By Charlie Flynn
It is an unfortunate coincidence that many of the fundamental tenets of the arts left them in a uniquely vulnerable position when the Covid-19 pandemic reared its ugly head. Whether it’s a night at the theatre, an afternoon at a gallery or a week at a music festival, the arts have always been communal in spirit, an excuse to connect and socialise with people. As much of a cliche as it is to say, the arts have always been a medium by which people are drawn together for shared, meaningful experiences. Unfortunately, shared meaningful experiences are not particularly conducive to social distancing. Needless to say, the effect of covid-19 has been devastating to creative industries across the globe. To take the United States as an example, an estimated 2.3 million jobs in creative industries are at risk, over a third of the industries total workforce, with a $74 billion loss in average monthly earnings. With 2021 already promising to be just as bleak, it seems another fallow year may be in store for the creative world. However, it is perhaps as ironic as it is tragic that, despite the crippling effects of the pandemic, the arts have never been more important. With everyone shut inside for months on end in the darkest days of the outbreak, the mental wellbeing of society hinged on the combined efforts of binge-able Netflix shows, Spotify, and finally getting around to reading Jane Eyre. If 2021 is to prove much the same, then we will need the arts more than ever as we all enter another strange and trying year.
For the world of cinema, 2021 could prove to be a pivotal year. It is perhaps unsurprising that 2020 was not kind to the silver screen; the closure of cinemas due to social distancing requirements totally stripped chains and small-independent cinemas alike of their income, leaving the movie business in a financial slump. While the closure of cinemas was only supposed to be a temporary measure, for many the total lack of revenue has left irreversible damage. Cineworld, one of the largest groups of UK theatres, has declared that it does not expect to recover until 2023 and has warned that it will be closing many venues permanently. This in turn has worrying implications for Regal, the second-largest film distributor in the US, a subsidiary of Cineworld, which could find itself shutting its doors permanently without financial support. Even for AMC theatres, the largest cinema distributor in the US, the outlook is bleak as the company previously warned that it would have run out of cash by the beginning of 2021. Clearly, cinemas have struggled in 2020 and will continue to do so in 2021 as the pandemic drones on. The simple pleasure of a night at the movies might soon be a distant memory.
Yet, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Specifically, as we approach the summer of 2021, we may just be able to make out the distant sound of ‘Danger Zone’ by Kenny Loggins echoing off the tunnel walls and an aviator-clad Tom cruise waiting to guide us out of the darkness. ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ the hotly anticipated sequel to the 1986 cultural phenomenon ‘Top Gun,’ has announced that it will finally premiere on July 2nd, 2021 after numerous delays, with Paramount claiming that “we are confident that, when the time comes, audiences everywhere will once again enjoy the singular joy of seeing Paramount films on the big screen.” If that weren’t enough, the 25th installment of the James Bond Franchise ‘No Time to Die’ has been set to premier on the 2nd April 2021. It is possible that, if cinemas can hang on until summer, the release of major blockbusters which fans have been holding their breaths for will be the shot to the arm that the movie business needs to get back on its feet.
However, this light might be fading faster than we can get to it. With the pandemic showing no signs of abating and cinemas an obvious stomping ground for infections, it would not be surprising to see releases pushed even further back. For instance, the new Batman film starring Robert Pattinson as the titular character has already been postponed until 2022. In short, the future of the cinema is uncertain.
However, the seemingly endless lockdowns and quarantines have hugely boosted the importance of a different medium of media-consumption. For streaming services, the pandemic has been something of a blessing in disguise. Over 12 million customers signed up to new services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, with viewing figures for these platforms up by 71% across the board. Some of the most memorable viewing experiences of 2020 was found on streaming services. Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’, perhaps the most surreal documentary ever put to film, became an overnight cultural phenomenon as a direct result of pandemic binge-watching, spawning memes, rumours of a presidential pardon. The phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ was given a whole new set of meanings in the forms of Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin. Disney+ fared just as well, releasing the second season of Star Wars’ surprise hit ‘The Mandalorian,’ featuring TV’s most adorable McGuffin in the form of Baby Yoda. Even more importantly, the service released one of 2020’s few new films: ‘Soul,’ Pixar’s critically acclaimed answer to the existential crisis. The move from the silver screen to the small screen is set to continue in 2021 with Star Wars announcing a cornucopia of new shows to be released on Disney+ throughout the year. 2020 saw a year without a release from Marvel for the first time since 2009. However, the MCU will be back with a vengeance in 2021 with a flurry of new TV shows like ‘WandaVision’ and ‘Loki’ being released onto Disney+. Perhaps, as the pandemic drags on, the film industry may be forced to adapt to the continued success of streaming services. With critically acclaimed films like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman being released straight to Netflix, the move would not be unprecedented. Indeed, there have already been calls for the latest Bond film to be released digitally rather than continuing the trend of postponement in perpetuity. Indeed, the change may have already begun as the latest remake of The Witches starring Anne Hathaway was released directly to HBO Max in the US. Perhaps then, 2021 will see the release of major Hollywood films straight to streaming services become commonplace.
Theatre has perhaps had the most turbulent year of all the arts. Both Broadway and the West End, the capitals of the theatre world, were forced to totally shut down by the pandemic. The effects have been worrying. Given that theatre, by necessity, requires its patrons to sit in cramped, closely packed spaces for hours on end, it is hard to see theatre making any kind of comeback in the near future. Accordingly, The National Theatre in the UK was very public in admitting its dire situation and was forced to prepare for substantial staff cuts; almost 30% of its workforce is likely to face redundancy. In the US, The Actors Fund, a fund providing for the needs of various workers in the creative industries, received over 15,000 requests for aid in the first 3 months of the pandemic, distributing over $13 million dollars. Therefore, it seems that, at least for now, it will be some time before anyone can tread the boards again.
However, whilst the outlook for the theatre might seem singularly bleak, there are some silver linings going into 2021. Various actors and other theatre-makers have experimented with ‘virtual theatre.’ The filmed version of the smash-hit musical ‘Hamilton’ released on Disney+ became the most streamed single title across all streaming platforms in early July. This staggering reception has leant weight to the idea that theatre can remain relevant through online streaming. Broadway HD, founded in 2012, has launched a new array of musicals and plays, with titles on the service including Peter Pan goes Wrong, Kinky Boots, the Phantom of the Opera, and Cats. The UK National Theatre has taken similar steps. Following its successful bout of streaming shows over YouTube, which received over 15m million views in 173 countries, The National Theatre has launched its own streaming service ‘National Theatre at Home’. With Productions ranging from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to Chekov’s Cherry Orchard, the service features some of the worlds finest acting talent straight to your phone or laptop. However, the most staggering evolution in virtual theatre comes directly from the brave new world of TikTok. Ratatouille the Musical, an internet meme that somehow transcended its form and grew into a legitimate musical, was streamed on 1st January 2021, with an encore performance taking place on the 10th January, raising over $1.9 million dollars for the actor’s fund. This, if nothing else, demonstrates that theatre can be made from scratch and performed from the confines of the virtual world. However, scepticism for this new, experimental form of theatre from the old guard is palpable with Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre, saying: “When NT Live was launched I was a sceptic, I thought the whole point is that live relationship between the actor and the audience member.” This scepticism is perhaps unsurprising as, when the curtain finally rises on theatre, it is likely to be a very different industry than it was in 2020. When things finally return to normal, it has been speculated that theatres, in order to encourage the crowds and expand their reach to the younger generation, will have to begin charging lower prices for shows. Ultimately, this change may be positive. After the most testing time in theatre history, perhaps some of the perceived pretentiousness and elitism that has traditionally plagued the theatre industry, unfairly or not, and kept the casual theatre goer away will finally be shed and allow for a more accessible and more widely appreciated theatre scene.
Finally, the world of music faces an uncertain future in 2021. Unsurprisingly again, the live music industry was hugely damaged by the pandemic. In the US, almost all the major music festivals were called off. Burning Man, Lollapalooza and Coachella were all cancelled amongst rising cases. In the UK it was much the same, with Glastonbury Festival being forced to cancel its much anticipated 50th anniversary. In the UK, Festivals saw a 90.2% drop in revenue with 50% of workers threatened with redundancy. Clearly, the future of live music hangs on a fruitful 2021. One advantage that festivals do have is that they are mostly held outside, reducing the likelihood of transmission…but that is where the good news ends. Any event with hundreds of thousands of people travelling from all over the world to congregate in one place for a substantial period of time, with little to no hygiene or social distancing holds the unfortunate potential to become a covid-ridden nightmare. A further worry is that people at music festivals are between the ages of 18-23. Whilst the vaccine rollout is progressing, this demographic is right at the end of the queue and are unlikely to be fully vaccinated by the summer of 2021.
However, there is a ray of hope for music festivals. Ticket sales and distribution company Ticketmaster has announced an initiative to check vaccination status for concerts; verifying whether an individual has been vaccinated within a 24-72 hour window. If successful, this initiative could pave the way for a triumphant return to the concerts, gigs and festivals in allowing them to ensure the safety of all who attend. Failing that, certain festivals may resort to a virtual solution. For instance, the Tomorrowland Festival held in Belgium usually draws over 400,000 people. However, in 2020 they decided to go entirely virtual, with an entire virtual island being created for the event. Whilst such a solution is a far cry from the real thing, it at least offers the potential for income that may tide the festivals over into 2022.
As a small consolation for the music world, whilst it is true that live music took a dive, people are consuming more music than ever and the trend shows no sign of stopping. In the midst of the pandemic, Spotify hit 130 million subscribers, with people having more time than ever to catch up on music and podcasts. Furthermore, the sale of vinyl records skyrocketed during the pandemic, with sales reaching their highest level in three decades. This was equivalent to a 250% growth in sales, with people swapping out what they would have spent on concerts and instead splashing out on records. So, while the music industry has found itself badly dented by the pandemic, people are still finding new ways to experience the music they love. Hopefully when the world is finally let out again, people’s desire to soak up live music will only have been strengthened.
Ultimately, 2021 is likely to be another mixed bag for the arts. For festivals and concerts, a return to normality seems a long way off, only likely to make an appearance in 2021 in a limited capacity. For the more theatre-inclined, the story is much the same. Even a pleasure as simple as going to the movies is likely to be nothing but a fond memory for the near future. However, the arts aren’t going anywhere. With the following year already seeming bleak, it is perhaps never been a more important time for the arts to prove their value. The human soul will always need some nourishment, as inconvenient as that might prove to pandemic regulations. When everything else is all but impossible, the arts have shown, and must continue to show, that they will always be there to help us wind away the long lockdown nights. Whether it’s seeing Coriolanus from the comfort of your bedroom, or playing your favourite album on vinyl for the first time, hopefully the arts can still bring a smile or two in 2021.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.