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Defining the film industries in the 21st century.

Module: Screen Research
Module Coordinator: Dr Rebecca Janicker
Academic Year 1 (2020/2021)

 This essay was interesting to write in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. If I recall correctly, at the time of writing, the vaccination had yet to be developed, so I would consider us still within the height of the pandemic. If I had written this essay just eighteen months earlier, a large portion would be different. COVID-19 had an enormous effect on the film and television industry – an effect still noticed today with franchises such as The Fast and the Furious, James Bond and John Wick seeing releases far later than originally planned. It would be interesting to revisit this essay and update the COVID-19 section, but also to consider how cinemas had been adapting in the years prior to lower attendance rates (and if attendance rates have recovered to pre-COVID numbers).

Please note: This was one of my earlier essays and I made several formatting mistakes in the citations. I have since updated them and at the time of writing, Avatar: The Way of Water (Cameron, 2022) was referenced as Avatar 2 (Cameron, n.d.), as the film’s title had yet to be announced, and The Gray Man (Russo & Russo, 2022) was referenced as n.d (no date), as the release date had yet to be announced.

How would you define the film industries in the 21st century? Illustrate your answer with reference to a range of screen examples.

There are several key components of the film industry which make it what it is today in the twenty first century. Some are relatively new concepts, which gathered pace towards the early 2010’s, and others are as old as the film industry itself. All together, they help to define the industry as we know it. Most of all, we see movies breaking records at the box office, streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at exclusive projects, and technological breakthroughs enabling movies to come to fruition. The COVID-19 pandemic cast a large shadow over the global film industry, with countless movie releases being postponed to 2021 or even 2022, so they may have the chance to perform well at the box office, but the industry seems to be bouncing back in unexpected ways.

The Box Office

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003) grossed over $1.1 billion during its release, which at the time made it the second highest grossing movie of all time, and the second to earn $1 billion at the box office. (Box Office Mojo, n.d.). Since then there have been forty-three $1 billion movies, four of which grossed over $2 billion. In fact, the only movie released prior to the twenty first century, which broke $1 billion, was Titanic (Cameron, 1997). Others have had re-releases since then, such as Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999) and Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone (Columbus, 2001), which have enabled them to break past the $1 billion mark.

A major powerhouse of the box office has been Disney. From the top fifty highest-grossing movies of all time, they have produced twenty-seven of them. (Ten of which were from the Marvel Cinematic Universe alone). Any movie released is judged based on its performance in the box office and it is a testament to the industry when audiences flock in for the latest blockbuster. However, with the rise in streaming platforms, this judgement based solely on the box office performance is being threatened.

The Streaming Wars

In 2007, Netflix reformulated itself and launched ‘Watch Now’ – the on-demand streaming service millions of people subscribe to today. Amazon followed with their own on-demand service with Prime Video in 2014, and Disney with Disney+ and Apple with Apple TV in 2019. Many television channels have an on-demand service too, such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4; and there are also apps for specific areas such as Red Bull TV, ESPN and Hayu.

With the rise in streaming platforms, viewing habits have changed significantly. You are now able to find your favourite movies or TV show and watch every episode back-to-back, whenever you want. You don’t have to watch them at a specific time or set your TiVo box to record them, because they are not scheduled programmes. This posed a serious threat and wiped out the video and DVD rental industry with Blockbuster closing in 2010. You can still rent movies from services such as Amazon, but these are delivered via their on-demand streaming platform and not physically.

The popularity of streaming platforms has enabled them to spend more and more money on film production, with Netflix championing the production line with a vast catalogue of Netflix Original TV shows and films. Well-known directors are attaching themselves to streaming platform projects, with Michael Bay releasing 6 Underground (Bay, 2019) on Netflix, which had a budget of $150 million, and was viewed by 83 million Netflix members (McClintock, 2020). At the time, this was Netflix’s most expensive and most successful movie, however since then The Irishman (Scorsese, 2019) became the most expensive at $159 million, but The Gray Man (Russo & Russo, 2022) will soon take that trophy at $200 million (Summers, 2020).

In 2017, Amazon bought the rights to the Lord of the Rings novels for $250 million. It is estimated that the multi-series TV show they plan to make will cost $1 billion (Goldberg, 2017). This is an unprecedented amount considering there are no creators attached to the project and there isn’t even a first draft of a script. Clearly Amazon are confident they can create a true rival to HBO’s Game of Thrones (Benioff et al., 2011-2019), which had a budget of $1.5 billion for its eight seasons, and earned HBO $3.1 billion (Finance Monthly, 2019).

Technological Breakthroughs

The use of a chroma key blue/green screen in film isn’t a new concept – The Thief of Bagdad (Berger et al., 1940) was the first to properly use it to create a traveling matte effect, and it won the Oscar for Special Effects in 1941 (The 13th Academy Awards | 1941, 2019). However, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Conran, 2004) and Sin City (Miller & Tarantino, 2005) took this technology a step further by filming the entire movie in front of a blue screen so that all but the characters within the films were CGI. We now see enormously scaled scenes shot with this technology in many major blockbusters such as Avengers: Endgame (Russo & Russo, 2019), as you can see in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Buzzfeed. (2020) Here’s what the epic emergence of all the Avengers was like on set. From Buzzfeed. (

In 2009 James Cameron took the industry by storm when he released Avatar (Cameron, 2009). The film was shot in digital 3D and featured enormous computer-generated imagery (CGI) scenes. Whilst it wasn’t nearly the first 3D film to be released – The Power of Love (Deverich & Fairall, 1922) holds that title – and wasn’t the first to be released in the twenty first century, it is certainly the defining film for the 3D standard. Cameron had first created the step outline in 1995, but only after seeing how the character of Gollum was animated in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Jackson, 2002) did he decide the technology was suitably ready for the film to be created (The Economist, 2010).

Following the success of Avatar, which grossed over $2.7 billion at the box office (Box Office Mojo, n.d.), Lucasfilm announced in 2010 that it would re-release all six Star Wars films in 3D, and did so with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999) in 2012 before Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm put the plans to re-release episodes II-VI in 3D on an indefinite hold.


Much of what I have said still holds true since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when COVID-19 struck in late 2019/early 2020, the film industry ground to a halt. It was not safe to film movies or TV shows, and movie theatres were closed. Attendance hit rock-bottom and production studios decided to postpone the release of their movies in 2020 so they could have the best chances to perform well at the box office. Some examples of blockbuster releases postponed from a 2020 release, which would be expected to bring in $1 billion at the box office, are F9 (Lin, 2021), Avatar: The Way of Water (Cameron, 2022), The Batman (Reeves, 2022), and Black Widow (Shortland, 2021).

Disney made the controversial decision not to release Mulan (Caro, 2020) in cinemas, but on their streaming platform at a premium price instead, before making it available for all subscribers. When cinemas reopen, AMC Theatres, which own ODEON in the UK, will not be showing any Universal Pictures films because Universal Pictures have decided to release some movies, such as Trolls World Tour (Dohrn & Smith, 2020) digitally or straight-to-DVD. AMC chief executive Adam Aron said this move was “unacceptable” (Sky News, 2020), because it posed a serious threat to movie theatre business.

New Zealand has had very strict COVID-19 precautions and as a result the pandemic has not been as bad compared to other countries. This has enabled their film industry to boom, with many high budget movies and TV shows being filmed (Jones, 2020).

Whilst the global film industry took a hit at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is bouncing back and otherwise thriving. The box office is regularly seeing movies breaking records, with numerous $1 billion successes and a handful of $2 -$3 billion movies too. Film technology has evolved rapidly, enabling CGI to look more and more life-like, with some being indistinguishable to reality. At first the streaming wars cast a shadow over the industry, but with move and more money going into these platforms, viewing habits have changed significantly. The future looks bright for blockbuster successes and it will be interesting to see how the industry evolves over the next twenty years of the twenty-first century.