Nobody needs me to make the same big-picture Hollywood predictions that we’ve all seen year after year: The “streaming wars” will lead to consolidation; Shari Redstone will sell ViacomCBS; Apple will (or won’t?) buy a legacy studio. Blah, blah. Someday those will come true and everyone will feel smart, just as we all did this year when AT&T predictably unloaded WarnerMedia and Amazon finally pulled the trigger on MGM.
Instead, I polled some of my best sources for predictions that most people might not be thinking about, both big picture and small. Some of these actually are happening, I just can’t report them definitively yet. And if you disagree, tell me why at email@example.com. Here are my first 11; part two can be found here.
1. The great theater contraction begins: I’m already hearing this from exhibition and distribution sources: In 2022, movie theater shrinkage will become a significant narrative. Even with Spider-Man: No Way Home, domestic box office in 2021 is on track to decline by about 60 percent from 2019, and forecasts for 2022 and 2023 aren’t great. Let’s say grosses eventually return to 80 percent of “normal;” that’s still not sustainable for mass-market theaters, which were struggling before the pandemic. This year’s lesson for studios is that most non-Marvel, adult-driven pictures should debut for the foreseeable future on streaming, which would eliminate the so-called “platform” release and those surprise breakouts of the recent past, like La La Land or Knives Out. Short of a government bailout, or studios cutting theaters in (like Universal is doing on its 17 day window), contraction from the current 44,000 U.S. screens seems necessary. And if AMC, the largest theater chain, ends its insane meme stock run, all bets are off on its future.
2. Vegas bets on content: Pop stars have long taken advantage of Las Vegas for lucrative residencies. (Have you seen those ridiculous Adele prices?) Now the casinos want to expand beyond music. The Wynn hosted Paramount+’s big 1883 premiere this month and spent millions on a 1,700-square foot audio production space to lure sports podcasters. Video is next, and with sports gambling shows poised to boom along with relaxed gaming laws, other resorts are circling. Caesars has been looking for a Hollywood agency or management firm to help it become a content hub, and MGM is also said to be exploring both experiential and production plays. Besides helping lure people back post-Covid, Vegas-only experiences could help keep Sin City unique and culturally relevant in a world where gambling is mostly legal everywhere, and increasingly digitized.
3. Zaslav rips the Band-Aid off: I’m not going to forecast which executives will live and die in Discovery’s takeover of WarnerMedia, which is expected to close before summer (though HBO’s Casey Bloys and CNN/Turner’s Jeff Zucker are safe). But the observers I talk to believe C.E.O. David Zaslav won’t eff around with pleasantries on Day One, swiftly installing his team, exiting the also-rans and, yes, laying off hundreds, if not thousands, of redundant employees to achieve the promised $3 billion in “cost savings.” Some of Zaz’s plans may even be telegraphed before the deal closes, subject to regulatory rules.
4. Disney goes Full Chapek: Since taking over as Disney C.E.O. last February, Bob Chapek has already re-organized the company’s entire content operation, smashed theatrical windows, gotten sued by an Avenger, started charging extra for certain rides at the parks, and steered ESPN into gambling, formerly a big Disney no-no. But as of tomorrow, predecessor Bob Iger is gone from the board, leaving Chapek free to really change things up. Look for big early decisions on streaming—the only area Wall Street seems to care about—specifically regarding how to handle Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+ and Star globally, and what to do about Comcast having an ownership stake in Hulu until 2024. Anything to boost that soft share price, which will be Chapek’s undoing if it doesn’t improve by 2023.
5. Say hello to the Justice league: It’s no secret that Biden’s antitrust enforcers are taking a close look at AT&T’s $43 billion spin-off of WarnerMedia to Discovery and Amazon’s $8.4 billion purchase of MGM. But don’t be shocked if they also scrutinize CAA’s purchase of rival talent agency ICM Partners. I’ve heard this from several insiders now. Too small? Maybe, but the deal arguably will result in fewer options for artists to find meaningful representation. There’s an irony here, of course, in that ICM sold to CAA in part because it faced a future without lucrative packaging fees after its legal battle with the Writers Guild—the same Writers Guild whose members would potentially suffer from fewer reputable agents.
6. Star power to the people: By the end of ’22, and a likely thrashing in the midterm elections, Democrats will be grasping for saviors, including a backup to run for president if Biden can’t or won’t, or V.P. if Kamala Harris isn’t considered an asset. Expect heavy, if sometimes wistful, discussion of recruiting Hollywood celebrities to run nationally. Without emerging stars in the party, some Dems may think they need an actual star—Dwayne Johnson, Matthew McConaughey and Oprah Winfrey are just the beginning of the list—to run on a ticket against Trump, Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, Don Jr., Tucker Carlson, or whomever.
7. A rep realignment: The new year usually brings a few big moves or company launches in the talent space, but I’m hearing this year could see super-charged activity. Thank the general Covid-era anxiousness, less tolerance for floating underperforming reps, personality clashes at a couple shops, and the coming splatter of ICM agents all over town after they are let go in the CAA takeover. It all could mean a lot more managers in the mix. So many that a couple top rep sources suggest a “reckoning” may be near. I’d agree. Range Media probably has too many employees, though it’s unclear if billionaire backer Steve Cohen cares. Anonymous Content probably needs to make a move, though it’s unclear if its billionaire backer, Laurene Powell Jobs, is focused on maximizing value. And in the legal world, the launch of Matt Johnson and P.J. Shapiro’s talent firm (without a billionaire backer, as far as I know) could lead to more attorney (and client) defections elsewhere and will test the power of their former firm, Ziffren Brittenham.
8. The Obamas get serious about Hollywood: Since launching in 2018, Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground Productions has slapped its name on great documentaries, like American Factory, and produced a few movies and educational series under its Netflix deal. But Higher Ground made some hires last summer, and there are rumblings about a ramp-up in 2022 (including a new executive for unscripted TV and more audio projects under its Spotify deal). And don’t forget that Hive, the Donald Glover TV project for Amazon Studios about a Beyonce-like figure, boasts Malia Obama on the writing staff. (CAA’s Maha Dakhil signed the former First Daughter this summer after a lengthy Zoom bake-off that came down to CAA and WME, both of which have extensive ties to Dad. Awkward!) Hive could hit in late ’22 or early ’23, I’m told.
9. Cable news chaos: Don’t sleep on those John Malone comments last month about CNN returning to “actual journalism” once Discovery takes over. Malone, a powerful Discovery board member, likely foreshadowed a strategy shift away from #resistance programming. CNN needs to do something to fix ratings, as does MSNBC, whose departed Brian Williams could find a home at least part-time anchoring election-related coverage (perhaps at CNN?) during the 2022 cycle. Over at Fox, Bret Baier will likely inherit Fox News Sunday from CNN+’s new star Chris Wallace, and the Murdochs (and likely Zucker at CNN) will go after Norah O’Donnell, who probably won’t be anchoring CBS Evening News by 2023. Confused yet?
10. The new Game of Thrones is… not any of these shows: The TV narrative in 2022 will be expensive, ambitious, bet-your-job event series at several streaming services, all vying to become the next Game of Thrones. That won’t happen, of course, but at least we’ll get to see what a billion-dollar TV show looks like with Amazon’s Lord of the Rings; we’ll also finally get to see the Halo video game adaptation on Paramount+ that was originally sold to Nancy Tellem at Microsoft as an “Xbox original” back in 2013; the Russo brothers will attempt the first global spy franchise with offshoot series in multiple countries with Amazon’s troubled Citadel; and Apple is spending a cool $300 million of Tim Cook’s couch change on 10 episodes of Cary Fukunaga’s Masters of the Air, a Band of Brothers follow-up. And none of those are the actual Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon. HBO’s Casey Bloys is smart enough to know he can’t simply remake the original, so Dragon will probably end up being the most interesting—if not fan-servicey—of the lot.
11. Jeopardy! splits the baby: Ken Jennings or Mayim Bialik? How about both! After the embarrassing public bake-off and the Mike Richards debacle, Sony TV has temporarily settled into a rhythm with two popular guest hosts taking turns this season. Why screw around? Just name two permanent hosts. At least that’s the feeling of a couple insiders I talked to. After all, viewers aren’t exactly clamoring for either to be shown the door, and one will probably get bored after a couple years. Don’t we all.