Welcome to SYFY WIRE's Decade in Review, a series of articles that will look to catalog the best, worst, and weirdest cultural and entertainment moments of the 2010s as we look toward the future. Today, we explore the biggest game-changers and trends of the 2010s.
When the 2010s began, there were only two movies in a Marvel Cinematic Universe that didn’t yet even qualify as a constellation, just a single Avatar movie, and no Star Wars movies whatsoever on the horizon. As it stands today, at the very end of a whirlwind and endless decade, there are a whopping 23 big-screen installments in the MCU (with many more on the way), five Star Wars movies (and a live-action TV show!) have been produced, and … well, we’re still at just one Avatar movie (though there’s been some progress there, too).
This was undoubtedly the decade of the nerd, a 10-year period in which science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and horror went from a significant part of the pop-culture zeitgeist to damn near the entire thing. Sure, Harry Potter and a handful of Marvel movies were big hits in the aughts, while Twilight became a tween phenomenon late in the game, but the 2010s saw the passion (and disposable income) of nerds take absolute center stage, demanding and then receiving attention from movie studios, television networks, and other big corporations in ways that were once unfathomable (for better or worse, which is endlessly debatable).
Advances in technology played a big part in the amplification of geek voices, as well as the distribution of the way they experienced the deluge of media produced for them. The surging value of beloved intellectual property and the streaming services that deliver the adaptations fueled multibillion-dollar investments and industry-shaking deals, realigning the power structure in Hollywood and scrambling a century of institutional knowledge. Movie stars don’t really exist anymore, but devotion to cartoon characters can border on maniacal.
The past decade went by like a blur (even if the last few years feel like they dragged on for decades), and trends absolutely require time to take shape. But there have also been several seismic events that in hindsight seem either like ground zero for the major changes or at least prime evidence of the shifts that are still reshaping our landscape.
Disney's shopping spree and growth
Let’s zoom out a bit beyond our 10-year scope for a bit of context. This story begins in 2005, when Bob Iger was named the CEO of Disney. Soon after his ascendency, Iger went on a corporate shopping spree streak that would revive the company and ultimately change the face of the entire media industry more than once.
The first purchase came in 2006, when Iger closed a deal for Pixar, which was more of a formalizing of a relationship that had thrived for more than a decade. Iger’s first real big swing came in 2009, when Disney reached an agreement to buy Marvel for $4 billion. The deal closed the next year (which makes it applicable to us) and gave the studio control over a roster of iconic superheroes that it would dispatch to create an unprecedented “universe” of connecting movies, TV shows, and theme park attractions. More on that later (but not too much later).
A few years down the line, with the Marvel acquisition starting to prove a prudent purchase, Iger pulled off the buy that truly shocked everyone, plunking down another $4 billion to scoop up Lucasfilm. While series creator George Lucas had already handed the day-to-day reigns of his studio over to Kathleen Kennedy, the acquisition officially opened a new chapter in Star Wars history, sending Lucas to retirement (with a very nice pension) and launching an ambitious new galaxy.
Since then, Disney has produced a motherlode of Star Wars movies, comics, books, and now, live-action TV shows. Not all of it has been successful, but the franchise is more vital and lucrative than ever, as evidenced by ticket sales for The Rise of Skywalker and preorders of Baby Yoda plushes.
Iger made two other major purchases after Lucasfilm: First, he went and bought himself BAM Tech, a streaming video infrastructure that would come in handy for a little pet project of his a few years later, and then he threw down $73 billion for most of 20th Century Fox, a goliath gambit that radically restructures the pecking order in Hollywood.
The success of The Avengers and the cinematic universe
Iron Man was a surprise smash in 2008, and it set the table for a handful of other Marvel movies in the early 2010s, including Captain America, Thor, and an Iron Man sequel (all technically produced by other studios until Disney bought their specific character rights). Any company would love to have three viable franchises, but the master plan of Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige was far more ambitious than that.
Those first three movies contained hints that the movies had some sort of connection — a cameo here, a throwaway line there — but teaming the solo superheroes up for a blockbuster crossover movie was still mind-blowing for both longtime comics fans and casual moviegoers alike.
On the one hand, committed geeks couldn’t believe that the major crossover event, a regular tradition in comic books, was actually happening on the big screen. And on the other, movie fans were blown away by the fact that a few different movies, with distinct stars and styles, would be coming together as one, with a single plot that married elements from previous movies.
The Avengers proved a monster hit in 2012 and cemented the cinematic universe as the future of fictional intellectual property-driven entertainment. It hasn’t always worked out so well for studios in a rush — Warner Bros. and Universal (which shares a parent company with SYFY) tripped on their own ambition when they tried to prefab crossovers like Justice League and the Dark Universe — but it continues to be the gold standard goal for every major producer.
Older properties like Transformers are receiving spinoffs, The CW just pulled off its long-awaited, Arrowverse line-up spanning "Crisis on Infinite Earths" crossover, and Netflix is in business with Mark Millar, working to turn his comics into a whole universe. Even The Dark Crystal now has a prequel along with book and comics tie-ins.
Netflix and the streaming explosion
When Netflix launched its streaming service in 2007, it stocked it with rerun content from studios across Hollywood, dumping hundreds of millions of dollars in the coffers of power players while quietly plotting to entirely upend their business models.
That plan began rolling out in 2012, with the launch of Netflix’s first original streaming series, the political soap opera House of Cards, followed closely by genre entries such as Marco Polo. Within a few years, the startup was a full-fledged studio, and a few years after that, it was a bottomless pit of production money, churning out movies and original series at an unprecedented rate (when has financing extravagant projects with debt ever gone wrong?).
Powered by a proprietary and secret algorithm, Netflix morphed into an everything-to-everyone platform, with superhero series, murder mysteries, rom-coms, Christmas movies, and legit Oscar contenders. Netflix's release model introduced binge-watching to the broader lexicon, while consumers began cutting cable en masse, leading to just about every other big studio scrambling to catch up with the freight train future and create its own streaming service.
Hulu and niche streamers like Shudder (from AMC) were early entrants, while HBO eventually offered to a streaming-only package with HBO Now. Amazon is spending big with Amazon Prime, while Apple TV and Disney+ launched this fall. More streamers are coming, too: HBO Max (a much larger product, from the newly merged Time Warner as AT&T) and Peacock (from NBCUniversal, SYFY’s parent company) will debut in the spring.
Just how many streaming networks people can handle remains to be seen — there’s just a metric ton of content now, with more new releases constantly barraging viewers, and the combined monthly fees are starting to make cable seem like a decent deal.
The rise of China
How did Guillermo del Toro’s expensive blockbuster Pacific Rim earn a sequel despite flopping to just $100 million at the United States box office?
Easy: It took in over $300 million on the international market, including over $100 million in China.
The world’s most populous country emerged into a full-fledged capitalist force this decade thanks to a 2000 treaty that formalized trading relations with the US and western world. As the country’s 1.3 billion people began to earn disposable incomes, they became rabid consumers of pop culture, while deep-pocketed oligarchs in China began investing in US production companies and financing entire slates of films.
The result was a big boon for US movie studios, who began to cater to Chinese moviegoers (and censors) with blockbusters that cross cultural lines, sometimes even adding in extra Chinese actors in bonus scenes shown in the Middle Kingdom. The rewards for capturing the market there have been considerable: Transformers movies, with many Chinese additions, Furious 7 earned $390 million in 2015, the Jurassic World movies have made nearly $500 million combined, and Marvel movies regularly top $150 million, with Avengers: Endgame reaching a whopping $629 million.
It’s an endlessly complicated topic — China has become increasingly fascistic, with tighter and tighter government control of the media, which has meant studios have had to further cater to the whims of Beijing in exchange for unenviable release dates that sometimes disappear at the last minute. Plus, US studios only get 25% of the box office take there, which has been the subject of much negotiation.
Between the US-China trade war and Beijing’s desire to foster its own film industry, the relationship has only gotten trickier. Chinese-made movies are increasingly successful there — Wolf Warrior 2, the movie pictured above, is the all-time highest earner in China — and the government has limited what was once prolific Chinese company investiture in American production companies. China is slated to become the biggest film market by as early as next year; perhaps soon, we’ll be seeing more and more Chinese movies in our theaters.
Every era has its own special breed of low-cost independent films — they were especially triumphant in the ‘90s — but in the age of big blockbusters and shuttering independent theaters, the success of Jason Blum’s micro-budget horror empire was especially crucial.
Yes, it technically began in 2009 with Paranormal Activity, but Blumhouse became a household name this decade, with its many supernatural and sociological horror franchises, including Insidious, The Purge, Happy Death Day, and more Paranormal Activity. A deal with Universal Studios (you know our connection at this point) helped give the production house muscle, and now Blumhouse’s name is a seal of quality, which helps differentiate it in the massive world of low-budget horror that it helped elevate.
There are more low-budget horror movies than ever, because they still make money, which is more than you can say about most movies at this point.
The #MeToo movement
The #MeToo movement has touched all aspects of American society, from bedroom to boardroom and everywhere in between. Women are treated as less than equal citizens in almost every conceivable way, yet as with so many other national emergencies, it required a reckoning in Hollywood to truly start the conversation.
In October 2017, journalists for The New Yorker and NY Times published blockbuster stories that outlined decades of sexual misconduct and misogynist harassment perpetrated by some of the most powerful people in the industry. The crimes uncovered — or, in far too many cases, finally acknowledged — rocked the industry to its core, and once the genie was out of the bottle, more women began to come forward to bravely tell their own harrowing tales, opening eyes to just how casual and pervasive the mistreatment of women (and queer people) is in this industry.
Titans like CBS exec Les Moonves, Pixar co-founder and Disney animation chief John Lasseter, Today show host Matt Lauer, actor Kevin Spacey, directors Brett Ratner and Bryan Singer, and producer Harvey Weinstein (no shocker) all fell (though not far enough, since they’re still fabulously wealthy). And though it has been uneven, the shift in discourse and public awareness has created opportunities for some (already famous) women to move up in the industry, becoming producers (like Reese Witherspoon) and telling their own stories as directors.
Diversity in superheroes
Another long-awaited shift: The success of women-fronted blockbusters like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel finally proved once and for all that there is a massive market for female heroes. Meanwhile, Black Panther made abundantly clear that black superheroes could thrive on the big screen (as if the Blade movies hadn't done that already).
It's preposterous to say, but it really did take this long for the abundantly white, male class of Hollywood executives to see through their own prejudices and flawed focus groups to greenlight these projects. The calculus was largely financial, though the expectation that there would be audiences for diverse superhero movies was undoubtedly influenced by fan pressure, protests, and activism over the second half of the decade.
There's an irony there — consumers working day and night to give their money to massive companies that control their favorite properties. But that's where we're at right now in our economy and society. in one way, fans have more power than ever, but they're still on the outside looking in, believing in superheroes and fighting for respect.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.