No one needs an official report to understand that the pandemic has drastically changed the way we consume media. Look within your own household and it’s easy to see that we’re using our devices differently than we were a year ago (namely a lot more). But the recent report issued by the Canadian Media Fund is fascinating and revealing when it comes to understanding sweeping trends (national and global), as well as predicting future consumption habits. 

“Under lockdown, audiences have massively turned to digital content for relief. The streaming wars have intensified, and strategies to better position Canadian content in the fray have become more sophisticated,” says CMF Director of Industry and Market Trends Catherine Mathys. “The audiovisual industry has been digitizing at warp speed, integrating new technologies as soon as they become available to ensure on-set safety in particular, while seeking to reduce its significant environmental footprint. The industry also seems to be finally reckoning with calls for change from under-represented communities as audiences hunger more than ever for content they can relate to on screen.”

When comparing what this February looks like to last, things are almost unrecognizable. Movie theatres are, for the most part, sitting empty; festivals have gone virtual—we’re all experimenting with new ways to interact with media. Audiences are increasingly looking for programming to help comfort and connect, and gravitating to platforms that provide that experience in the best way possible.

Here are some of the major shifts and trends identified in the Canadian Media Fund report, and quotes from industry leaders (pulled from the report) that support those trends. 

Watching Together is Here to Stay

Some of the most memorable moments of this past year have been when I’ve tuned into virtual events where audience members have the ability to dialogue with one another. 

I assumed that attending a concert on YouTube or Facebook Live would lack the kind of energy that I felt in a crowded room, and while there is no real comparison to a live event—where you can feel the heat of other bodies, where bass notes reverberate inside of you—my instinct that these types of events would be sadly underwhelming was proven wrong: the collective experience through a virtual audience can be incredibly fun, emotionally charged, creating an atmosphere (even remotely!) that is palpable.

“It’s likely that the trend of communal watching and playing won’t be going away any time soon, since Canadians have demonstrated an increased appetite for shared online experiences like co-watching TV shows or playing against friends in an online environment,” Anita Lee writes in the report. 

Returning to a concert venue or packed theatre is something we long for, but there is something uniquely special about watching together from afar. Why not integrate both.

Twitch, YouTube Become More Mainstream

One of the most telling statistics of the report is that users searching videos on YouTube with the hashtag #WithMe increased by 600%. 

A quick search revealed thousands of videos in this category, including “Clean With Me”, “Study With Me”, “Plan With Me” and even “Play With Me” for young children. It’s proof that people are desperately trying to connect, even with strangers.

YouTube videos about yoga, home workouts, meditation, home-cooking, and “how to cut hair” also surged in popularity, as people tried to best take care of themselves and their loved ones at home. 

Platforms like Twitch are also growing exponentially, and moving beyond gaming to include arts and culture experiences. “These are the types of areas where niche communities are popping up and people are going there for a sense of satisfaction, as well as congruence between thought, emotion [and] feeling,” said Kris Alexander, an avid gamer and assistant professor at Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media in Toronto, who has used Twitch to conduct Ryerson classes with 200+ students. 

If the unbelievable growth on TikTok and Clubhouse is any indication of where things are heading (they definitely are), power is being redistributed into the hands of independent creators, and taking millions of eyeballs with it. The industry must learn to adapt. 

Representation or Fail

This year, more than ever, diversity and representation has been called into review, with audiences and industry experts demanding long overdue change in the Canadian film and TV industry. The resounding message being: diversify or become irrelevant. 

“As you have a much more socially engaged [and] social justice-[oriented] Gen Z, they will demand clear storytelling,” said Sarah Thompson, who is chief strategy officer of the media-buying agency Mindshare Canada. “We’ve started to see the end of formulaic TV and that [audiences] want fresh takes on a story, more diverse voices. This is also the influence of Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ issues, all of that. [Audiences] want to see more of who we actually are as people on TV and in content.”

Journalist Jesse Wente, who is also the Executive Director at the Indigenous Screen Office and Chairperson of the Canada Council for the Arts, puts responsibility on the networks and decision makers to change their approach to, well, everything. “If you think you can continue to produce the content that you always have and in the way that you always have while your audience radically shifts, you have not studied history. The math is indisputable,” he says. “The only way to make shows that become cultural phenomenons like HBO’s I May Destroy You, is by finding and empowering creatives like Michaela Coel to tell her story. And you do not find that person searching under the same rocks that you have lifted for 30 years — you find that person by lifting a new rock in a different neighbourhood.” 

What we see on screen should reflect the crowded platforms of Bloor Station at rush hour. If it doesn’t, then programming is only speaking to certain segments of our population. Transformation of the industry at large is long overdue, but it’s a hopeful and exciting time for new voices, and new stories.

Movie Theatres Are Forever Changed

The post-Covid fantasy of returning to theatres is a dream shared by millions, but with theatres forced shut, or operating at a fraction of their capacity, and streaming capabilities evolving quickly, audiences have become more comfortable watching things from home. As such, it’s not just the pandemic that is forcing change, but audience consumption habits are also pushing theatres to reexamine their business models and offerings. 

“You have to give people some kind of reason to leave their house,” said Tom Alexander, director of theatrical releasing at Mongrel Media. Like many who were included in the report, he supports the idea of “eventizing” the cinema experience. “The power is in the eye of the consumer.” 

Cineplex has been making making these changes for well over a decade, with Cineplex Events partnering with everyone from The Metropolitan Opera to the NFL. We suspect there will be more of these types of partnerships moving forward, with different ways to enjoy watching with friends and family. What’s also grown exponentially this year, is how theatres have moved online; this past month, I’ve personally rented several titles from their ever-growing collection available in their digital store.

The desire to watch movies in a packed theatre won’t vanish, and will likely have a beautiful renaissance post-Covid (I’ll be the first in line), but like everything else, theatres everywhere are in a process of necessary reinvention. 

Virtual Festivals Break Down Barriers and Draw Global Audiences

Anyone who has ever frequented TIFF or any other major arts festival will concur that a virtual fest is nothing like the real thing, but is the magic lost? Not entirely, and virtual fests have proven to offer accessibility that wasn’t available in pre-Covid times.

Virtual offerings break down barriers in terms of accessibility—both physically and financially—meaning that audiences can go global with ease. 

“We had a global audience this year,” said Ken Tsui. VIFF’s director of creative engagement and live programming. “It was really heartening and exciting to see [and] it made us realize that perhaps we should always have a digital component in order to engage folks that may not be able to travel.”

TIFF’s Geoff Macnaughton, who is the Senior Director and Lead Programmer for TIFF’s industry events also shared about the capabilities that going virtual brought, “We definitely want to lean into these opportunities in the future,” he said. “Not feeling like we are a $200 flight and a $1,000 hotel away from people. We can utilize conference call tools to connect people and still find a way to make it intimate.” 

In a time where we cannot be together, physically, the value of connection and community found through the arts has become increasingly recognized, and that authentic connection will be the driving force of what succeeds or doesn’t.