From Omicron to Major Mergers: The Biggest Hollywood Cliffhangers of 2021

·5-min read

In true Hollywood fashion, omicron delivered the year’s biggest cliffhanger just as the holiday season began kicking into higher gear. With COVID-19 cases surging anew and cancellations piling up, the pandemic reclaimed the spotlight it never fully lost. On most people’s minds in the industry: How big a retrenchment will the variant cause in 2022 and how long will it last?

In the past week, a series of Broadway shows, including “Hamilton,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and “Moulin Rouge!,” went dark due to COVID. Some TV shows, such as CBS’ new comedy “Ghosts,” also had to halt production as a result of COVID exposure. “Saturday Night Live” scaled back its last show of the year at the last minute after numerous cast and crew members tested positive. iHeartRadio scrapped the final night of its Jingle Ball, and the NFL, the NBA and the NHL have all postponed games. Media companies including CNN quickly reset work protocols over the weekend — in the cable network’s case restricting office workers to those who need to be there to keep it on air.

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Amid all the disruption, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” soared at the box office, giving battered exhibition chains — and much of Hollywood — a much-needed boost with the second-biggest worldwide opening ever at $600.8 million. But what type of legs will this Spidey installment have amid growing fears of omicron infection? Warner Bros. went ahead with its premiere of “The Matrix Resurrections” in San Francisco Saturday night, but Sony canceled some of Tom Holland’s planned opening-weekend appearances on behalf of “Spider-Man.”

The market for adult-skewing non-spectacle films remains severely depressed. Guillermo del Toro’s crime thriller “Nightmare Alley” mustered a muted $3 million opening weekend in North America despite the presence of stars including Bradley Cooper, while Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake suffered a steep 68% decline from its anemic $10 million debut. The animated movie “Encanto” scored $6.5 million, which was good enough for second place, but has yet to cross the $100 million threshold in North America after four weeks on the big screen.

What adult drama or comedy might lure that moviegoing demographic back to theaters and when? Aside from pandemic duration, that’s one of the top Hollywood cliffhangers as we head into 2022.

Another big cliffhanger with huge implications for the entertainment industry: Will regulators approve the megamerger between Discovery and WarnerMedia in the first half of the year as projected? A greenlight is by no means assured under the Biden administration: In November, the Justice Department sued to block the $2.18 billion merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Valued at $43 billion, AT&T’s media spinoff deal with Discovery is much larger in scope.

Regulators must also sign off on Amazon’s $8.5 billion deal to acquire MGM, and Hollywood will be watching closely to see how the historic studio will be integrated into the e-commerce giant. For that matter, who will Discovery honcho and dealmaker David Zaslav tap as his No. 2 lieutenant to oversee the combined Warner Bros. Discovery when WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar makes his expected exit? Hollywood is watching to see what type of relationship Disney will have with the creative community upon Bob Iger’s departure at year’s end. Disney’s sharp legal battle with Scarlett Johansson over “Black Widow” earnings last year could foreshadow more aggressive salary posturing with talent in 2022.

Wall Street has been projecting another major entertainment merger soon, with a possible combination of ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal assets much discussed. Will 2022 be the year the two companies find a way to join forces, the better to compete in a bruisingly competitive streaming age?

The biggest cliffhanger in the news biz revolves around anchor turnover and the move to streaming. How will CNN, MSNBC and Fox News fill slots left vacant by the firing of Chris Cuomo at CNN, the presumed exit of Rachel Maddow from a weekday show at MSNBC and Chris Wallace jumping to streaming app CNN Plus from Fox News? Potentially more explosive: Will 2022 be the year ESPN finally moves to streaming? The ramifications for the cable bundle could be intense.

On the global stage, there’s a cliffhanger surrounding the question of whether the U.K. government will sell off broadcaster Channel 4, the home of shows such as “It’s a Sin” and “Derry Girls.” Interested parties include ITV and Discovery. How will South Korea’s CJ ENM integrate Endeavor Content’s scripted assets into its portfolio, and what other media enterprises will it go after? The explosion in popularity of entertainment from the region shows no sign of slowing down.

A more somber cliffhanger revolves around the possibility of criminal charges stemming from the tragic gun death on the set of “Rust.” The labor spotlight on worker safety only grew more intense following the Oct. 21 death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins outside Santa Fe, N.M.

In the music world, Morgan Wallen and DaBaby will never have a shortage of fans, but will they be reembraced by mainstream media and culture, having been deemed insufficiently repentant for their offenses? Or are they flagship artists for a new category of pariah-superstars?

Film and TV awards mavens will be watching to see whether the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. survives censure for its business practices or if the Critics Choice Assn. will successfully dethrone the Golden Globes, as it so clearly hopes to do in 2022. Elsewhere, fans are waiting to see whether there will indeed be a second season of “Squid Game” as suggested, along with new installments of “Mare of Easttown.” Come Labor Day, will “The Lord of the Rings” replace “Game of Thrones” as the next mega-event series?

Stay tuned.

Contributors: Jem Aswad, Peter Caranicas, Shalini Dore, Claudia Eller, Cynthia Littleton, Marc Malkin, Manori Ravindran, Brian Steinberg, Adam B. Vary and Chris Willman

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