 137 million subscribers in 190 countries, Netflix is a master of innovation, with its “Black Mirror” interactive “Bandersnatch” with multiple outcomes, must-watch serial documentaries like “Wild Wild Country,” and movie chief Scott Stuber’s evolving (limited) theatrical approach to appeasing top filmmakers from Tamara Jenkins (“Private Life”), the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) and Paul Greengrass (“22 July”) to Oscar-contender Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”).
An increased Oscar and Emmy focus is part of Netflix’s expanded (and costly) marketing and branding outreach. As Disney and other studios inevitably pull more of their titles from their greatest rival as they mount their own streaming services, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos is pouring billions into television and movie production, and signing up key talent from Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy to Adam Sandler, the Obamas and Sandra Bullock to keep growing subscribers for years to come.
Amazon won its first Emmy for comedy series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and brought in NBC powerhouse Jennifer Salke to replace scandal-tainted Roy Price and run its entertainment unit. She’s already expanding film offerings, adding more content aimed at women, and prepping to attend her first Sundance. While Amazon plays a different game than Netflix, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has deeper pockets for the long haul. His Beverly Hills holiday party lured everyone from Brad Pitt, Larry David, Harvey Keitel, and Casey Affleck to JLo & ARod, Pawel Pawlikowski ,and Joanna Kulig, Barbra Streisand, Michael Kelly, and Timothée Chalamet, who has another Oscar nomination in his sights.
Timothée Chalamet proved he’s a bonafide movie star: He not only lured audiences to Oscar-winning “Call Me By Your Name” (Metascore: 93) but to Amazon Studios’ 2018 drug addiction drama “Beautiful Boy” (Metascore: 63), which exceeded expectations with $7.6 million domestic. While Woody Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York” still sits on the shelf, Chalamet has plenty coming up: He costars with another heartthrob, Robert Pattinson, in “The King,” David Michod’s take on Henry V, plays Laurie in his “Ladybird” director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women,” and is now shooting Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.”
Royals sell. Saoirse Ronan is a movie star, too, and costars with Chalamet in both “Little Women” (as Jo) and in “The French Dispatch.” While Ronan’s not in the Oscar conversation for debut director Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots,” which earned mixed reviews, the movie could total $20 million domestic because she’s in it.
Doing even better was Fox Searchlight’s Yorgos Lanthimos royal romp “The Favourite,” starring a trio of strong Oscar contenders, Olivia Colman as Queen Anne (soon to take over as Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown”) and as two rivals for her affection, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. The movie could hit $30 million domestic.
Clint Eastwood. Never underestimate the director-star, who with “The Mule” lured his grown-up base yet again with a canny performance as a politically incorrect old codger with no apologies whatsoever for his evil ways. It’s at $64 million domestic and counting. He is 88 years old, people.
Shari Redstone. Many media reporters assumed that the powerful CBS chief Les Moonves would win his turf war with the exhibitor daughter of aging Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, Never underestimate a Redstone. She’s going to get her Viacom/CBS merger, and Moonves is not only out of a job under a hail of sexual assault accusations, but he also will have to fight in court to claw back his $120 million payout.
#MeToo and #TimesUp. On January 1, California’s #MeToo law banning nondisclosure provisions in settlements of sexual assault, harassment or sexual discrimination claims goes into effect. The law deals with the role NDAs have played in helping accused sexual abusers to hide from exposure. It’s one of several #MeToo-inspired laws coming up.
Women are banding together to create substantive change in the way women are treated behind the camera, too. Women wore black to the 2018 Golden Globes to support #TimesUp and lined up on the red carpet at Cannes in May. Talent agencies are seeking out women directors all over the world, and will do the hard work of convincing studios, producers and financiers to take chances on them. However getting more women the same chances as men to learn their craft will be a long, tough slog.
Diversity rocks. Hollywood has finally ingested the diversity-sells message. The talent involved with Marvel’s record-breaking “Black Panther” ($1.3 billion worldwide) will move on to enhanced opportunities for Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther 2”), movie star Michael B. Jordan (Coogler and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Wrong Answer”), Letitia Wright (Donald Glover’s “Guava Island”), Danai Gurira (“Godzilla vs. Kong”) and Lupita Nyong’o (Jordan Peele’s “Us”).
So will Warner Bros.’ “Crazy Rich Asians” (developed independently by Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson’s Color Force) and the first all-Asian cast since 1993’s “Joy Luck Club” ($238 million worldwide). Jon M. Chu directs Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights,” and his cast is getting more chances at bat, including Constance Wu (Daniel Yoon’s “Low Budget Ethnic Movie”), Henry Golding (Paul Feig’s “Last Christmas,” Guy Ritchie’s “Toff Guys”), Awkwafina (Alice Waddington’s “Paradise Hills”), and Michelle Yeoh (“Last Christmas”).
Sony scooped up Sundance missing-girl thriller “Searching” starring “Harold & Kumar” breakout John Cho, which made a global $75 million. He returns as Sulu in the next “Star Trek” installment, while Lionsgate hired Aneesh Chaganty to direct a Sarah Paulson thriller, “Run.”
Hits lead to other opportunities and build momentum. Veteran Spike Lee returned in top form with a major Oscar contender (Focus Features’ “BlacKkKlansmen”) handed to him by last year’s “Get Out” Oscar-winner Jordan Peele and producer Jason Blum. And Denzel Washington scion John David Washington emerges a star.
Barry Jenkins followed up Oscar-winning “Moonlight” with a very different exercise in period style, James Baldwin adaptation “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Plan B/Annapurna) starring likely Oscar contender Regina King and longshot Brian Tyree Henry, and Oscar-winner Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) took formal chances with Fox’s $42-million genre hybrid “Widows,” starring Viola Davis as the ringleader of a femme Chicago gang, which was a little too smart for the room. Critics appreciated what he was doing better than audiences (it topped out at $73 million worldwide). The studios still need to back risky movies like this rather than retreat to formulaic safety.
For example, Fox Searchlight’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (heading to $8 million domestic) featured two leads (likely Oscar contenders Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant) who just happened to be gay. (Screenwriter Nicole Holofcener could land a writing nomination as well.) Director Marielle Heller has already landed a studio gig, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (October 2019, TriStar), starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers.
Women directors found critical acclaim in 2018, including Heller, Lynne Ramsay (Joaquin Phoenix Cannes-winner “You Were Never Really Here,” Amazon), Tamara Jenkins (“Private Life,” Netflix), Karyn Kusama (“Destroyer,” Annapurna), and Debra Granik (“Leave No Trace,” Bleecker Street). More opportunities beckon.
On the commercial side of the ledger (if not critically hailed) were Mimi Leder (year-end hit “On the Basis of Sex,” Focus Features) and Josie Rourke (“Mary Queen of Scots,” Focus), as well as “Bird Box,” Susanne Bier’s year-end thriller, which broke Netflix viewing records. This not only reminds that Bullock (“Gravity”) is a huge global star, but also that Oscar-winner Bier (“In a Better World”) can direct genre material like this and mini-series “The Night Manager.”
Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Les Moonves, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Bryan Singer, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose… Gender rules are changing in the wake of the #MeToo movement. While Weinstein could walk away from his upcoming New York trial a free man — he has powerful lawyers, and the two remaining cases against him will not be easy to prosecute — civil courts still beckon.
But the changes in the entertainment industry are yielding revised rules of acceptable behavior. A cascading list of men have lost jobs and careers, from talk-show hosts and movie stars to a powerful media mogul like CBS chief Moonves. Cosby finally went to jail. Kevin Hart ran into social media backlash against old homophobic tweets when he was named Oscar host and withdrew rather than make an asked-for apology. He’ll be fine; his core audience adores him. While Disney’s brand was too family-centric to keep “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” director James Gunn on board after offensive old tweets emerged, he apologized and will get plenty of directing gigs. But Louis CK and Spacey’s bumbling attempts at recovering friends and followers are not working out.
Theater chains. They’re digging in their heels, trying to hold onto their wobbly 90-day exclusive theatrical windows, assailed by streamers like Netflix that can provide instant gratification around the world. As Netflix tentatively books sparse theatrical runs, big chains refuse their films. Of course, filmmakers still want their movies shown in theaters. The National Association of Theater Owners has met with agencies, studios and producers to remind them of that fact — and, to convince them to demand full theatrical runs from Netflix. This is not a winning strategy: More than anything, filmmakers are people who want to make their films. They’re getting support from Netflix to make risky and creatively exciting projects that conventional markets don’t support, from Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) to Dee Rees (Joan Didion’s “The Last Thing He Wanted”). Hollywood won’t thrive by hanging on to old models. If you can’t beat them, join them.
MoviePass. It’s still trying to find the right numbers strategy that will keep the movie-subscription disruptor solvent. Meanwhile, the company spurred major theater owners to launch their own audience-friendly subscription services.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Political movies. Among the well-intentioned flops of 2018 are “The Front Runner,” from writer-director Jason Reitman (who, to his credit, makes the movies he wants to make, like “Tully,” commercial prospects be damned), which attempted to build a connection between failed presidential candidate Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) and today’s crass tabloid culture. Moviegoers didn’t buy it, or didn’t care; the movie scrounged up just $2 million worldwide.
Also struggling to lure crowds is another portrait of a politician past, “Vice,” Adam McKay’s follow-up to “The Big Short,” which in a stunning piece of stunt casting, transforms Christian Bale into Dick Cheney. The movie could get an awards boost if Bale wins the shapeshifter Oscar that went to Gary Oldman for “Darkest Hour.”
Even Michael Moore, with election-timed documentary “Fahrenheit 11/9,” discovered the hazards of putting a two-hour movie into theaters in an age of lightning-fast news cycles. The movie topped out at $6.4 million domestic.
Bob Zemeckis and Peter Jackson. It’s hard to imagine that two of the most successful blockbuster directors of all time, creators of the “Back to the Future” and “Lord of the Rings” franchises, respectively, should fall so far in 2018. But they both did so by aiming for the fences. You can’t say that either $40 million-budgeted “Welcome to Marwen” ($7.7 million worldwide to date) or the $100-million “Mortal Engines”($62 million worldwide so far) was timid about creating eye-candy that would wow audiences. They both went for stunning, innovative VFX, but were killed by critics (Metascore: 40, Metascore: 44) and shunned by moviegoers, who didn’t respond to the stories they had to tell.
Will they get more chances to fail? Of course they will. Studios will always bet that lightning strikes again.