This year’s top content purveyors—such as Hulu, Netflix, Jigsaw, Lion Forge, Participant, and more—are delighting audiences and amplifying voices.
By Fastcompany Staff, March 09, 2021
Because most people spent more time in 2020 cooped up inside than ever before, film and TV offerings transcended the realm of entertainment to become something more substantial. They served as a crucial, sanity-preserving balm, and a point of connection with others similarly stuck at home. With people consuming so much TV and film, it might sound easy for a studio or a streaming service to win audiences over. Considering just how much content was competing for eyeballs in lockdown, however, it took innovation and foresight to truly stand out.
For making Black audiences central to its programming strategy
Well before the protests and corporate reckonings in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, Netflix had made a priority of serving viewers a wide variety of Black perspectives that extended well beyond the usual “trauma porn,” the derisive but accurate name for slave narratives and other tragic Black stories. In 2020, however, the streamer ramped up its effort. Over the course of year, Netflix released Uncorked, an aggressively “normal” story of a Black family in the wine business; a miniseries about the legendary entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker; the unconventional superhero film Project Power; the instantly beloved family Christmas movie Jingle Jangle; Chadwick Boseman’s final film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; and the first project from its deal with Shonda Rhimes, a documentary about choreographer, actor, and director Debbie Allen. In addition, Netflix acquired the rights to and began streaming a number of well-liked Black-led shows from the 1990s, including Moesha, Living Single, and Girlfriends. All of this is publicized via Strong Black Lead, Netflix’s name for its social media channel that promote content showcasing aspects of the Black experience. In a year filled with gravely important social issues, Netflix made its inclusive content feel more like a celebration than the checking of of a diversity box.
For exploding the typical Hollywood development system to surface fresh voices
Hollywood has a notorious gatekeeper problem, which Impact is working to solve. The brainchild of Oscar-winning hitmakers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and initially born within their Imagine Entertainment, Impact is designed to remove bias from the script submission process, ushering worthy projects from unheralded talent into development. It’s a program that marries the startup principles of a Y Combinator-style accelerator with the insider grooming of a mentorship program. More than 60,000 writers from 125 countries have submitted scripts for anonymous evaluation since Impact’s 2018 launch, with the most viable candidates being paired with a well-placed mentor to take scripts to the next level. In 2020, the program’s effectiveness in elevating previously unknown voices became undeniable. Aside from the 60-plus projects Impact has developed to date, and 20-plus projects sold, in June 2020 the program entered a partnership with Netflix to develop feature film ideas across four genres over the next year. (Netflix previously won a four-way bid for the animated musical adventure Tunga, the first deal Impact made.) Hollywood gatekeepers may still be as difficult to get past as ever, but Impact has unlocked a side door for diverse storytellers to enter through.
3. LION FORGE ANIMATION
For building on Hair Love’s Oscar win by injecting more much-needed diversity into the animated space
One major feel-good story to emerge from the 2020 Academy Awards was the win by Hair Love, a stirring short by Matthew A. Cherry. The animated film features a Black father learning how much care goes into managing his daughter’s hair. The award may have, in turn, taught a lot of executives just how much demand exists for Black-centered stories in the animated space. Luckily, the animation house behind the film, Lion Forge, is ready to supply as many as Hollywood, and the rest of the world, can handle. In addition to signing a deal to expand Hair Love into the 2021 HBO Max series, Young Love, the only African-American owned animation studio in operation is working to bring positive representation, on both sides of the camera, around the globe. Lion Forge has already brokered some big partnerships, including one with Chinese entertainment studio Starlight Media, to bring diverse animated films to an international audience, starting with a feature-length reimagining of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West and a short film related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For merging entertainment with activism during a pandemic election year
Participant has a long track record of inciting urgency from audiences, dating back to 2005’s climate change warning An Inconvenient Truth. As 2020 proved to be a year of non-stop emergencies, however, the company had its work cut out for it. Last March, when COVID-19 was just beginning to spread through the United States, Participant quickly assembled talent from its 2011 film Contagion—including director Steven Soderbergh, writer Scott Z. Burns, and cast members Matt Damon and Kate Winslet—to make a PSA about the virus. The company also leveraged its partnership with the animation house Illumination to use the Minions in similar messaging targeted at younger audiences. As the eventful year wore on, heading toward the general election, the studio launched an impact campaign around its documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, providing sophisticated resources for fired-up viewers to combat voter suppression, no matter where in the country they’re located. Participant has always sought to activate viewers, in addition to entertaining and informing them, and in a year with sky-high stakes, the studio more than met the moment.
For an impressive run of 2020 hits that established it as a worthy rival to Netflix
When Hulu first arrived on our laptops back in 2007, it had an odd tagline: “An evil plot to destroy the world.” At the time, the idea of free, high-quality programming on-demand was so farfetched, the marketing leaned into how suspicious it seemed. Thirteen years later, however, Hulu is one of numerous companies vying to win the most eyeballs online. Yet it’s become fully clear in the past year that Hulu stands alongside Netflix as a top-tier producer of original content, as well as a hub for favorite TV shows and movies. Its highly lauded 2020 offerings included Mrs. America, The Great, season two of PEN15, the Andy Samberg time-bender Palm Springs, and the Hillary Clinton docuseries. As of September 30, Hulu had 36.6 million subscribers, which is even more impressive given how little owner Disney pushes it compared with its Disney Plus. In November, the Sarah Paulson thriller Run became Hulu most-ever watched movie in its opening weekend, and then the lesbian holiday rom-com, Happiest Season, dethroned it a couple weeks later.
6. JIGSAW PRODUCTIONS
For producing the COVID-19 documentary Totally Under Control in total secrecy
The subjects of Alex Gibney’s documentaries, which have included Elizabeth Holmes, and executives at Enron, are often the kinds of people who beg the question, “How do you sleep at night?” Gibney himself tends to inspire the same question, but for entirely different reasons. The prolific filmmaker and his production shingle, Jigsaw Pictures, started the year with the serial killer pathology doc, Crazy, Not Insane, before completing work on his HBO’s long-brewing Agents of Chaos, which untangled Russian interference in the 2016 election. Finally, just after the September release of that film, Gibney announced that he’d secretly been working all year on a documentary about the U.S.’s bungled response to COVID-19. Arriving a few weeks before the presidential election, Totally Under Control required interviews with roughly 30 government officials and health experts, including immunologist whistleblower Rick Bright, along with many more off-the-record interviews.
7. FOCUS FEATURES
For releasing a clever, modern reinvention of Jane Austen’s oft-adapted Emma at the start of pandemic lockdown
Before the box office came grinding to a halt in March, Focus Features had a critical darling with Autumn de Wilde’s interpretation of Emma. The Jane Austen novel had been brought to the screen many times, most famously in the form of 1995’s Clueless, but with its sumptuous production design and lavish costuming, along with a winning lead performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, what was old became new again. Soon, aside from those who risked contracting COVID-19 to see Tenet in theaters, most moviegoers spent this year watching movies in their living rooms, and Focus Features became the first studio (along with parent company Universal Pictures) to make its theatrical releases available at home with premium video on demand after the first national closures.
8. CINETIC MEDIA
For putting out hits like I Am Greta and Time, while organizing COVID-19 era festivals
Filmmaking technology is now so advanced and affordable that it’s easier than ever for the average person to make a movie. Getting anyone to actually see a movie, however, is as complicated as it’s always been, if not more so. Cinetic Media is ushering in the next evolution of that process for documentary films. The company, which combines aspects of talent management, sales, and strategic advising, works on both the content creation side and distribution. In addition to making a splash in 2020 with high-profile documentaries like Greta and Time, Cinetic led a series of online panels with film industry heavyweights to figure out how film sales might work in a year with no physical festivals. The company also worked with The New York Times to launch a division for adapting the Paper of Record’s legendary reporting into feature documentaries.
For creating fast-paced, interactive TV for Generation Z that also encourages reading
Billing itself as TV for Gen Z, Hooked provides fast-paced, interactive storytelling that combines text, audio and video in anywhere from 15-second to 15-minute increments and lives on users’ phones. Hooked developed A.I. technology specifically to predict which of its stories will connect with the most users, and invests incrementally more in productions as those predictions prove out. Although it was established in 2015, with a snazzy lineup of angel investors like LeBron James and Mariah Carey, Hooked hit its stride in 2020, attracting 100M viewers across Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and its own various apps. Quibi’s intended audience never mustered an appetite for mobile-only quick bites, but teens during lockdown clearly enjoy what. Hooked is serving.
10. MOVING PICTURE COMPANY
For turning a film that seemed destined to be a punchline into the surprise box-office success of the year
After nearly 30 years as a video game icon, Sega’s flagship character Sonic the Hedgehog was about to accelerate onto the big screen. In April of 2019, the first trailer for a movie version of Sonic the Hedgehog hit the internet. The reaction was swift and decisive: The filmmakers had destroyed the beloved blue speedster by rendering him with weirdly human-toothed CGI. When the film was ultimately released in February 2020, however, after a three-month delay, it became a massive hit. Fans who were made nervous by that much-derided first trailer ended up loving Sonic’s look and expressive features. How did it happen? Director Jeff Fowler and his team tapped visual effects house Moving Picture Company to fix Sonic. Working with the kind of speed typically demonstrated by Sonic himself, MPC recreated every scene to capture the character’s video game essence, thereby helping the film rack up $320 million worldwide. This year, viewers will be able to see MPC’s handiwork on such films as Godzilla vs. Kong, Top Gun: Maverick, and Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Fast Company magazine.