Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative music, media, and design companies.
When people sit down to be entertained, they generally like seeing more of what they already like. It’s the guiding principle behind Hollywood’s love affair with sequels, spinoffs, reboots, adaptations, and sequels to spinoffs of rebooted adaptations. Last year may not have been an exception, but it was also a creative phase in which original material came roaring back.
New streaming services brought fresh perspectives. WarnerMedia and HBO Max redefined the theatrical release with films like Godzilla vs. Kong and Dune, which made their simultaneous debut on screens both large and small. Bold and original cinematic visions from film and television studios left a mark on the box office (even in its diminished state) and riveted critics and audiences at home. Siren Pictures’ Squid Game introduced new audiences to Korean drama—and quickly became the most viewed Netflix series of all time. Pastel wowed Amazon Prime audiences with its powerfully moving The Underground Railroad. The New York Times partnered with FX and Hulu to launch its latest standalone film, Framing Britney Spears, a popular documentary that arguably helped free the pop star from her conservatorship. People still liked what they already liked, but they also seemed to rediscover the thrill of discovering something new.
For providing event movies to home audiences on a new streaming platform—and giving them plenty of reasons to stick around
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the value of choice, especially the choice to stay at home. WarnerMedia understood as much when it announced in 2020 that anyone craving new movies would have the option of seeing Warner’s entire 2021 slate either at the theater or on its HBO Max streaming service on the release date. The gamble, which could have cut into box office revenue, paid off: Godzilla vs. Kong and Dune stomped their way to near pre-pandemic-level grosses, and smaller films thrived, too. “We were the first over the wall,” says WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar of the simultaneous release strategy, internally referred to as Project Popcorn, “and many companies followed us.” WarnerMedia also beefed up its streaming library with original series like Hacks, Made for Love, and White Lotus. By year’s end, HBO Max subscribers increased by 13 million.
WarnerMedia is No. 29 on this year’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.
2. World of Wonder
For making the world a more fabulous place, all year round
“Drag is an art form that exists in every culture,” says Fenton Bailey, cofounder of World of Wonder (WoW), the production company behind RuPaul’s Drag Race. “It’s like they’re sitting on a secret, and they don’t know what they’ve got.” WoW has teased out that confidence with greater brio, expanding Drag Race in 2021 to Australia, Italy, and Spain, giving it 13 global versions in addition to the U.S. franchise. Bailey, cofounder Randy Barbato, and RuPaul Charles have not only given each of these countries a platform to share their distinct styles of drag with the world, they’ve also proven audiences can’t resist the chance to compare all those styles, which they can do in one place: World of Wonder’s premium streaming site, WOW Presents Plus, which grew by 134% in 2021.
3. The New York Times
For unlocking the “Free Britney” discourse
In February 2021, The New York Times Presents series dropped its latest standalone film: Framing Britney Spears. Seldom since 2013’s Blackfish sank SeaWorld’s bottom line has a documentary had such a measurable impact on Americans, who rushed to support the embattled pop star, leading to waves of negative scrutiny toward the conservatorship that has limited her agency since 2008. Although the Free Britney movement had been quietly raising awareness for years, the documentary made Spears’ plight hard to ignore. By November, Spears’s conservatorship slipped away. But the documentary didn’t just change the public perception of Spears, it helped spark a necessary conversation about how pop culture treated famous women in the aughts. The New York Times Presents—a collaboration between the paper of record, Hulu, and FX—didn’t stop there, either. The series; Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, released in November, kept the momentum going by exploring another instance in which a woman in pop culture was unfairly maligned.
4. Siren Pictures
For turning a hard sell into a global phenomenon
Timing is everything. For instance, South Korean creator Hwang Dong-hyuk wrote his original draft of Squid Game in the late aughts and was unable to find a buyer for nearly a decade. Perhaps the world was not yet ready—so soon after the global financial crisis of 2008—for such a dark, violent, anti-capitalist screed. By the time Netflix released Squid Game last September, however, audiences around the globe were well primed by the existential threats of COVID-19, climate change, and creeping authoritarianism to appreciate such grimly addictive fare. In the series, people saddled with insurmountable debt compete at murderous children’s games for the delight of unseen billionaires. The medicine goes down smoothly, though, with a well-cast group of memorable characters, and production design that looks like Alice in Wonderland by way of American Gladiators. Within four weeks of its release, Squid Game became Netflix’s top show of all time, with a reported 1.65 billion hours of the show streamed in that time frame. Given its concept, it’s no wonder that the series took a long time to find a home. But considering it’s, uh, execution, courtesy of South Korea’s Siren Pictures, it’s no wonder it resonated the world over.
5. Lord Miller
For making animated films for the whole family with a unique brand of imagination and humor
Move over, Pixar. Or rather, stay right there—making widely beloved animated films—while acknowledging that a worthy peer has arrived. No matter whether Phil Lord and Christopher Miller write and direct or merely produce the animated films under their Lord Miller banner, they know how to make crowd-pleasing content as well as the most beloved brands in animation, while remaining wholly original. In 2021, Lord Miller’s dynamic The Mitchells vs. the Machines mashed up a family road trip with a robot apocalypse unleashed by a Bezosian tech magnate, with style (and sequel potential). That film’s popularity—it stayed in Netflix’s top 10 for a whopping 74 days—was another triumph, proving the continued promise of the Lord Miller imprimatur, which has a hit list that includes Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), The Lego Movie (2014), and 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an Oscar winner in which every frame positively radiates imagination, humor, and heart. (The sequel to Spider-Verse is due later in 2022.)
For making unconventional storytelling a welcome convention
It is both a gift and a curse for a movie studio to become a title of its own. When that A24 logo flashes—simultaneously telegraphing prestige, quirk, edge, and maybe a soupçon of pretentiousness—some cinephiles might smirk and whisper, “of course.” But they know they’re bound to be taken on an interesting journey, as well. A24 has spent the last several years nurturing, and perhaps indulging, the talents of singular filmmakers, but 2021 was the year it all paid off creatively. Starting with the Oscar-winning Minari in February, and closing with the 2022 Oscar hopeful The Tragedy of Macbeth, A24 pitched a no-hitter of unconventional storytelling. Its slate included a fantastical, bonkers take on the epic poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (simply titled The Green Knight) and a frenetic adaptation of an epic tweet-thread (Zola) that moved at the speed of Twitter. The cumulative box office earnings, led by Green Knight, was approximately $45 million. (A24 generates additional revenue through its deal with Apple TV Plus—and even through A24’s eclectic online gift shop.) Overall, 2021 marked the culmination of a lot of deft choices that have ultimately made the A24 aesthetic as reliably rewarding as it is recognizable.
For looking after the health of entertainers, both physically and financially
The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) exists to offer equal protection to each of its members throughout the entire media landscape. As times got tougher for those members during the onset of the pandemic, it became more challenging for the guild to continue its mission. In 2021, however, SAG-AFTRA fought harder than ever to give every entertainer in its purview a chance to thrive with peace of mind. The organization updated its return-to-work agreement, giving producers the option to mandate vaccinations for cast and crews—just as the delta variant was hitting in July. Its commitment to safe working conditions for members extended beyond COVID-19, resulting in codified standards for intimacy coordinators and the invention of a Safe Place app, for discreetly reporting abuse. SAG-AFTRA also created a path forward for a new breed of entertainer with its Influencer Agreement, which expanded union coverage to a vast but hard-to-classify sector of the industry. This move was just one of the reasons that the guild covered more than 77,000 additional jobs in the first four months of 2021 than it did in 2020. Not only did SAG-AFTRA help its members get through the pandemic, it set them up for success with whatever comes next.
For bridging the gap between cinema and TV like never before
Although the golden age of prestige TV elevated our collective understanding of what episodic shows could do, rarely are TV series considered to be art. Part of the reason is that a lot of TV shows, quite understandably, don’t aspire to be art, but rather comfort food or compulsive viewing. In a streaming landscape teeming with inoffensive, perfectly pleasant sitcoms and hour-long dramas, The Underground Railroad stands out as a towering giant of artistic ambition. Director Barry Jenkins spent the four years after his Oscar-winning breakthrough Moonlight developing this limited series based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. When the series debuted on Amazon Prime last summer, critics immediately anointed it a masterpiece. Jenkins and his production company, Pastel, delivered a cinematic production that seemed to be operating on a different level than anything else around it. Powerful performances, stunning cinematography, and gorgeous compositions brought to searing life the surreal tale of a runaway slave escaping on a literal underground railroad. What may hit the hardest, however, are the slow, subtly fourth wall-busting panning shots of the show’s many Black characters staring directly at the camera. Depending on who is watching, it’s either an uncomfortable interrogation or an act of commiseration. (Jenkins later released an hour’s worth of footage of these moments, entitled The Gaze.) It’s just one of many aspects of this sumptuous meal of a production that is destined to linger with viewers long after the devastating final episode
9. Sunday Night
For wooing moviegoers back to theaters with the right event movie
One of the best movie dramas of 2020 unfolded off-screen: the hubbub around the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Could such a wide-screen spectacle possibly debut in America’s living rooms? Not if it were up to Nolan, which is why the director kept delaying the release date, scheduled for July, for as long as he could without pushing it back a full year. Although the film ultimately did impressive business worldwide, its domestic total ended up being just under $60 million following its September 3 release, a fraction of the typical haul for a Nolan film. The rest of Hollywood got the message, and quietly started taking other intended 2020 films off the calendar. It wasn’t until May 2021 that another major film chanced a return to a fully theatrical window. After bouncing around many times from its original March 2020 release date, A Quiet Place Part II premiered some 14 months later to droves of hopeful, vaccinated audiences. The tense, atmospheric chiller—from director John Krasinski’s Sunday Night—finally lured people back into theaters in pre-pandemic numbers. The film made $160 million domestically, on a $61 million budget, with an additional $137 million internationally. Part of A Quiet Place Part II’s success can be credited to being released at the perfect time for a popcorn movie, but odds are it was also a perfect popcorn movie for its time.
10. The Quorum
For helping armchair movie executives make sense of the pandemic-era box office
When box-office receipts took a nosedive in 2020, so too did box-office spectatorship. The thrill of predicting how much money a movie might gross in its opening weekend—before looking up the results on a Sunday morning—faded away like the smell of theater-quality buttered popcorn. But not for long. As audiences began trickling back into theaters, sometime around the explosive March 2021 release of Godzilla vs. Kong, a new data tool arrived to assist those eager to forecast hits vs. flops in the streaming era. The Quorum democratizes film-tracking information, offering to anyone interested the kind of pre-release movie data previously only available to insiders. The creators survey 2,000 people each week, with well-balanced demographics, to measure anticipation for new films. The survey consists of four simple questions that determine whether people are aware of a film, interested in it, willing to go to a theater to see it, and willing to pay for it. The rise of streaming over the past decade has made a more robust tracking system desirable; during the pandemic, however, it’s become indispensable. Although The Quorum offers bespoke research to movie-marketing professionals who want to save their jobs, it’s targeted squarely at amateurs who just want to be better informed spectators.