Analysis

Culture Shock

Eight voices on the future of entertainment, culture, and sports.

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Brian Stauffer illustration for Foreign Policy
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here and subscribe to our newsletters here.

Perhaps no other sectors have been as devastated by the coronavirus pandemic as those that enrich and entertain us, from culture and the arts to sports and entertainment. Concert halls are closed, museums are gathering dust, cinemas are insolvent. If your favorite sports team is playing at all, it is in an eerily empty stadium—with the effect that the game no longer offers us a thrilling escape from the world but reminds us of its crisis.

The cliché of the starving artist has gained new currency, as hundreds of thousands in these industries are either out of work or waiting for their furloughs to become layoffs. Then there are the ripple effects: Shuttered attractions make the recovery of tourism even less likely; children no longer learn about culture and history firsthand; few of us are getting the creative inputs and distractions that make life both richer and more fun.

Slowly, the first venues are reopening—socially distanced, of course. Forced by necessity and powered by creativity, digital reinvention is gathering speed. Few things will be as they were. To help us make sense of a sector marked by uncertainty about the future like few others, Foreign Policy asked eight leaders and experts to weigh in with their predictions.


The Day the Music Died

By Mark C. Hanson, the CEO of the San Francisco Symphony

On the evening of March 6, from my usual seat in Davies Symphony Hall, I listened to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and knew it would be the final performance on that stage for a long time. The next day, the San Francisco Symphony became the first orchestra in the United States to announce the cancellation of live concerts as a result of local health ordinances. There is still no return to live performances in our hall in sight.
COVID-19 will accelerate the arts’ ability to connect with audiences through technology.

Without exaggeration, the effect of COVID-19 on the performing arts has been devastating. The pandemic strikes at the heart of why orchestras exist: to bring people together and build community through the power and emotion of live music. For many, that loss is an existential experience.

While I can’t predict the future, I do know that when audiences return, the pandemic’s legacy will likely be that it accelerated the arts’ ability to connect with audiences through technology. More than ever before, we are investing in and thinking creatively about new ways to support and expand those connections digitally, whether through streaming, augmented or virtual reality, or enhanced storytelling. I have no doubt that we will look back on this moment and recognize it as an impetus that served us well in the post-pandemic world.

Will the performing arts look different going forward? Of course. When we do reopen, it will be with socially distanced seating. There will be testing protocols to keep our audience, musicians, and staff safe. We will adjust and reimagine, yet again, how and what we do.

New forms of digital experience will not replace the live concert, with its visceral, emotive power to connect us. I suspect I am not alone in yearning for the day when I can again sit in that concert hall, surrounded by others who share a love of music.


Add the Crowd Noises, but Hold the High-Fives

By Rick Cordella, executive vice president and chief revenue officer at Peacock

The pandemic had an immediate effect on sports. Worldwide and at all levels, just about any kind of sport was shut down. The impact goes far beyond the canceled games and postponed seasons: Fans aren’t spending money in sports bars, no one is traveling for games, and communities aren’t getting the revenues they normally enjoy.

After the darkness, the first professional sports are back—with major changes, of course: Empty stadiums, team bubbles to keep the players healthy, announcers and TV producers working remotely. Fans at home want to watch as much as ever. In fact, we’ve seen record ratings or multi-year highs in hockey, golf, soccer, baseball, and basketball. There is obviously a cultural resiliency to our yearning for sports.
There is obviously a cultural resiliency to our yearning for sports.

The bigger question is about long-term shifts and psychological effects. Some sports work better with precautions than others. Golf and auto-racing are just as watchable, but an NFL game may need crowd noises added for television. Even after there is a vaccine, some fans may not want to wait in long lines and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with 60,000 strangers. Some things may be lost forever: Players high-fiving fans after a game, reporters crowding together with the team in the locker room.

The sports industry will change, too. In media, the shutdown and postponement of sports is hastening the existing move from cable television subscriptions to streaming services, with services such as Peacock making substantial new investments in the acquisition of rights since the pandemic began.

Sports, like the rest of society, will adapt. And as long as there are fans excited to see their favorite players and teams, and cheer for their home cities and countries, sports as a business will continue to be healthy and prosperous.


COVID-19 Has Put Hollywood on the Respirator

By Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian at the School of Theater, Film, and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles

The coronavirus has killed every branch of the Hollywood business model, and no respirator will ever revive it. That model was already under siege before 2020’s disaster, which only accelerated the changes unleashed by streaming services more than a decade ago.

The most obvious victims of the virus are movie theaters, which have been irretrievably devastated. They are designed to bring people into close proximity for a collective experience. They cannot survive years of little business; if they have any future at all, it will be as a redesigned, theme-park-like experience enjoyed at high prices once a year, relegating them to an exotic corner of the entertainment business. The virus just hastened this transformation: Streaming films at home has been displacing theaters for a decade, and this change was coming, virus or no.
The coronavirus has killed every branch of the Hollywood business model, and no respirator will ever revive it.

The core profit center for the motion-picture business since the 1910s has been theatrical distribution—getting those celluloid prints, and later hard drives, into projection booths nationwide. The virus completely ended this business, after streaming had already eroded it by going directly to the consumer. Even the Hollywood majors’ ancillary market, DVDs and Blu-rays, has been eliminated by streaming. The end of the virus will not bring back distribution or home video. That business is over, too.

Even film production has been halted by the virus. While protocols have recently been created to tentatively bring back the movie set, the virus has only accelerated the transformation of film production by computer-generated imagery which replaces casts with pixels. Sets and props assembled by thousands of craftspeople have been traded for a green screen, and individuals at computer monitors build the cinematic worlds we see. The giant casts and crews of yesteryear are gone forever.

The virus has delivered a final blow to an already moribund patient, put on its deathbed by streaming services such as Netflix and 21st-century computer technology. The scrambling by Disney, Universal, and Warner Bros. as the last major Hollywood companies to survive now involves no resurrection of traditional ways—big productions in theaters for a mass audience—but instead the desperate adoption of the streaming model, the buildup of content libraries, and the launching of subscription channels to see if a spot can be salvaged in this brave new world of computer-generated, home-based, atomized entertainment.


The Crisis Has Demonstrated the Power of Technology to Connect With Audiences

By Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of UNESCO

The pandemic has been devastating for culture and the arts. In the vast majority of the world’s countries, cultural institutions completely or partially shut down, and many remain closed to this day. Some may never open their doors again. An even more urgent issue is that countless artists all over the world have been left without any income. Millions of people have been deprived of revenues from tourism, which depends so heavily on cultural venues and products. The crisis has revealed the deep vulnerability and fragility of our cultural ecosystems.
The world must come together to safeguard our cultural heritage.

But the crisis has also shown us how centrally important culture is for our lives and identities. Culture helps anchor us in the present and allows us to imagine the future. The crisis has also demonstrated the incredible opportunities offered by digital technologies to connect culture with audiences across the world, which will no doubt continue as a major trend moving forward.

In the coming years, it will be crucial to build a viable future for culture and support those involved in its development. In response to the pandemic, UNESCO launched the ResiliArt movement, with almost 150 grass-roots debates organized so far in more than 60 countries.

The world must come together to safeguard our cultural heritage by providing sustainable funding for cultural institutions. We must ensure stable living and working conditions for artists to flourish. And we must allow every person to have access to the full diversity of culture. For culture sparks our imagination and unleashes our creativity to build a better future.


The Film Industry Will Shift to Countries Beating the Pandemic

By Baltasar Kormakur, an Icelandic film director and producer

When the pandemic hit Iceland, I was directing a production for Netflix. After two weeks of being shut down, we convinced them to let us start up again with our own system of safety protocols. We were the guinea pigs to see if it could work. We caught two cases, but had no transmission on the set. I’m convinced that companies like ours that screen and send people to get tested help break the transmission.
There is so much work right now that our problem isn’t the virus; it’s that we can’t find the people we need.

Elsewhere, the industry has been absolutely devastated. Everyone was shut down, from production to the cinemas. How the pandemic will change the industry in the future depends a lot on the country. The film industry in Iceland will grow because of the pandemic. Cases are down, and there is so much work in film right now that our problem isn’t the virus; it’s that we can’t find the people we need. Without question, Iceland will be a winner, along with a few other countries like Germany that have handled the pandemic with a steady hand, led by science, focused on endurance for the long term, and without panic. The way the United States has handled it is still a mess, and it will be much trickier for the film industry there to start up again. I think you’ll see the U.S. film industry produce more in other countries before they can feel safe at home again.


Who Wants to Host Future Olympics?

By David Clay Large, a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley

Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Olympics festival has been postponed until 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. No other modern Olympiad has ever been postponed, but some have been cancelled because of war, including Tokyo’s planned Games in 1940. The Antwerp Olympics of 1920 were held under the lingering effects of the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19, and they suffered accordingly.
Tokyo has already suffered twice—who wants to be Tokyo Number Three?

It remains unclear whether the postponed Tokyo Games will actually come off in 2021. The pandemic shows no signs of abating, and if conditions continue as they are, the Games are unlikely to be held next summer. Would or could they be postponed again? Not likely, say both Japanese organizers and the mandarins of the International Olympic Committee. Enthusiasm for the extravaganza has already plummeted in Tokyo, and it would be virtually impossible to find a replacement city willing to take the tremendous financial risk. After all, no major athletic event is more dependent on international travel than the Olympics. Basketball and football games are thinkable (if less enjoyable) as television-only events, but the Olympics have been just as much a festival of nationalities among spectators as among the athletes.

Indeed, the longer-term effect of the coronavirus on the Olympics may well be that fewer cities show interest in hosting them. Cities that win this “prize” are likely to make considerably less upfront investment in new infrastructure such as sports venues, hotels, and transportation links than is currently the case. Tokyo has already suffered twice. Who wants to be Tokyo Number Three?


A Golden Age of Museums Has Ended (for Now)

By James S. Snyder, the director emeritus of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and executive chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation

Before the onset of the pandemic, the international museum community was bursting with strength. A decade of robust philanthropy matched by an impressive record of global cultural diplomacy was enabling museums to present collections, share works, and showcase world culture in unprecedented ways. Audiences around the world became increasingly accustomed to nurturing their souls by enjoying these displays in magnificent settings everywhere.
Nearly 90 percent of the world’s museums have had to close, and reopening them has already proven to be a tremendous challenge.

With COVID-19, this splendor of enlightenment and exchange has come to a screeching halt. Travelers are grounded, crowds cannot congregate, and works of art and other cultural artifacts are frozen in place wherever they may be. According to a recent UNESCO survey, nearly 90 percent of the world’s museums have had to close, at least temporarily, and reopening them has already proven to be a tremendous challenge. Many museums remain closed.

But one by one, museums are testing ways to create a safe visiting experience without hampering the joy they traditionally bring to their audiences. For now, this is about limiting visitor capacity, requiring pre-booking, registering contact information, and ensuring sanitized galleries and public spaces. Going forward, museums will need new strategies for producing and presenting rich programming while no longer being able to rely on the robust attendance figures that have helped enable their success—and for continuing to engage and educate their audiences both on-site and throughout the communities they serve.

For now, what is most important is to keep firmly in mind the individual and communal nourishment that museums provide as we emerge with strength from the darkness of today’s pandemic—and the essential role that museums must continue to play in our lives for a long time to come.


Cricket Will Be as It Was, but the Superpowers Will Be Strengthened

By Rahul Bhatia, a journalist and editor based in Mumbai

Cricket returned in early July, its appearance slightly altered. The grounds were empty. Celebrations were restrained—there were fist bumps, not high-fives. Gone was the age-old practice of shining cricket balls with spit. During tours, players from England, Pakistan, and West Indies lived in “bio-bubbles”—a secure environment. When the pandemic eases, the crowds and the cheers will return to stadiums. For the most part, cricket will be as it was.
The silver lining:  renewed calls for player protections in a notoriously unregulated sport.

COVID-19’s legacy will instead live on in the acceleration of the sport’s growing inequalities, especially between the handful of international teams around whom the global game revolves. Cricket has several levels of competition, but international competition is its most important format. Cricket’s superpowers—India, England, and Australia—will accumulate even greater clout, altering cricket in ways that go beyond the game. Smaller international cricketing teams with fewer television revenues, such as West Indies, have had to borrow funds to tide them over the pandemic. Where domestic leagues have been up and running, many players have chosen the smaller but certain payday of club cricket over the financial insecurities of playing for the more prestigious but stressed national team. In the perpetual war over broadcast deals and playing schedules, it easy to imagine the superpowers winning handily, and smaller cricketing nations falling in line.

The concentration of power and influence will have repercussions. Players and staff will be unlikely to air grievances against owners and sponsors. In the short term, both international and domestic players will probably feel the pinch of cancelled and postponed tournaments that helped them get by. The silver lining: Eventually these developments will lead to renewed calls for player protections in a notoriously unregulated sport, including a minimum wage and other forms of welfare.


This article is part of  Foreign Policy’s ongoing series about the world after the COVID-19 pandemic. Other installments include:

How the Global Order Will Be Changed Forever by John Allen, Nicholas Burns, Laurie Garrett, Richard N. Haass, G. John Ikenberry, Kishore Mahbubani, Shivshankar Menon, Robin Niblett, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Shannon K. O’Neil, Kori Schake, Stephen M. Walt

How the Economy Will Look After the Pandemic by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Robert J. Shiller, Gita Gopinath, Carmen M. Reinhart, Adam Posen, Eswar Prasad, Adam Tooze, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, Kishore Mahbubani

How Urban Life Will Be Transformed by Richard Florida, Edward Glaeser, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Kiran Bedi, Thomas J. Campanella, Chan Heng Chee, Dan Doctoroff, Bruce Katz, Rebecca Katz, Joel Kotkin, Robert Muggah, Janette Sadik-Khan

The Future of Government by James Crabtree, Robert D. Kaplan, Robert Muggah, Kumi Naidoo, Shannon K. O’Neil, Adam Posen, Kenneth Roth, Bruce Schneier, Stephen M. Walt, Alexandra Wrage

The Future of Travel by James Fallows, Vivek Wadhwa, Pico Iyer, Rolf Potts, Elizabeth Becker, James Crabtree, Alexandre de Juniac

The Future of Schools and Universities by Arne Duncan, Andreas Schleicher, Mona Mourshed, Jennifer Nuzzo, Ludger Woessmann, Salvatore Babones, Davesh Kapur, Michael D. Smith, Dick Startz