The temptation is to write off 2020 as the worst year ever – goodbye and good riddance. Historians or people with long memories might quibble, but it does seem this has been a year to endure an unusual pile-on of calamities – and with precious little entertainment to help deflect the misery.
It was a year of death and dark tidings, broken only by occasional, accidental tomfoolery, like the late-breaking news that unknown persons were leaving metal « monoliths » propped up in various hard-to-reach spots on public land in the U.S. and elsewhere and … well, walking away.
Were they would-be Banksy imitators, master of the art-and-run? Worshippers at the shrine of the late director Stanley Kubrick and his monolith-starring « 2001: A Space Odyssey »? Who knows, but it was a welcome thought diversion taken up by millions reeling from a truly terrible year.
Above all there is the coronavirus pandemic stalking us. It has killed more than 335,000 Americans, sickened millions and left many of the survivors with permanent, debilitating aftereffects from COVID-19.
Two new vaccines are now being distributed, and more are on the way, which is welcome news, but there’s still no effective therapeutic for those already sick, and meanwhile, the nation’s hospitals are reaching a critical point. So the pandemic is not over.
True, we have endured pandemics, economic depression, unemployment for millions, racial protests and a toxic presidential election before, but all in the same year? No wonder Americans feel aggrieved about 2020.
The pandemic canceled, postponed or radically changed the nature of almost all entertainment events, large and small: film festivals, theater and other live entertainment, the Met gala and fashion shows, awards shows like the Oscars and the Emmys, red carpet openings for movies, opera and dance performances, comedy and nightclubs, and family-focused amusement parks.
Congress passed and President Donald Trump has signed a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package containing the Save Our Stages Act, which aims an estimated $15 billion toward grant programs for live venues, independent movie theaters and other cultural institutions. But the aid has yet to begin flowing.
Entertainers were not spared from COVID-19 or its complications. Some of those included playwright Terence McNally, 81 (March); singer/songwriter John Prine, 73 (April); Emmy-winning songwriter Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, 52 (April); Las Vegas performer Roy Horn, 75 (May); jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, 85 (April); country music star Charley Pride, 86 (December); and « Gilligan’s Island » star Dawn Wells, 82 (December).
Perhaps the most sorrowful story: Broadway actor Nick Cordero died in July at age 41 after 13 weeks battling the virus and multiple serious complications, including a leg amputation, infections in his lungs and the insertion of a pacemaker. All of it was chronicled in agonizing social media posts by his heartbroken wife, Amanda Kloots.
Some consolation: Most of the entertainment and media figures who tested positive and got sick survived, including Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, Gloria Estefan, Idris Elba, Antonio Banderas, Daniel Dae Kim, Andy Cohen, Sara Bareilles, Pink, George Stephanopoulos, Tony Shalhoub, D.L. Hughley, Bryan Cranston, Alyssa Milano, Tiffany Haddish, Neil Patrick Harris, Kanye West, Khloe Kardashian, Mel Gibson, Dwayne Johnson and Chris Cuomo.
It doesn’t help that 2020 has been a singular year for deaths in the entertainment world from causes other than COVID-19. Some were expected, some not, but that didn’t make either less of a blow to those already mourning too much tragedy. For many Americans, it was like losing close friends.
« Black Panther » star Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at 43 in August. Beloved TV host Regis Philbin died of heart disease at 88 in July. James Bond icon Sean Connery died in October at 90 after suffering from dementia. « Jeopardy! » host Alex Trebek died in November at 80 after a long, valiant struggle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
The toll didn’t stop there: Eddie Van Halen, 65; Charlie Daniels, 83; Kenny Rogers, 81; Little Richard, 87; Helen Reddy, 78; Olivia de Havilland, 104; Kirk Douglas, 103; Ian Holm, 88; Jerry Stiller, 92; Carl Reiner, 98; Larry Kramer, 84; and John le Carré, 89.
In fact, few parts of the national culture and economy have been affected more by pandemic despair, fear and fury than the entertainment industry. Just when we needed it most – to make us laugh, make us think or just to ward off creeping anxiety – it largely disappeared.
As COVID-19 began its inexorable spread across the continent, tens of thousands of movie theaters closed, either by government order or by corporate decision. Broadway theaters shuttered; the Great White Way went dark.
Music concerts and live festival events were postponed, then canceled altogether. The popular Coachella festival in the desert of Southern California was postponed three times and now is set for October 2021, according to Rolling Stone. Maybe.
In the spring, people were shocked when SXSW, the massive tech and entertainment festival in Austin, Texas, was canceled. Like dominoes, music festivals announced « See you in 2021 » one after the other. The ones that didn’t – such as the Smash Mouth-headlined Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota – were labeled superspreader events and blamed for tens of thousands of coronavirus cases.
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Live music is expected to be among the last facets of the entertainment industry to reopen. And when concerts restart, fans can expect to see mitigation measures like vaccine tracking, mask requirements and social distancing.
The list of music tours and concerts canceled or postponed is lengthy and covers every genre from the Rolling Stones, whose “No Filter Tour » was set to start in May, to BTS, whose world tour was suspended in April. Others included Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Foo Fighters, Justin Bieber, Harry Styles, Elton John and Chris Stapleton.
Taylor Swift canceled her 2020 « Lover Tour » and instead went on ABC in a concert special, « Taylor Swift City of Lover Concert, » in May. She was one of the bright notes from a year of entertainment darkness, proving she hadn’t lost her creative impulse by dropping two new albums at the end of the year.
America’s amusement and theme parks, large and small, had to stop the rides and shut their gates, at least temporarily, and now are trying to cope with the economic fallout as the virus surges again with winter.
Disney World in Orlando reopened in July after a three-month shutdown, but Disneyland in California remains closed. It could be months before California’s coronavirus guidelines will allow the park to reopen.
Meanwhile, the Walt Disney Company revealed in a November Securities and Exchange Commission filing that about 32,000 workers, primarily from its parks division, would lose their jobs in the first half of the 2021 fiscal year; 37,000 employees were on furlough as of October, according to the filing.
Movie and TV sets in Hollywood and elsewhere across the nation shut down as productions packed up and casts and crews went into quarantine and lockdowns.
That sent movies meant for now-darkened theaters to streaming services, delayed the start of the traditional TV season and left late-night talk show hosts and briefly, « Saturday Night Live, » scurrying to tape shows remotely and Zooming in guests. It was awkward at times, and everyone, including audiences, had to adjust.
The biggest movies sent to streaming included « Wonder Woman 1984 » and « Mulan. » Those bumped out of 2020 altogether included « No Time to Die, » « Black Widow, » « F9, » and « Top Gun: Maverick. »
And « SNL, » like the news media in general, was in a constant state of scurrying to keep up with the relentless news cycle of a presidential election year like no other in the nation’s history.
How tense did all this make people? In December, Tom Cruise was heard on leaked audio (published in Britain’s The Sun tabloid) ranting on the London-area set of his « Mission: Impossible 7 » in an expletive-filled tirade at crew members for allegedly breaking COVID-19 safety protocols.
According to the audio, Cruise suggested he is personally responsible for maintaining safety protocols (actually, there are industry officials for that role on any set), but he voiced the underlying point: that Hollywood is relying on would-be blockbusters like « M:I7 » to save the industry in a pandemic of stalled productions and theater closures.
« We want the gold standard. They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us, because they believe in us and what we’re doing, » Cruise said, according to the recording.
Although Cruise has his critics (« A stunt, » sniffed longtime foe Leah Remini), others such as George Clooney and Josh Gad said Cruise was right, if volcanic. « Tom Cruise is correct here FYI. Sorry/Not sorry, » Gad tweeted as the leaked audio went viral.
The future of the movie theater business in a post-pandemic world was further thrown in doubt by the news Dec. 3 that a major movie studio, Warner Bros., would release every one of its first-run theatrical films next year in theaters and on its HBO Max streaming service – simultaneously.
That was greeted with alarm by AMC, the world’s largest theater chain, whose CEO, Adam Aron, vowed to “aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business.”
Some filmmakers were seeing red, too: Count « Tenet » director, producer and writer Christopher Nolan among the prominent industry players sounding off about a game-changing move about which they weren’t consulted.
« The decision they made from a business point of view is fundamentally irrational, » Nolan, whose long relationship with Warner Bros. dates back to 2002’s « Insomnia, » told USA TODAY. « With the 2021 movies, they made a bit of mess and upset a lot of people. Because the great filmmakers, and movie stars, in these movies, none of them were consulted. The studio, in its arrogance, let them read about it in the trades. »
At the same time, industry employees were still hurting. Nearly 900,000 people, most of them not stars, are directly employed by the film and TV industries alone, according to a February report by the Motion Picture Association of America.
By one estimate, up to one-third of those workers – stagehands, camera operators, ticket takers, ushers, food service workers and scores of other behind-scenes employees – were laid off or furloughed by the end of March. Their futures are still in some doubt despite the COVID-19 relief bill.
But there was a bright spot amid the general pandemic gloom: The publishing industry had good news thanks to books being readily available and plenty of readers with little to do. The number of physical books sold dropped 10% in March, an early negative sign, according to The Associated Press, but publishing finished up the year on a high note.
As of Dec. 12, U.S. print book sales rose 8.2%, with 679 million books sold in the U.S. during that time worth $11.8 billion in retail-price value, according to NPD data. On its website, the data-crunching analyst reported that in the 35-44 age group, spending on books was up 74% over 2019, the largest overall spending increase across entertainment.
Compelling new books from beloved authors helped, such as the celebrated Zadie Smith, who brought out her first collection of 11 never-before-published short stories, « Grand Union, » to rave reviews about her powers of observation and literary prowess.
And don’t forget former President Barack Obama’s memoir « A Promised Land, » which was already a blockbuster even before it was published in November to huzzahs rivaling that of Michelle Obama’s record-smashing memoir, « Becoming, » in 2019.
When they weren’t in mourning or in quarantine, entertainment leaders were speaking out on the Black Lives Matter movement, on the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and on the most toxic presidential election year in living memory.
Speaking out itself wasn’t new; what was new was the pandemic had idled so many and the power of social media allowed celebrity voices to crank up their volume, which in turn made the media pay more attention. In a year when it seemed everyone was arguing about everything, so were entertainers and celebrities.
Scores reacted to the death of George Floyd with calls to act, urging people to organize protests, sign petitions and donate to bail funds for arrested protesters. Black stars spoke candidly about how their own fears of police stemmed from scary interactions with them.
White stars and studios reconsidered their past forays into blackface for comedic purposes, apologizing, walking back, attempting to explain and editing or deleting scenes and episodes from rotation. More than a few stars pleaded, as Jimmy Fallon did, that, « I’m not a racist, » or « I’ve evolved. »
The entertainment industry canceled shows and fired stars from series after racist comments and tweets resurfaced. « Cancel culture » became another thing entertainers and Americans in general could argue about.
Hollywood has always leaned Democratic and liberal; for this presidential election the trend was an even more lopsided lean-in (with some exceptions): Vote out President Donald Trump. More stars came off the sidelines of politics and weighed in – even Taylor Swift.
The few celebs who supported Trump spent time attacking fellow entertainers for their politics or bemoaning the sorry fate of conservatives in Hollywood.
Criticism of the president by entertainers and talk show hosts, in comedy or music or lengthy tweets, was a regular feature this year; what was new was the seemingly sudden embrace of Trump, by varying degrees, of rap stars including Kanye West, Ice Cube, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Lil Pump and 6ix9ine.
Once the election was over and it became clear (eventually) that Trump had lost to Joe Biden, the division and chaos ramped up again as Trump disputed the results. It’s not really over, and won’t be until Jan. 20, when Biden is inaugurated.
The rest of us have to get through New Year’s. Cue coronavirus Christmas cards! America’s entrepreneurs are second to none when it comes to making a joke (and some money) to cheer us up when we’re most down.
So Americans looked in the mail for holiday cards sporting messages like « Sending love from our quaranteam to yours » and « Dear Santa, how about a do-over? » Illustrator Sara Showalter, who sells her holiday designs from her Etsy shop, told USA TODAY about her most popular:
A design with a Christmas tree assembled out of toilet paper that says, « What a year but we rolled with it. »
That’s the spirit.