For a year dominated in one fashion by live-action remakes, sequels, spinoffs, and other lucrative but not transformative film and television products, a lot of novel, distinctive projects broke through all that clutter to remind viewers that movies and series can be far more than just superheroes, CGI, and other forms of “worldwide audiovisual entertainment,” as director Martin Scorsese said in his defense of cinema.
For succeeding GoT with Euphoria, The Righteous Gemstones, Watchmen, and, yes, Succession
Who needs Game of Thrones? Apparently not HBO. In the same year the premium cable network lost one of the most massive series of all time, HBO rebounded spectacularly, with a strong, uh, succession of critical and cultural hits. Aside from award-winning sophomore seasons for Succession and Barry, the network debuted risk-taking new shows such as Watchmen, Euphoria, and The Righteous Gemstones, along with conversation-driving limited series such as Chernobyl, all of which proved that it doesn’t take dragons for HBO to slay its competition.
2. CJ Entertainment
For using its Korean hit Parasite as the host for starting to make English-language content
In 2019, the Seoul-based movie production and distribution company that has been the force behind some of the most noteworthy South Korean films of the last 20 years (Snowpiercer, The Handmaiden, Oldboy) enjoyed its biggest hit yet in the States with Parasite. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, the class-warfare film about a poor family that insinuates itself into the lives of a wealthy family received universal praise, made Oscar history (see Neon Films), and became the rare foreign language film to find success at the U.S. box office. CJ Entertainment’s savvy business model of making movies tailored for individual Asian markets and selling remake rights to American studios has paid off time and again. Now, in an effort to grow into a veritable global studio, it’s focusing on making its own English-language content for worldwide release. Naturally, among its first major undertakings is an adaptation of Parasite for an HBO limited series, with Bong and Adam McKay.
For getting a rise out of audiences with Jordan Peele’s Us, The Twilight Zone reboot, and the Lorena Bobbitt doc
Jordan Peele may have first become famous by impersonating President Obama on his sketch show, Key and Peele, but now he’s truly become an industry leader. In the years since his breakout film, Get Out, became a critical and cultural phenomenon, the auteur has turned his production company, Monkeypaw, into a platform for a multitude of voices telling diverse stories. Hot on the heels of producing Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman, in 2019 Monkeypaw put out the second season of Tracy Morgan’s The Last OG, launched a successful reboot of The Twilight Zone on CBS All Access, and put out a Lorena Bobbitt documentary on Amazon Prime, not to mention Peele’s massive sophomore hit, Us. Peele then closed out the year by inking a five-year deal with Universal for his next two films and for more Monkeypaw productions. Hail to the chief.
For scoring with Ava DuVernay’s searing Netflix series on the Central Park Five
One of Participant Media’s first film projects was An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary about climate change. Nearly 15 years later, the studio remains clearly committed to creating the same social impact and the same level of prestige, while evolving its approach. In 2019, Participant put out issues-focused feature films, documentaries, TV series, and digital short-form content through partners and platforms from Universal Studios to YouTube. The company’s first foray into long-form narrative TV, Ava DuVernay’s searing Central Park Five series, When They See Us, set a viewership record for Netflix and earned 16 Emmy nominations. Participant also practices what it preaches, creating impact campaigns with advocacy groups around projects such as 2019’s Oscar-nominated workers’ rights documentary, American Factory, to make a difference in more than just its own bottom line.
For enlisting auteurs in the fight against “worldwide audiovisual entertainment”
In 2019, Netflix won the streaming wars and continued to push a change-averse film and TV industry into a new future with new rules. Its deep-pocketed courtship of auteurs (Ava DuVernay, Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach) paid off handsomely, with a bounty of prestige content that yielded 24 Oscar nominations (the most of any studio) and 117 Emmy nominations (second only to HBO). Anticipating the arrival of Disney Plus, Netflix ramped up its children’s entertainment—and saw its first official full-length animated film, Klaus, edge out no less a juggernaut than Disney’s Frozen 2 to nab a best animated feature Oscar nomination. Finally, in a savvy move designed to drown out the chorus of traditionalists who fear that the streaming model is killing the cinematic experience, Netflix bought Manhattan’s storied Paris Theater, guaranteeing filmmakers that their movies will always have a big-screen presence.
For betting on daring, idiosyncratic indies such as Apollo 11, Amazing Grace, and Parasite
In its third year of existence, the upstart indie film company run by Tom Quinn outshone even A24 in its mission to find audiences for arty, edgy cinema. It enjoyed box office and critical success with the space documentary Apollo 11 and Amazing Grace, the Aretha Franklin concert movie made from never-before-seen footage shot by Sidney Pollack at a 1972 performance. But Neon’s crowning achievement in 2019 was, of course, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (see CJ Entertainment), which built on a smart, tantalizingly cryptic Instagram marketing campaign to win over subtitle-phobic audiences (to the tune of more than $50 million in globally) and making double Oscar history (the first South Korean film to win best picture and the first South Korean honored as best director). These days, when small films routinely get pummeled by Marvel, Pixar, and everything else Disney owns—if they get released at all—Neon has carved out a space for daring, idiosyncratic voices.
7. Focus Features
For amplifying releases such as Downton Abbey with clever partners such as Airbnb
Making a great movie takes a village, but so does launching a great movie. In 2019, Focus Features continued to find creative new ways to bring in more viewers, both through reaching out to promotional partners and developing top-shelf supplemental material. The TV series continuation Downton Abbey hit $97 million in domestic box office, with the assistance of over 15 strategic partners including Airbnb. Focus also teamed up with LA Times Studios to create the podcast Obsession, underscoring the themes in its spring release Greta, about unrequited love gone wrong. Additionally, Focus proved to be a company people are proud to team up with, by answering Sundance, Time’s Up, and USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 2019 call for more female directors by lining up a 2020 theatrical slate with six films directed by women.
8. Gloria Sanchez Productions
For subverting expectations about women who are strippers (Hustlers), teens (Booksmart), and widows (Dead to Me)
Founded in 2014 by Jessica Elbaum as a female-comic-centric offshoot of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions, Gloria Sanchez enjoyed a banner year in 2019. The company produced one of the year’s biggest indie hits, Hustlers, which, aside from its $105 million box office (against a reported $20 million budget), made excellent use of a diverse cast of women to tell a compelling story that smartly tackled questions of sex, power, and money. Gloria Sanchez also produced Olivia Wilde’s critically acclaimed directorial debut, Booksmart, and Netflix’s breakout black comedy hit series Dead to Me, about a sardonic widow, her new friend, and the friend’s dark secret. Next up in 2020 is the Kristen Wiig-Annie Mumolo comedy Barb and Starr Go to Vista Del Mar. At a time when Hollywood continues to marginalize women, Gloria Sanchez is proving to be a mighty force in championing stories for and by them.
9. Thunderbird Entertainment
For being the first kids on earth to release a show with a Native American lead
Thunderbird Entertainment is a Vancouver-based entertainment company run by CEO Jennifer Twiner McCarron that produces socially-minded content that gives a voice to the underrepresented. In 2019, its animated series about an indigenous girl from Alaska, Molly of Denali, aired on PBS in the States to great acclaim, becoming the first nationally distributed show to feature a Native American lead. Thunderbird created the show with the help of more than 60 Alaskan natives and indigenous people as actors, scriptwriters, and cultural and linguistic advisers. The company is currently in production on a television adaptation of Cherie Dimaline’s award-winning novel about an indigenous Canadian teenager, The Marrow Thieves, and in conjunction with Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films is developing the best-selling children’s book Princesses Wear Pants. Committed to ending the lack of gender parity in the entertainment business, Thunderbird has pledged to reach a 50/50 male/female staff by 2025 and offers paid internships to people of color.
10. SK Global
For building a worldwide platform for universal stories
Wherever there’s an underserved cultural audience, SK Global is ready to step in. Building on the strength of the 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians, while prepping its sequels, the company spent 2019 leveraging production partnerships in China, India, Eastern Europe, and beyond to put together a vast, diverse film and television portfolio. Whether it’s a Thai cave rescue series for Netflix, a film adaptation of a bestseller about a Malaysian money-laundering scandal, or a movie starring Justin Timberlake, SK Global just might be the studio that proves it is truly possible to make something for everyone.
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