At the start of any given year, journalists and industry watchers will sit down, review the projects slated to be released over the next 12 months, and attempt to formulate a farmer’s almanac of sorts—predicting the hits and pop cultural milestones that will dominate the news cycle.
There isn’t much of a science to it, save for known qualities such as star power, popular franchises and patterns of consumption, but even with those measures in place during a regular year, sure-fire hits can still end up flopping while smaller projects explode in popularity. It’s an unpredictable industry.
Then you get an overall unpredictable year like this one. Few could have foreseen the circumstances of 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, which has shut down the film and television industry outright, shuttled all major theatrical releases and created a large and captive audience for streamed content. In many ways, the year became a bit of a wild west in terms of content consumption, with everyone desperate to figure out what would resonate. True crime? Sure! Feel good comedy? Yup. Drag queens? You bet.
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So what have Canadians been watching on their streaming platforms? Here are the most popular shows and movies from the past five-plus months of lockdown.
Try as we might, we couldn’t get our hands on official data from Amazon Prime, but we were able to make some educated guesses at what has been attracting eyeballs based on tangential evidence, like what shows have been getting the most press and generating the most conversation online. Hulu acquisition Little Fires Everywhere has been generating a ton of attention over the last few months, as has The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which just racked up 20 Emmy nominations. Fleabag, Modern Love and The Expanse continue to trend on social media, and afterlife dramedy Upload made quite the splash when it premiered in the spring. But so many of Amazon’s offerings are vintage shows, so a lot of what we’ve been watching has been some good old nostalgia, including the OG Unsolved Mysteries thanks to the buzz around the Netflix reboot.
Knives Out and The Lifehouse have been popular titles that recently made their way to the platform, as have Jumanji: The Next Level, Bad Boy for Life, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood and the utterly depressing Terminator: Dark Fate. Looking specifically at my social set, many of my friends have been secretly watching the Jonas Brothers doc Chasing Happiness, and my gays have been mainlining Carol, so there’s that.
I guess you can say we’re a funny people, huh? According to official data provided to us by CBC, comedy was by and large the biggest hit for our public broadcaster’s streaming service, with Kim’s Convenience, Workin’ Moms, Queens, Hey Lady!, Late Night in the Studio and, of course, the final season of Schitt’s Creek attracting the most eyeballs. On the drama front, the BBC/Hulu hit Normal People had the biggest premiere of any series in the history of the platform, and miniseries Looking for Alaska also drew a sizeable audience. Canadians also like their lifestyle/doc series: Canada’s a Drag, The Oland Murders, Good People and Travel Man: 48 Hours ranked high on the list.
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No doubt inspired by the long-overdue discussion of privilege and racial injustice within our society, Charles Officer’s doc The Skin We’re In (about Desmond Cole researching his famous book) has been incredibly popular on the streamer. The Phyllis Ellis doc Toxic Beauty, about unregulated toxins and chemicals in cosmetics, was another hit, as was Mina Shum’s Meditation Park, a drama starring Sandra Oh and Don McKellar.
According to Crave’s data, our viewing habits over the first four months of the pandemic were…varied, to say the least. There’s the obvious familiar comfort-food shows like Seinfeld, Sex and the City,The Sopranos, Homeland, The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones. Then there are the new series making waves, like the Stephen King adaptation The Outsider, Anna Kendrick-fronted Love Life, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels and Star Trek: Picard. New seasons of Westworld, Billions, Killing Eve, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Handmaid’s Tale, RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars (Canadians really love their drag!) had us hooked. And for comedy, we were watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, South Park and Letterkenny in droves.
Oh, brother. Joker? We’re all terrified by the political situation out there, further exacerbated by a worldwide pandemic, and the content we turn to for comfort is…Todd Phillips’ nihilistic dude-bro fantasy flick. Wait…and X-Men: Dark Phoenix. And Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. And IT: Chapter Two. Dark!
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But! In the less dismal column, we have Quentin Tarantino’s wistful Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, fantastic Oscar-winner Parasite and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet’s black comedy horror Ready or Not. Other popular flicks include Ad Astra, Good Boys, The Hustle, Yesterday, Stuber, Spiderman: Far From Home, Aquaman, Downtown Abbey, Crazy Rich Asians, Shazam! and The Kitchen.
Like Amazon, Netflix is notoriously cagey about their numbers—save for the odd self-reported list—and their metrics aren’t consistent with industry standards, which makes meaningful comparison difficult. Still, we were able to cobble together a rough guess of what people were watching based on a few other sites and social media.
Remember Tiger King? Of course you do. Released way back on March 20, the true crime documentary miniseries was a blockbuster hit and will always remind us of the beginning of quarantine life. Benefitting from the almost complete worldwide shutdown at the time, it attracted (according to Nielsen) an estimated 34.3 million viewers over its first week of release, making stars of its subjects and inspiring a number of adaptations, spin-offs and follow-ups.
Other hits for the streamer included reality series Love is Blind and Floor is Lava, Henry Cavil starrer The Witcher, the adorable Mindy Kaling-produced comedy Never Have I Ever, the reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, You, Warrior Nun and the recent The Baby-Sitter’s Club adaptation. Returning series Ozark and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s interactive special also generated a fair bit of traffic.
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Netflix has revealed that The Willoughbys, The Last Dance, The Decline, Extraction and Spenser Confidential were all big draws for them, bringing in anywhere between 21 million to 90 million independent views. Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion received renewed interest via the platform off the top of the pandemic, while To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga were popular on socials.