The future of entertainment: metaverse, movies, pop culture changes

Stella McDaniel

First, the good news about 2032: It’s probably going to happen! After surveying a wide range of future-thinking artists and executives about what pop culture will look like a decade from now, EW is happy to report that they all believe civilization will still be standing in 10 years. Even better, our experts are confident that we’ll have lots of compelling stuff to listen to, watch, and play. “As long as humans are living on the surface of the planet in 2032,” says Seth Rogen, “movies will still be a thing.”

Movies, music, TV shows, podcasts, video games: Our forecasters agree they’ll continue to play huge parts in our lives in 10 years. But how we’ll enjoy them, and what forms they might take, is where the future gets fuzzy (and maybe a little daunting). What is clear from our conversations with nearly two dozen insiders is that the next decade will be a seismic one for Hollywood, as it continues its awkward, long-running marriage with Silicon Valley — a union that’s upending entire industries and altering our pop culture metabolisms. To understand how much things can change in just ten years, consider this: Back in 2012, Disney and Fox were stand-alone studios; Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu were mostly airing other people’s properties; and the just-launched Spotify was setting now-quaint listening records, thanks to Gotye (he’s just somebody that we used to know).

A decade later, streaming—whether you’re mainlining movies, TV series, albums, or podcasts—has become a daily (if not hourly) way of life. And thanks to the pandemic, we’ve spent the last two years left to our digital devices, which work together to form a kind of ceaseless screen: A 24-hour escape-pod stocked with Yellowstone episodes and A24 movies, TikTok clips and Roblox adventures.

But as radical as the last few years have been, changes to the pop-culture landscape are only beginning. By 2032, EW’s pundits believe that every aspect of entertainment — from moviemaking to concert-going — will be transformed by new technologies, whether it’s AR or VR, deepfakes or dingle-dangles (we made that last one up). The result will be “the most dramatic shift ever in the way that stories are made, told, and consumed,” says Avengers: Endgame filmmaker Joe Russo.

So fire up your VR headsets and buckle your dingle-dangles: Here are some predictions for what to expect a decade from now, courtesy of some of the savviest people we know in showbiz and Big Tech.

Talk to enough experts about Hollywood’s next decade, and one thing becomes clear: The immersive virtual world known as the metaverse is coming. Not sure what that implies? You’re not alone. Rob Bredow, the SVP, chief creative officer of Industrial Light & Magic, whose history of visual-effects innovation includes everything from Terminator 2: Judgment Day to WandaVision, says even cutting-edge creators aren’t in sync when it comes to the metaverse. “It’s kind of an overloaded term,” he says. “Every time we have one of these discussions, the first question I ask is, ‘What do you mean by “metaverse”?'”

No matter how you define it, the metaverse will give big-budget Hollywood storytelling a major creative jolt. Granted, high-end high tech like virtual-reality headsets (which place you within a 360-degree interactive environment) and augmented-reality glasses (which overlay digital elements onto the real world) have yet to become must-have accessories. But in the next 10 years, VR and AR devices will become cheaper and easier, letting us enter the metaverse and interact with our favorite fictitious worlds and characters — a phenomenon that Bredow and his ILM team refer to as “story-living.”

How will those stories play out in the metaverse? The possibilities are endless (and, for now, mostly theoretical). But in 2032, you might head out of the latest Marvel flick, slip on your AR glasses, and immediately transform the world around you into Tony Stark’s workshop, complete with your very own interactive J.A.R.V.I.S. There’s even the possibility of inserting yourself — or an avatar of yourself — into your favorite movies or shows while they’re unraveling. Or you might head out of a new Star Wars flick, slip on your AR glasses, and immediately transform the world around you into a wall-to-wall Tatooine, complete with a Siri-like droid as your sidekick. There’s even the possibility of inserting yourself — or, at least, an advanced virtual avatar of yourself — into your favorite movies and shows in real time, while they’re unraveling. In ten years, predicts Joe Russo, “storytelling will become a mashup, because it will offer you different experiences.”

Many of those more elaborate experiences, of course, are years away — if they even happen at all. But there’s enough faith in the metaverse’s future to lure both Silicon Valley and Wall Street: Mark Zuckerberg has made clear his intentions to pivot Meta (formerly Facebook) towards a metaverse-first company; Microsoft recently spent a ten-figure sum to acquire video-game giant Activision Blizzard, signaling a major interest in VR and AR; and Apple is reportedly developing its own high-tech headset. 

Some of the metaverse’s more far-out storytelling applications are hard to visualize. And Hollywood has long been suspicious of new technologies, with studio execs pushing back against everything from TV sets to VCRs to early downloading. (It doesn’t help that many writers and directors have unpleasant memories of the last heavily hyped screen-based technology: “As someone who spent hundreds of f—ing hours converting The Green Hornet to 3-D,” says Seth Rogen, “I can tell you that trend has definitely gone by the wayside.”) It will likely take some time for those in the AR and VR industry to persuade writers and directors to start pitching their visions for the metaverse. “It’s a matter of getting [them] to think less about one linear narrative and to think more about, ‘What is the world I’m building? And what can people do in that world?'” says Timoni West, VP of Augmented & Virtual Reality at Unity Software, a real-time 3-D platform. “But once movie directors get into this, they’re going to be all about it.”

Some see the merger between gaming and traditional visual storytelling as a given: “Video game companies are going to become major players in the Hollywood landscape,” says Russo, “because they have the IP, they have the deep pockets, and they have the technology.” And thanks in part to the pandemic, the gaming biz is nearing all-time high scores, at least in terms of revenue: According to the analytics firm New Zoo, industry earnings will surpass $200 billion worldwide in 2024.

Even filmmakers who don’t want to go full meta will find their work merging with VR and AR, says Jane Rosenthal, Oscar-nominated producer and cofounder of the Tribeca Film Festival. When the pandemic shut down movie theaters, it spurred creators to seek out new venues for their work. Some turned to virtual platforms such as Fortnite, the insanely popular online game that has premiered trailers and short films, and even hosted a trio of Christopher Nolan’s biggest films. As the metaverse grows, Rosenthal says, “you’ll have concerts there, or you’ll watch a movie. It’s the consolidation of entertainment and gaming—but one’s not going to preclude the other.”

If plunging head-first into a virtual world still feels intimidating, don’t worry: There will be plenty of ways to get your meta-fix and chill by 2032, especially when it comes to music. Artists such as Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande have staged live shows within the metaverse (in avatar form, of course). Katy Perry — who employed augmented reality for a trippy American Idol performance — foresees a 2032 in which stadium tours come directly to fans, via AR or VR. “You’re not just selling tickets to people in real life,” Perry says, “you’re selling them digitally anywhere.” And when you do head out for a concert a decade from now, you might be bringing your metaverse gear with you. Hip-hop artist Open Mike Eagle imagines live shows in which musicians unleash lively visuals via AR glasses: “You could have colors exploding in a three-dimensional space and reconstituting themselves to the beat of the music. If I could control that from the stage, that would be a lot of fun.”

The all-encompassing energy of the metaverse does sound like a blast. And millions are already gearing up for it, as evidenced by record-setting sales in VR and AR hardware last year. But for those who just want to veg out the old-fashioned way, it also sounds kind of exhausting. Thankfully, traditional entertainment will still play a big role in our lives in 2032 — with some futuristic twists, of course.

The last few years haven’t been too kind to theatergoers and theater owners: Attendance took a beating during the pandemic, and thanks in part to the Omicron surge, this past winter saw a series of high-profile releases (including West Side Story and Nightmare Alley) failing to connect with audiences. For film fans, “Will movie theaters survive?” has been an ongoing concern.

And yet — whether out of movie-loving optimism, showbiz-savvy pragmatism, or both — nearly all of EW‘s interviewees believe that we’ll still be heading to theaters in 2032. “Movie theaters aren’t going anywhere!,” insists director/writer M. Night Shyamalan, who posits that the pandemic, and the isolation it forced us all into, has only heightened the need for social interaction. “Taking that oxygen away from us, even just a little bit, made us go crazy. We need to be with each other. And experiencing a story together will be even more precious, even more powerful.”

What kinds of films we’ll watch is unclear: While 2021 wasn’t a normal year for moviegoing, it again found hugely expensive franchise releases dominating the box office. (Nearly all the top 10 films in the U.S. cost at least $100 million.) Meanwhile, smaller films are finding homes on mega-streamers (Netflix, Apple TV+, Amazon) or more curated outlets (MUBI, Shudder). Even those who champion the theatrical experience expect that gulf to widen in the next ten years, as more indie releases head to homes. “We’re renegotiating our relationship with cinema,” says producer Anita Gou (The Farewell, Honey Boy). “Streaming is the way of the future, but it won’t kill theatrical. In fact, I think moviegoing will become more eventized, where it’s like going to the theme park or a concert, as opposed to your regular viewing experience.”

Does that mean you might walk into a theater in 2032 wearing your VR or AR gear? Perhaps. But some of the changes our experts predict are less radical. Tiered pricing — in which big-budget releases command bigger ticket fees — might be in place by 2032, encouraging viewers to take risks on smaller movies. (It was recently adopted by some theaters, which charged higher prices for The Batman.) And expect wider use out of older movie palaces, which can be refurbished or reemphasized for high-profile engagements. (See Los Angeles’ Regency Village Theater, which last fall hosted a weeks-long run engagement of Licorice Pizza — one that seemingly drew the attention of every film-loving Instagrammer in Hollywood.)

Still, those are relatively minor solutions for the looming dilemma of how to fill seats. Some propose a more radical solution: Stop thinking of these cozy, communal big screens as being made simply for movies. “I could imagine theaters embracing long-form even more,” says film/TV director and Reservation Dogs co-creator Sterlin Harjo. He points to the recent surge in lushly produced, devoutly followed TV shows: “If I could watch Game of Thrones every week at a theater with my friends, that’d be exciting.”

To a younger generation of culture enthusiasts — for whom the divisions between film and TV are decidedly less rigid — there are plenty of uses for a big room with reclining seats and primo projection. “I think theaters will evolve and host social events,” says Netflix global film head Scott Stuber. “They’ll make deals with sporting leagues, so you can watch the games on weekends. Kids will go there to watch [e-game] tournaments. And there’ll be a place for big-event television.”

As for what must-see TV might look like in 2032? No one expects traditional linear television to disappear (after all, there will always be advertisers looking to sell their products — and news audiences to rile up). But the same surge in streaming that’s metamorphosed the film industry will continue to have a huge impact on TV. And in conversations with experts about TV’s next direction, one series came up repeatedly: Squid Game

The breakout success of Netflix’s bleakly funny Korean import seemed difficult to replicate; after all, giant creepy robot dolls are nearly impossible to get into SAG. But then came All of Us Are Dead, another Korean-produced smash that, like Squid Game, rocketed to the top of Netflix’s viewing charts. Both point to a future in which streamers have access to more content from around the planet. As a result, “entertainment is going to be in more languages, with fewer barriers and boundaries,” says Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s head of global TV. “It will be more social and interactive. What helped grow Squid Game was people wanting to share their memes or TikTok videos and have their own piece of the story.” And the audience that helped steer Squid Game‘s organic success is the same one that will be driving pop culture as a whole: Gen-Z.

For over a century, Hollywood has manufactured not just high-profile art, but also high-profile stars — the kinds of globe-conquering performers who can attract millions of fans, get risky projects greenlit, and help keep countless jobs afloat. But over the next ten years, the number of everybody-knows-their-name celebs will decrease, and the very definition of fame will be rewritten, as today’s teens and twenty-somethings steadily reshape the culture. By 2032, “the industry won’t have the same ability to anoint who’s next,” says Freeform president Tara Duncan. “It will be the other way round. The audience will decide, and they’ll look for people they connect with, and who have a lived experience that they can relate to. And they’ll follow those people through various life stages and cycles.”

What might that mean for showbiz? Entertainers won’t need to win over the entire world to succeed. Instead, there will be countless mini-movements in which entire careers will be sustained by a smaller number of mega-fans. That’s already starting to happen now, thanks to companies like Patreon, which allows fans to directly fund musicians, podcasters, and YouTubers. And it will grow in the next decade, as actors and filmmakers turn to NFTs — or non-fungible tokens—to finance projects that once would have been backed by major studios. (That’s how Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher raised millions for their forthcoming animated series Stoner Cats.)

With increasing ways for artists to support themselves, future pop culture will be more democratized. “Creators want to have a stake in what they create,” says Axel Alonso, cofounder of AWA Studios, an entertainment company where creators own their IP. “That’s when they do their best work.” As DIY routes expand, says Emmett Shear, cofounder of the livestreaming entertainment service Twitch, “there will be many more people making a living from entertainment in 10 years.” Comedy, predicts TV host Amber Ruffin, will become especially stratified: “We’ll consume so many types of comedy that it’ll be like genres of movies.”

Many believe that democratization will enable a more diverse entertainers class of 2032 — despite Hollywood’s lousy track record: A recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that while there is some progress, like the fact that the percentage of female-directed blockbusters has risen, there is still a lot more to improve, as groups like women and people of color remain drastically underrepresented. Over the next 10 years, as audiences demand stories and stars from around the globe, Hollywood will have to evolve if it wants to survive. “My hope is that, in 10 years,” says Gou, “the face of whoever’s leading pop culture — and where that person is from — will look very different.”

In the post-superstar era, celebrities will be made without traditional showbiz machinery — the PR campaigns, marketing pushes, billboards, and (sigh) magazine covers — and they will transcend long-standing pop culture hierarchies. “One thing the social digital economy has reaped is a cultural flat earth,” says Frank Simonetti, cofounder of Sweety High, a Gen-Z-aimed integrated media platform. (Disclosure: Sweety High has a content agreement with EW.) “The idea of rock stars and movie stars as apex predators — the kids do not think that way these days, because it’s all coming in as zeros and ones.”

And the young audiences of 2022 — who will be creating and consuming much of what we watch and listen to in 2032 — are more culture-jammed than any generation before, with instant access to decades’ worth of digitized history in their pockets. Nowhere is that sped-up hypermetabolism more apparent than in music. With so many musical styles available to sample on streaming — or via viral TikTok clips — the old-school, Breakfast Club-style cultural identities that music fans once assumed (I’m punk; I’m goth; I’m country) are nearing extinction. “We’re playlist-generation kids,” says 24-year-old Grammy winner FINNEAS. “It’s rare you find a kid that’s only listening to one genre of music. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the delineation of genres [continue] to disappear in the coming decade.”

You can already get early glimpses of our genre-agnostic future: It’s in Charli XCX’s style-smashing dance pop; 100 gecs’ frenetic electro-nursery rhymes; the Armed’s cosmic, synth-heavy hardcore punk. And over the next decade, as the internet becomes more available worldwide — and as homemade recording tech becomes even more accessible — expect our listening habits to become truly free of not only genre but also geography. Says singer-songwriter Xenia Rubinos, “We’ll have wider access to music and voices that we may not have had in the past — people who are making mind-blowing music that’s coming from a different perspective.”

Still, as far-out and fast-moving as pop music might get by 2032, our experts believe some decades-long traditions will remain. “The three-minute radio song isn’t going anywhere,” says Rubinos. “My niece, who’s turning 16, listens to music on TikTok, and uses it to make dances, or share funny messages. But that’s not to say that she wouldn’t need a song to play a party with her friends, or to play after a bad breakup. These platforms are just serving different functions for music in the moment.”

But while old-school pop-songs will still be around in 2032, some of them might be more machine than man. “We definitely haven’t tapped some of the AI technology that’s happening right now,” says Grammy-nominated producer BJ Burton. He points to last year’s release of “Drowned in the Sun,” a Nirvana song that wasn’t performed by Nirvana at all: Instead, it was created with the help of a software program that analyzed the band’s music, eventually crafting an all-new sound-alike track. “It’s insane, but I think it’s the next wave,” Burton says of AI-generated music. “In ten years, maybe we’ll have mastered it, and we’ll eventually all have devices where you put in a genre and an emotion, and it spits out a song.”

Then again, the superstar of the future could be you. Experimental composer and performer Holly Herndon has spent the past few years working on “deepfakes”: those startlingly realistic, digitally created songs and videos that replicate famous performers, like those clips of “Tom Cruise” doing coin tricks.

Last year, Herndon unveiled a deepfake project, Holly+, that lets users upload their own song and listen as it’s performed with Herndon’s voice. As deepfake technology expands, it could transform entertainment in big ways and small: “Imagine going to a karaoke bar,” says Herndon, “and not only singing through Beyoncé’s voice, but putting on her body when you look at a screen.”

It’s a far-out idea. But who knows? In the past few years, we’ve become accustomed to all sorts of once-unbelievable pop culture advancements, whether they were digitally de-aged movie stars or meme tunes crashing the Billboard charts. A decade from now, perhaps body-jumping will be a part of our daily existence. Or maybe we’ll be too lost in the metaverse to even notice. The only certainty is that when 2032 finally arrives, we’ll be living in one of the strangest, giddiest, most unbelievable years in Hollywood history. That is, at least, until 2042.

(Additional reporting by Maureen Lee Lenker)

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