After functioning as a possible COVID-19 superspreader event last year, the Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday … remotely. It’s proof that even in a global pandemic, Tinseltown hasn’t stopped making movies, and as Tom Cruise’s recent on-set tantrum made clear, it wants to keep making them — so mask up, hit your marks, nail your lines. Hollywood’s coming out swinging.
Eugene S. Robinson, Editor-at-Large, and Tania Bhattacharya, OZY Correspondent
1. Change Is in the Air
While Hollywood was dismissive of warnings about the streaming revolution before Netflix took off, we think they understand now, courtesy of COVID, that movies are going to happen wherever they best can. The latest evidence? WarnerMedia and Disney putting many of their new releases on streaming platforms (HBO Max and Disney+, respectively) at the same time they hit theaters. Who wins? Who loses? Who survives? Good questions.
2. Tech Takes (Another) Turn to Tinseltown
If you think like an engineer — more specifically an engineer who has suddenly developed an interest in the film business — a call for Hollywood to move to blockchain was inevitable. In this model designed to break down the studio model in favor of a decentralized one, creators could seek out investors and fan engagement via tokens on a new platform, rather than financing projects the old way.
3. Sundancing on a Moonbeam
Apropos of all that, the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, is proceeding with any and all plans, but bowing to COVID realities, it’s all virtual. So if you usually attend for the schmoozing and the chance to gawk at celebs? This sucks. If you went for the films — cue: fake shock — this will be perfect.
Of course, if your plan was to smoke a whole lot of weed and then, by virtue of a well-acquitted tux, a rented limo and a steady stream of BS, sneak into the biggest celeb self-congratulathon ever, the Oscars? Well, that might be harder to do this year, but we can always remember the way we were when our man did exactly that.
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Aside from how we will consume our flicks, 2021’s mixture of hope and dread raises the question of what kind of movies will succeed. The bet here is that by summertime, a newly vaccinated populace will be eager to pack multiplexes and enjoy popcorn once more — which is good news for anticipated sequels like Top Gun: Maverick; Space Jam: A New Legacy; and Fast and Furious 9 (yes, 9).
2. The New Class
For those who aren’t into making blockbuster sequels for multiplexgoers, the indie filmmaker training ground has now migrated to TikTok. With its easy-to-use technology and an algorithm that makes it less difficult for novices to break through than on YouTube or Instagram, there’s less of a barrier for budding auteurs across the globe to find an audience. Of course, they’re limited to one-minute videos, but you can accomplish plenty in small increments.
For those of us who have worked behind the camera in movies and on TV, it’s easy to get excited about a relatively arcane tech development connected to editing software, but bear with us: Algorithmic editing, which creates programs that will edit your stuff for you, the filmmaker or the home video enthusiast, is to die for.
It was easy to miss with the Capitol storming and changing of the guard in the White House amid a global pandemic, but Brexit — remember that? — finally happened on Dec. 31. It will be increasingly hard to not notice it as films get tougher to make in Great Britain and it gets harder for Brits to work in the EU. Agents and lawyers are still sifting through the new paperwork to figure out what the implications are once people can get out from under COVID restrictions and travel again, but it’s going to mean a lot more bureaucracy. Alas, no word yet on how it may complicate the next James Bond movie.
2. Action for a Fraction
Speaking of James Bond movies, the shutdown yanked back the cover on a few heretofore undiscovered oddities. In this instance: action films. In the old, pre-COVID days, the two-step was the big theatrical release, followed not long after by the dustbin. But the shutdown has given unusual films a new life. For example: Homefront, a Jason Statham flick from 2013, is killing it on Netflix. How, what, why? Exactly.
3. Inclusion Matters
The hashtag might not be trending as much as it once was, but the Oscars are still so white. That’s why guys like Gil Robertson, co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association, exist. The certified connector of “Black Hollywood” will tell you everything you need to know. And he is helping force needed change, like Disney+ adding warnings to old films that use racial stereotypes.
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Cinema? A respectable former escape from reality. But now streaming platforms are serving up documentaries and docuseries that have been killing it on the charts. Especially those that focus on crime. From Netflix’s Tiger King, World’s Most Wanted and Bad Boy Billionaires: India to Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls on NOW TV, Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer on Prime Video and HBO’s Murder on Middle Beach, these docs are proof positive that gone are the days when quality stories had to be told on shoestring budgets and grant money.
Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers anymore; filmmakers are experimenting with the medium as well, to spectacular effect. For the past couple of years, prestigious festivals like the Venice Biennale, Sundance and Tribeca have hosted a VR section, and the coronavirus pandemic drew more and more viewers to watch VR cinema on their Oculus or HTC Vive headsets. And it’s not limited to animated stories. Filmmaker Celine Tricart co-directed Sun Ladies, a VR documentary on Yazidi women fighting ISIS in Iraq. “I believe the pandemic gave a boost to VR,” she tells OZY. “We discovered a whole new way of working, interacting and connecting with other people via technology, and I don’t think people will throw their headsets away when the world becomes normal again.”
3. The Chameleon
In a world where actors thrive on recognition, Ali Suliman stands out precisely because he doesn’t stand out. Yet. The Arab Israeli actor played pivotal roles in the Golden Globe–winning Paradise Now, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Hulu’s The Looming Tower, and the Netflix-acquired Zinzana, the first Emirati film of its kind. And for 2021? Catch Suliman in Amira (directed by Moon Knight’s Mohamed Diab), Huda’s Salon (from Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad) and Ameen Nayfeh’s award-winning 200 Meters, Jordan’s official entry for the 2021 Academy Awards. Is he standing out yet?
4. A Change in the Weather, a Change in the Stars
Streaming services have thrown the traditional movie biz out of whack by redefining who’s a “star.” “We knew we had to find someone to blend in, which doesn’t apply to stars,” casting director Tess Joseph tells OZY about The White Tiger’s scene-stealing lead Adarsh Gourav. Big-budget flicks need big stars to get asses into theaters, but character-led content? For that you need characters. Omar Sy was well-known before Lupin hit Netflix, but with 70 million streams in its first month (better than The Queen’s Gambit), it’s the most successful French show out there — courtesy of Sy’s acting chops, not his name recognition.
5. Africa Rising
Stories from the continent have long been skewed by the white Western gaze. However, if 2020 is anything to go by, African storytellers are changing that, not just by acquiring movies and TV shows but also by commissioning original content with local voices. Netflix, partnered with the South African nonprofit Realness Institute, has a content development lab for South African, Kenyan and Nigerian writers, commissioning a raft of content already. This includes its first African original, 2020’s Queen Sono, an adaptation of a play by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, as well as a series based on work by Lola Shoneyin.
The funny thing about deciding movie release dates: It’s not a science, it’s witchcraft. Or, if you don’t believe in witchcraft, let’s just call it a poorly understood science that’s subjected to the vagaries of fate and wild fortune. Miss the date by a month or so and the moment has passed. But missing a whole year? Unknown yet what this will mean. But at least we have a list of what we’re waiting on, thanks to Vulture’s constantly updated release delays.
2. Stranger Stuff Happens in Theaters Than Most of Our Homes
So, John Nash, television and film editor, was in a silent movie theater in Los Angeles when some not-so-silent shots rang out. That was only the tip of a much more gooned-out iceberg, which culminated in a murder for profit, with Nash as a key witness. And it got even stranger from there.
Turns out our own Eugene S. Robinson was in the worst movie of 1987, Bill Cosby’s execrable Leonard Part 6. Not only was it strange to work with the famous (and now-incarcerated) comedian, but there were indications at the time that things were very much not right. Spending lots of time in Hollywood, you meet lots of strange people, but Cosby was uniquely … strange.
Did you know that after writing The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to make a go of it in Hollywood? Because that’s where they thought movies could come from: great books. That gave way to movies based on other movies, then movies based on TV shows, and now? Movies based on Hollywood’s own scandals. Which is sort of what you’d expect from an industry trying to figure out what “shame” is.