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2017 is just as uncertain for Hollywood as it is for everybody else

Trump and China, Paramount’s future, and other big questions facing the movie industry in 2017.

Hollywood. David McNew/Getty Images)

2016 was a monumental year across the globe, but in Hollywood the earthquakes felt more like slight tremors than catastrophic jolts of change. Considering the huge leaps streaming media continues to make, and how the movie industry has become more dependent on international markets than ever this decade, the lack of upheaval was almost worth a sigh of relief.

Not that there wasn’t any drama to deal with. Birth of a Nation director and star Nate Parker experienced a rise and fall over the course of 10 months worthy of a Shakespeare play. And companies like Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Animation are on the brink of massive change that could affect both their products and their bottom lines.

But outside the celebrity and industry scandal, things were almost status quo in 2016. Ticket sales continued to be robust, making 2016 the highest-earning year in box office history. Superhero movies still dominated the box office, accounting for five of the year’s 10 highest-grossing films. And families still flocked en masse to their local multiplexes, with the year’s five biggest animated films (Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, Zootopia, Moana, and Sing) racking up more than $1.5 billion in box office receipts.

All that being said, Hollywood cannot forever avoid the influence of changes across the rest of the political and cultural landscape. And, as you’d expect, that means one of the big questions for 2017 starts with the president-elect.

Will Trump’s potential hard line with China hurt Hollywood?

Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House could mean a lot for Hollywood, from potential Federal Communications Commission regulation changes to less oversight on media monopolies. For the movie industry, however, there has to be serious concern over Trump’s potential hard-line trade negotiations with China. The president-elect has already created a diplomatic scuffle over his call with Taiwan’s president and lashed out against what he calls China’s unfair trade practices. One of the easiest ways for China to retaliate would be to stop screening American films, something that’s got to be causing concern for Hollywood studios.

China is the fastest-growing theatrical marketplace in the world, as its 1.3 billion citizens get access to more and more modern movie theaters. The country has also relaxed the number of international films it allows to screen publicly in China over the calendar year, which means more revenue for American studios. Granted, Chinese regulations only allow for international companies to earn 25 percent or so of theatrical receipts (distributors earn about 50 percent or more in the US and the rest of the world), but exponentially that could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars as the market continues to grow.

Here’s one example of how important China is to Hollywood’s studios today: Captain America: Civil War earned $190 million in Chinese ticket sales. Even with only 25 percent, or an estimated $47.5 million, in direct revenue, that’s still more than any other market outside of the US. (Comparatively, South Korea likely took in around $31 million in revenue.)

The hope for Hollywood studios, though, is that American movies still tend to be among the highest-grossing films at the Chinese box office. So if the Chinese government curtailed international product in response to Trump’s actions, it would likely be met with a very frustrated moviegoing population. Still, if Trump continues to rock the boat, it’s one of the easiest ways for China to retaliate and could seriously hurt Hollywood’s bottom line. But considering how little support Trump has received from the industry, will he even care?

Who is running Paramount?

Everyone thought the next big shoe to drop in Hollywood was the expected merger between Viacom and CBS, but Sumner Redstone, who controls the fortunes of both companies, scuttled this plan at the last minute. That leaves a lot of questions about the future of Paramount Pictures, which has had a rocky few years, with some very costly bombs and some questionable financing deals. A shake-up already saw the departure of vice chair Rob Moore (a figure Redstone had to stop from selling part of the studio to Chinese interests), and the vultures are still circling over Paramount chair and CEO Brad Grey, who has been in charge since 2006.

Will new Viacom CEO and president Robert Bakish make a move and bring in a new head of the studio? If so, it could mean a whole new creative direction for Paramount, which has struggled trying to find new franchises outside of Transformers, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek.

Will Wonder Woman save the DC Cinematic Universe?

Wonder Woman
Gal Gadot plays Wonder Woman in Patty Jenkins’s upcoming film.
Warner Bros.

When the 2016 Razzie nominations are announced, you can expect a lot of nominations for Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. While both movies were ultimately profitable for Warner Bros., together taking in more than $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide, they didn’t leave audiences or critics particularly satisfied.

Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman now has the responsibility of redeeming the current iteration of the DC Cinematic Universe, and seems relatively well-positioned to do so: Gal Gadot’s appearance as the legendary hero was arguably the best part of Dawn of Justice, and even DC skeptics have to be somewhat intrigued by the film’s Word War I setting.

The pressure is intense, however. Not only does Wonder Woman need to be a substantial box office hit, but with DC competitor Marvel Studios knocking it out of the park with one movie after the other, Wonder Woman also needs to convince critics, the media, and moviegoers that the DC Universe is truly worth getting excited about.

What is the future of DreamWorks Animation?

So what exactly is going on at DreamWorks Animation? When NBCUniversal first announced it would acquire the publicly traded company in April 2016, Illumination founder Chris Meledandri was named to oversee the animated powerhouse, just as John Lasseter guides both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation for Disney. Something changed, though. A few months later it was publicly revealed that DreamWorks Animation’s co-presidents, Bonnie Arnold and Mireille Soria, would report directly to Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley, and Meledandri’s name was nowhere to be found. If this structure is intended to allow DreamWorks Animation to remain creatively independent, no one at Universal is saying so, which is very odd in an industry where perception can be everything.

In the interim, Universal has dated a number of new DreamWorks films for 2018 and beyond, including How to Train Your Dragon 3 for March 2019. (20th Century Fox is still distributing DreamWorks Animation titles, like the upcoming The Boss Baby, through 2017.)

Shrek and Fiona
You thought we’d seen the last of Shrek? Not so fast!

Meanwhile, the question of whether a fifth Shrek film is happening looms large over DreamWorks Animation’s future. The billion-dollar franchise seemingly ended in 2010 with Shrek Forever After (also billed as The Final Chapter), but former CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg hinted that another Shrek was on the way this past June, backing up NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke’s statements about wanting to revive the property. Since Universal took over in August there hasn’t been a word on whether that’s truly the case, though.

Is the film in turnaround? Is DWA’s current management waiting to get all their ducks in a row before an official announcement? Whatever the case, it’s hard to imagine Comcast (NBCUniversal’s parent company) not wanting the valuable DreamWorks property back on the big screen — especially after it paid $3.8 billion for the company.

Are indie newbies Broad Green, Bleecker Street, and the Orchard too small to fail?

There’s a long list of mini majors and independent distributors that have come and gone over the past 15 years, including Picturehouse, ThinkFilm, Mandate, and Artisan, just to name a few. Most of these companies were either merged with other entities or became quick libraries for sale as their founders moved on to new ventures. The most prominent of the most recent crop of indie distributors, A24, continued to kill it in 2016 with hits like The Witch and Moonlight, but not everyone can be an A24. Accordingly, many in Hollywood are wondering how long three of the other newbies, Broad Green, Bleecker Street, and the Orchard, will last.

Bleecker Street looks most likely to be in it for the long haul: It had tremendous success with Eye in the Sky last year ($18 million domestic) and became an awards season player with 2015’s Trumbo. The Orchard (which started in 1997 as a music management firm and is now owned by Sony Music Entertainment) started its film division in 2015 by playing the more conservative Sony Classics game (small acquisition buys that could potentially break out), and has since had some very nice successes, including Hunt for the Wilderpeople and The Music of Strangers.

Broad Green is potentially the biggest mess: The startup had a massive arthouse hit with A Walk in the Woods last year, but followed with a string of financial disappointments, including 99 Homes, The Infiltrator, I Smile Back, and Knight of Cups. It also had little success as a straight distributor for Amazon Studios, with both The Neon Demon and The Dressmaker significantly underperforming. Bad Santa 2 was supposed to take Broad Green in a more commercial direction this fall, but it bombed over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Complicating matters for all three distributors is the massive footprint both the aforementioned Amazon and Netflix are making on the production and acquisition sides of the business. Bleecker and the Orchard seem poised to find their way in the short term, but Broad Green? The clock may be ticking. Speaking of the two streaming giants, though…

Has Amazon Studios won the streaming distributor war with Netflix?

In 2015, Netflix stumbled in its attempt to get the Academy members to consider Beasts of No Nation as a legitimate Oscar contender. The company’s strategy of day-and-date streaming and theatrical releases simply didn’t sit well with most members (or ticket buyers) — and, honestly, Netflix’s branding as a streaming service probably didn’t help matters. This found the streaming giant as a not-so-desirable — but deep-pocketed — buyer at the most recent Sundance and Toronto film festivals.

Amazon Studios, on the other hand, chose a different path, placing its acquisition titles with different distributors before eventually releasing its titles on Amazon Prime, an approach that found more success in 2016. Using the distributor Roadside Attractions, Love & Friendship earned a fantastic $14 million and Manchester by the Sea has nearly $30 million in just six weeks, with a lot more expected Oscar love on the way. And while Amazon stumbled with its Broad Green films, it did okay partnering with Lionsgate on Woody Allen’s Café Society ($11.1 million US).

Amazon is also making its own films: It’s producing Doug Liman’s The Wall, has James Gray’s The Lost City of Z set for April, and is co-financing a remake of Suspira with Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Tilda Swinton.

Netflix, which is still a powerhouse when it comes to documentaries, isn’t sitting on the sidelines with original features beyond the Adam Sandler variety: It has David Michôd’s War Machine with Brad Pitt, Duncan Jones’s Mute with Paul Rudd and Alexander Skarsgård, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja with Jake Gyllenhaal, and The Discovery with Rooney Mara and Jason Segel all set for release. (The last will debut at Sundance.) Netflix doesn’t appear to be budging from its day-and-date strategy, though, which is a stark contrast with Amazon’s approach. Will that decision continue to haunt Netflix in 2017?

Are teen movies making a comeback?

Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto in The Edge of Seventeen
Hopefully we can look forward to more teen movies like The Edge of Seventeen.

The Edge of Seventeen was not the underdog hit STX Entertainment was hoping for (or, quite frankly, needed), but the critically lauded Hailee Steinfeld film could be the first in a slew of new teen-centric movies to hit theaters over the next two years. The teen movie phenomenon hit peaks in the mid-’80s (the pantheon of John Hughes) and around the turn of the century (She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You), which means it’s ripe for its next round in Hollywood.

Genres have always been cyclical, but the return of real-world teen stories has been delayed in recent years by genre-adjacent franchises such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner. The realistic teen drama genre has poked its head back up here and there, with hits such as The Fault in Our Stars or If I Stay, but there are signs a more sustained comeback may be in the works. Open Road Films has Before I Fall set for March (also debuting at Sundance), and a number of indie teen flicks are set for production this spring. With the dystopian YA genre on its last legs, look for the studios to announce a number of new teen flicks in 2017.

What does the next phase of Jennifer Lawrence's career look like?

No more Katniss and no more Mystique for Jennifer Lawrence (although 20th Century Fox would likely love for her to change her mind about playing a shape-shifting mutant again). With the holiday disappointment Passengers behind her, Lawrence’s upcoming slate drops the sci-fi and fantasy for the time being. She’s already filmed Darren Aronofsky’s dramatic thriller Mother, is prepping Francis Lawrence’s spy thriller Red Sparrow, and is expected to star in Steven Spielberg’s contemporary thriller It’s What I Do and follow that up with Adam McKay’s true-life drama Bad Blood.

Lawrence has also reportedly co-written a comedy with Amy Schumer where the duo play sisters, although it’s unclear how close that one is to actually going in front of cameras.

Needless to say, Lawrence is staying serious, but in a much more grounded, believable way — which may mean fewer global blockbusters, and happier creative experiences, for the Oscar winner.

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