Biggest Entertainment Stories of 2021

It was supposed to be the start of a roaring ’20s for a new century. A rollout of vaccines in the first half of 2021 would help crush the COVID-19 pandemic and return the world to as close to “normal” as possible. And for a month or two, it was idyllic. People partied, visited family members they hadn’t seen in over a year, and traveled overseas for some much-needed R&R. That was until the Delta Variant swept through most of the United States thanks to a swath of Americans who refused to get vaccinated. Breakthrough cases became more common, and in the fall, boosters were on the docket for everyone. By December, a new, more contagious variant, Omicron, spread like wildfire around the world. But the symptoms for vaccinated people were milder and talk of the pandemic finally becoming an endemic started to percolate. Or maybe that was just euphoria from Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios’ over the billion-dollar box office of “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

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Despite not so ideal vaccination rates, people returned to entertainment in person. Pop stars, rock bands, and comedy acts toured the country again. Broadway made a comeback. Music festivals such as Lollapalooza and EDC went off without (seemingly) becoming super-spreader events. Sporting arenas were filled with fans and even San Diego Comic-Con returned for a less congested installment in November. Perhaps all those distractions were one of the reasons movie theaters took their time getting back into a profitable groove (there were other reasons as well). But content, wherever you found it, was still king. And it was almost a sigh of relief to see broadcast networks return to their eroding pre-pandemic ratings.

There were also too many talents lost to COVID, complications, or tragic circumstances. The polarizing politicization of anti-vaxxers seeped into all aspects of the entertainment industry. It was simply unavoidable and at times disheartening. But, hey, at least good old-fashioned movie premieres, Q&As, and award season ceremonies made a comeback, right?

As we hope for an even safer or joyous 2022, here’s a look back at some of the big stories from 2021 that will have ramifications for years to come.

ITSAE makes history
They won’t blink. That is what members of the ITSAE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) union had been told for decades. Make too many demands and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), aka the movie studios, television networks, and streamers, would simply let them strike and eventually give them nothing in return. In 2021, that didn’t happen. The ITSAE membership voted to allow a potential strike. A strike that would have bought film and television production in the United States to a crashing halt. And the studios blinked. To some, the ITSAE won because AMPTP caved the union won increased wages across the board and more rest on productions. Others felt the working conditions didn’t go far enough. In fact, the agreement was narrowly ratified with five of the 13 local chapters of ITSAE rejecting it. Still, overall it demonstrated the power of Hollywood’s unions and was a warning that “time old” Hollywood working conditions would no longer be tolerated.

Discovery and WarnerMedia announce merger
Haven’t we been through this before? In 2001, AOL acquired or merged (depending on how you saw it) with Time Warner, the company behind Warner Bros., Turner Networks, and CNN. By 2003, AOL had been dropped from the name and by 2009, the internet pioneer had been spun off as a separate entity. In 2016, AT&T announced its intention to buy Time Warner. The internet cellular company thought it could pair Time Warner’s content with its services. By 2018 the acquisition was finalized and WarnerMedia was born. But by June 1, 2021, AT&T effectively gave up trying to make the combined entity work (surprise, it wasn’t a good mix) and announced that WarnerMedia would merge with Discovery Inc, a substantially smaller media company. The kicker? AT&T would own a majority of the new entity, but Discovery’s CEO David Zaslav would take over. In this strange merger, AT&T had decided Zaslav would be a better captain than Jason Kilar, who set many studio relationships on fire when he announced all 2021 Warner Bros. releases would simultaneously debut on HBO Max (a decision that does not appear to have substantially increased HBO Max’s subscriber base). The new company, Warner Bros. Discovery, is expected to be official by the middle of 2022. Whether Zaslav and Discovery’s exec team can help substantially grow HBO Max (which has already had a number of successes over the past year on its own), remains to be seen.

“Spider-Man” hits a billion
When movie theaters needed a hero to prove the power of the theatrical marketplace they found it with your friendly neighborhood “Spider-Man.” At the time of publication, Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios’ “Spider-Man: Far From Home” was already the biggest film released in the pandemic era taking in $1.054 billion in just 12 days of release. Despite the specter of the Omicron variant it has earned over $467 million domestically and $587 million overseas (and that includes some nations in Europe that have restricted moviegoing and capacity). It will likely end up with over $1.6 billion and in the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time. It’s also a major reminder that if you make something that is a must-see, moviegoers will potentially risk their health to see it. That’s exciting news for the studios behind such theater-only tentpoles such as “The Batman,” “The Flash,” “Jurassic World,” “Mission: Impossible 7” and “Avatar,” among others, set for release next year. Now, as for the non-blockbuster titles…

Older and art-house audiences semi-no show at the movies
While many in the entertainment media sector have seemed to forget that not all movies are destined to be hits, it is obvious that studio releases primarily aimed at older audiences (“The Last Duel,” “West Side Story,” “King Richard”) have not fared well at the pandemic box office. Almost every film that’s been deemed a “hit” was either four-quadrant (i.e., intended for everyone) or partially appealed to a younger demographic (either under 25 males or under 25 females). Even more concerning is the fact that art-house audiences have been warier to return outside of key pockets of Los Angeles and New York. The biggest “art-house” hit was Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” which has earned $15.9 million despite never being in more than 1,225 theaters. Even Best Picture contender “Belfast” took in just $6.8 million in a max of 1250 theaters. If any film would have been a word of mouth wonder pre-pandemic it likely would have been that Focus Features release. Younger audiences have sought out A24 films such as “The Green Knight” and “Zola,” but both grossed under pre-pandemic expectations and went to digital relatively quick. Executives from studios of all sizes are hoping that the success of “Spider-Man” helps convince everyone it’s safe to return to their local multiplex or art-house showcase.

Scarlett Johansson sues Disney
When Scarlett Johansson agreed to portray Natasha Romanoff one more time it was with the understanding that it would be for a theatrical endeavor. Her first solo Marvel Studios film, “Black Widow,” was shot in 2019 with an expected May 2020 release. Then the pandemic hit and the release date was eventually pushed back to July 9, 2021. Even with vaccines and low COVID cases (at the time), Disney execs decided to be cautious and release the film in both theaters and as a Disney+ Premier Access add-on (for an additional $29.99 fee). Based on Johansson’s contract, this theoretically cost her millions in backend salary (Disney announced “Black Widow” earned $67 million from at-home viewing in its first weekend). So, she did something almost no other star would do. She sued the Mouse House. Things got very testy with both sides making harsh public statements at each other and reports of other Disney stars considering legal action made it the first real talent crisis of Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s reign. Talent almost always wins in these cases and less than a month later the studio settled with the Oscar nominee for reportedly $40 million. Moreover, Johansson is still attached to Disney’s “Tower of Terror,” is producing a new project for Marvel Studios and just a few months later is referring to the whole experience as a “net positive.”

“Jeopardy” host drama
The passing of longtime “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek after a long battle with cancer was one of the saddest moments at the end of 2020. However, with his diagnosis being publicly revealed over a year earlier, Sony Television had more than enough time to formulate a successor plan for one of the most popular daily programs on television. Instead, a royal mess ensued. For the first eight months of 2021, the program used a rotating staple of interim hosts including former show champion Ken Jennings, Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper, and, famously, fan-favorite Levar Burton. The “Reading Rainbow” icon became the public’s choice to be named permanent host, but executive producer Mike Richards had someone else in mind, himself. The former “The Price is Right” producer and “Beauty and the Geek” host positioned himself within Sony Television to take over the coveted job. Fans were horrified, but they didn’t have to wait long for a resolution. Just nine days after the announcement, The Ringer released a report on controversial remarks Richards had made on his podcast, his time on “Price is Right” and, surprise, how he shadily maneuvered himself into the pole position. By August 31, Richards had resigned as host and executive producer and Sony Television was seemingly back at square one. Now, the show is being hosted by Mayim Bialik and Jennings through the end of July 2022.

Netflix launches a surprising global sensation with “Squid Game”
The world’s premier streamer has had non-English sensations before, but “Money Heist” and “Lupin” can’t hold a candle to “Squid Game.” Debuting on September 17, with almost no fanfare, the Korean language thriller became Netflix’s most-watched episodic program of all time raking up $1.6 billion hours of viewership by Nov 30. That was over double the viewership of the previous champ, “Bridgerton” season one, which stood at 625 million hours after launching 11 months prior. “Squid Game” seeped into pop culture ruling Halloween, spawned a trove of YouTube videos (at a level not seen since “Game of Thrones”), and even found LeBron James wading into controversy with the show’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, over an off-camera remark about the show’s ending. A mainstay on top 10 lists, the show is also likely to become the first non-English language series nominated for Outstanding Drama at the Emmys next year. And don’t you worry, a second season is on the way.

Amazon acquires MGM for $8.45 million
MGM studios have been an asset its investors have been trying to sell for decades. Re-investing time and time again only to file bankruptcy, reboot, and start over. In July of 2021, the Roaring Lion finally found a buyer in Amazon. And, if it keeps chairman Michael De Luca and president Pam Abdy in charge of the film group, it might have something special on its hands. Clearly, Amazon is buying MGM (pending regulatory approval) for its back catalog of film and television series and the one and only James Bond franchise. A series that saw the long-delayed “No Time To Die” becomes the second biggest grosser of the year behind “Spider-Man” as the series said goodbye to Daniel Craig. The silver lining for Amazon – if they see it – is that De Luca and Abdy have become curators of acclaimed filmmakers such as Ridley Scott (the almost profitable “House of Gucci”), Paul Thomas Anderson (likely Best Picture nominee “Licorice Pizza”) and George Miller (“Ten Thousand Years of Longing“). They also bring the prestige and accolades that cinema lover Jeff Bezos adores. Or, it might just all be about Bond.

Film Festivals return in-person
2020 was mostly the year of virtual film festivals, but in the second half of 2021 vaccines and lower COVID cases brought the majors back in full force. Cannes moved to July and despite sweat-inducing weather, lots of testing, and a lack of parties (official ones at least) it provided another incredible lineup of films. Venice never went virtual and was back to battling Telluride for a slew of world premieres. Toronto was as in-person as possible and New York was something of a triumph. In fact, so many fall and year-end festivals came back that it all started to feel quite normal. Whether the arrival of Omicron affects in-person plans for Sundance and Berlin in 2022 remains to be seen.

Alec Baldwin and the “Rust” shooting
There are breaking news alerts that make you gasp, but few horrific as the revelation that Alec Baldwin had accidentally shot and killed the cinematographer of the independent film “Rust” in New Mexico. The incident occurred during a non-recorded rehearsal on October 21 and saw 42-year-old Halyna Hutchins pronounced dead after being struck in the chest. The film’s director, Joel Souza, was hit in the shoulder and was discharged from the hospital the next day. Both Baldwin and assistant director Dave Halls have insisted he didn’t pull the trigger, but when the actor removed it from the holster it fired unexpectedly. Blame for the incident has been put on the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, but, according to her lawyer, she insists there was sabotage at play and she’s being framed. Complicating an already complicated case is the fact that on the same day of the shooting union members of the camera crew walked out over the production’s unsafe shooting conditions (something Hutchins was not aware of). The case is still being investigated by a number of New Mexico entities including the Sante Fe Sheriff’s Office and a State Judicial District Attorney and it’s unclear if Baldwin (also a producer) will face any charges (two civil suits have already been filed). The case drew national headlines because of the circumstances of Baldwin’s involvement but has been framed as an example of why set safety needs to be readdressed on independent and studio productions (a key negotiating point in the ITSAE contract dispute).

Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special
It’s still hard to understand how Netflix misread the room with the release of Dave Chappelle’s comedy special “The Closer.” Chappelle was an Emmy and pop culture darling for the service and it appears it saw nothing concerning about the October release. But to many, Chappelle “punched down” with his jokes about trans women that many in the LGBTQ+ community found offensive. Especially after a year of increased attacks and killings of trans women, especially trans women of color. Things became more combustible when Netflix employees, many of them trans or LGBTQ+, went public with how blindsided they felt about a company they believed had supported them. There was an employee walkout, Netflix star Hannah Gadsby ripped the service for its decision to go forward with the project, Chappelle went on tour taunting his critics, and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos eventually admitted he mishandled internal communication about the special. With 213 million subscribers Netflix wants to be everything to everyone and allow complete artistic freedom, but this incident left many in Hollywood and Netflix itself wondering where the company draws the line in hateful speech.

Studios put in vaccine mandates and some stars say “no”
Like many private businesses, a majority of networks and studios put in vaccine requirements to keep their talent and workers safe. What many might not have expected were the famous names that either turned down projects (Ice Cube) or been fired (a number of “General Hospital” stars) because they refuse to get the jab. This has also led to conflicts with vaccinated stars whose projects were greenlit or were filming when these protocols were put in place. In one case, Sean Penn had to be persuaded to return to a project because either key members of the crew or cast were not vaccinated. With vaccine mandates becoming a key insurance aspect for most public companies, it will be incredibly hard for some talent to work on even independent productions without getting vaccinated.

Paramount+ makes moves
It’s taken some time, but in the hierarchy of streaming services, Viacom’s rebranded CBS All Access outlet has found a way to leap ahead of NBCUniversal’s floundering player Peacock. As the home (sorta) of the Taylor Sheridan “universe,” it has a legitimate hit with “1883” and a semi-hit with “Mayor of Kingstown.” It also hit the third-party streaming charts with day and date family movies “Paw Patrol: The Movie” and “Clifford: The Big Red Dog” and scored with the transition of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” from VH1. The original content still has a ways to go, but the industry is starting to pay attention to the one-time streaming also-ran.

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is finally released
After four years of outcries and fan campaigns, HBO Max finally released “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” the beleaguered director’s cut of 2017’s “Justice League” that was largely reshot and pieced together by Joss Whedon, following Snyder’s exit from the project after his daughter’s tragic suicide during postproduction. Initially envisioned as a four-or-five-part series poised to goose HBO Max subscribers, the behind-the-scenes drama, plus COVID-19 concerns meant Snyder wasn’t able to shoot that much new material to create the chapter endings he initially envisioned. Instead, he brought back Jared Leto as the Joker to tease a sequel that would never arrive and introduced the Martian Manhunter to the DCEU. More importantly, fans got what they were clamoring for that many thought would be a huge precedent for Hollywood. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, while some optimistic pundits and fans believed The Snyder Cut was the beginning of more to come, Warner Bros, WarnerMedia, and HBO Max quickly put the kibosh on that enthusiasm, claiming the Snyderverse had been put to bed. Warners also quickly dashed hopes of a David Ayer cut of “Suicide Squad” and seemingly sent a signal to fans that said: Be happy for what you got because this is it. Samba TV data even suggests that current DCEU films like “Wonder Woman 1984” and “The Suicide Squad outperformed the Snydercut on HBO Max. To seemingly demonstrate how they were pivoting away further from the Snyderverse, Warner Bros. announced that Michael Keaton was returning as Batman in the upcoming “The Flash” crossover event assumed to be a retconning redo of the DCEU that lets Ben Affleck gracefully leave the cowl behind. While some cast members of the Snyderverse have returned (J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon), it seems abundantly clear that ‘Flash’ is going to reset much of what Snyder built, leaving “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” as a token gesture that the fans will have to be satisfied with. –Rodrigo Perez

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