An Earth-Shattering Year: Entertainment Industry Leaders Reflect on 2020

To say that 2020 has been a ground-shifting year, would be to minimize all of the profound sorrow, loss and upheaval that these past 12 months have sowed.

One of the most confounding aspects of this cataclysmic year has been how ubiquitous the pain has been spread, whether it was from the public health crisis and its life-or-death stakes, or the centuries-long systemic racism and injustice that was accentuated by the murder of George Floyd, or in the fallout from the sociopolitical culture wars that have unleashed so much distrust and disdain among Americans.

The world of sports and entertainment also suffered the untimely deaths of two young, beloved figures.

“It was a terrible year that started with Kobe Bryant dying,” says actor-director George Clooney, one of seven industry figures interviewed for this week’s Variety cover story. “When Chadwick Boseman died, I remember that gut-punch feeling that this year was designed to test our mettle.”

The underpinnings of the media business were shaken to their core with a pandemic that crippled on-set production and forced movie and live-event theaters and arenas to be shut down, leaving tens of thousands of workers unemployed.

While executives who work at studios, production outfits, talent agencies, management companies and entertainment law firms and in other office jobs were for the most part able to pivot quickly and conduct business via home Zoom calls, many crew members were left struggling to qualify for unemployment benefits given the nature of project-by-project work in TV and film. Caterers; stylists; movie theater, Broadway and theme park employees; as well as scores of others in support-staff roles have been sidelined while the spread of COVID-19 ravages the global economy.

Even upper and middle managers haven’t been immune to the waves of pink slips unleashed by large media company employers, including WarnerMedia, Disney, Comcast and ViacomCBS.

Traditional business models, including the further erosion of the linear television bundle, continued to be upended this year by the ferocious streaming revolution. Warner Bros. recently dropped a bombshell that exploded across the Hollywood landscape with a declaration to release its entire 2021 slate of movies simultaneously in cinemas and on its nascent HBO Max direct-to-consumer service. The move will have a significant impact on Hollywood’s ecosystem and is causing havoc among struggling theater owners, on-camera talent and their agents, who are carping about potential financial fallout when negotiating their deals.

At the same time, the ugly truth of systemic racism — as captured in the 8-minute, 46-second video of Floyd’s tragic final moments at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in late May — galvanized the industry to examine its sorely inadequate diversity and inclusion practices and forced industry leaders to step up and speak out with unprecedented urgency.

To make sense of all that has transpired in 2020 and what it portends for the media and entertainment sectors going forward, Variety spoke with a cross section of industry leaders about the broad theme of change. We asked senior executives, high-profile artists, actors, writers, directors, producers and entrepreneurs to reflect on the most significant changes of the past 12 months and to pinpoint the issues and opportunities that are most important to restoring the industry to health in 2021 and beyond.

When asked the three things he’d most like to see happen in the new year, Pharrell Williams, also among those Variety interviewed, said: “Empathy, humility, gratitude.”

Here is an edited compilation of Variety’s conversations.

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Marco Grob for Variety

George Clooney
Actor, director, producer

“We shot a movie [‘The Midnight Sky’] that was designed to be shown in theaters. The first thing I said to the Netflix guys was ‘I don’t want anybody to ever say, “Stay home from school, don’t go out for dinner, but definitely come to see my movie.”‘ There’s no reality in it. So the movie is going to come out on Netflix. We told them we’d shoot it in 65mm because it’s night and day when you see it on a giant screen. This particular film is made for that. But if you can’t, you can’t. There are a lot bigger issues in the world right now than that.” For the full story, click here.

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Pharrell Williams of ‘Hidden Figures’ Andrew H. Walker/Variety

Pharrell Williams
Recording artist, songwriter, producer, philanthropist, entrepreneur

“The biggest challenge is the system becoming hyper-aware of its purposeful blockages and making things more equitable for all people. We need more advocates and allies. Those things seem so obvious, but it doesn’t to a lot of people because a fish doesn’t know it’s wet. It requires extreme self-awareness, an extreme level of empathy, to say, ‘OK, that’s not so nice.'” For the full story, click here.

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Actor, director, singer, composer

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Lin-Manuel Miranda Portrait Ryan Pfluger for Variety

“The loss to the theater community is already incalculable. It’s shown people who go into this way of life how fragile it is, how dependent we are on each other, and when the ability to gather is taken away, how long it can take. I’ve written rec letters for fellow actors who are going into other lines of work. That’s a real hole, and I don’t know who is going to come back on the other side of it.” For the full story, click here. 

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Photo Illustration by Gluekit

Pearlena Igbokwe
Universal Studio Group Chairman
“In the midst of challenges, chaos and disruption, it’s leadership that makes the difference. What we’ve learned from 2020, with all of its challenges, is that leadership will be the key to driving success for companies in transition.” For the full story, click here. 

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PPhotograph by Katie Jones; Illustration by Gluekit

Tony Vinciquerra
Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman-CEO

“The pandemic is adding to the tremendous upheaval that we’re already facing in the business. The hardships from COVID-19 are accelerating the changes in the theatrical windows and the erosion of the traditional linear television bundle. We are proud of being the only studio in the business that didn’t do massive layoffs this year. We have made the hard decisions on restructurings over the past few years because we needed to reflect how our customers are operating.” For the full story, click here.

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Michael Buckner/Variety; Illustration by Gluekit

Charles D. King
Macro Founder-CEO

Former WME partner Charles D. King launched Macro in 2015 as a production banner to focus on amplifying stories and creative talent from underrepresented backgrounds. As Macro approaches its sixth anniversary next month, King speaks with Variety about leading a young business at a time of unprecedented challenges and opportunities for the kind of content King has vowed to champion. For the full story, click here.

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Illustration by Gluekit

Jason Kilar
WarnerMedia CEO

“The pandemic is absolutely accelerating change because consumers are changing. In the case of WarnerMedia, this means that we need to talk about the fan. Let’s talk about the customer. And let’s talk about the amazing things that we can do on their behalf. That really is what our business comes down to, which is how can we move the world through story, which, of course, is very firmly focused on the fan. And what we want to do is leverage every single tool in the arsenal to be able to do a better job each and every day.” For the full story, click here.