It’s the end of movies as we know them (and I feel fine)
“How Will The Movies Survive The Next Ten Years?” demands the New York Times, in a series of interviews with 24 major Hollywood figures. Good question! I’ve been asking it myself, here, for six years now. Very unlike music, television, books, and home video, the theatrical movie experience has proved remarkably resistant to online disruption…
I’ve argued before that Hollywood and Silicon Valley have many parallels: VCs are like studios, angel investors are like individual producers, founders are like directors, etcetera. However, they also have some striking differences. For most of the last 25 years, the cost to launch a groundbreaking, potentially world-shaking startup has decreased — though that may well be changing — whereas the total cost to make, market, and distribute a theatrical release has decidedly not.
Furthermore, movie theaters, built around repeat screening of 90-to-180-minute self-contained films, face new direct-to-streaming-services competition with far more range, from bingewatching 22-episode series to short clips on YouTube. Even in the arena of “movies” as we know them, this competition seems exponentially more intense every year — there’s no way “Bright” and “Bird Box” would have been direct-to-Netflix as little as five years ago — and will hit a whole new fervor with the launch of the Disney Plus launch date later this year.
We can analogize that, maybe, to some extent, to downloadable software vs. software-as-a-service. There can be only one winner, right? Right? And note that, despite the runaway successes of Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel, 2019’s US box office is still tracking a full 10% behind last year‘s. There may be a trend here.
It seems that Hollywood is finally aware of the change. Some striking quotes from that NYT piece: “This is the biggest shift in the content business in the history of Hollywood” — Jason Blum. “For a long time, people have been saying the business is changing, but that’s undeniable now” — JJ Abrams. “I don’t feel particularly optimistic about the traditional theatrical experience” — Jordan Horowitz, producer of La La Land. “There’s a lot more work, but it’s a lot harder to make money on anything.” — Elizabeth Banks.
…But with risk comes opportunity, especially for people who haven’t had much before.
“I’ve seen a lot of female filmmakers get opportunities at Netflix and Amazon that they haven’t gotten through the studio system. So I’m very, very happy about the new shape our industry is taking” — Jessica Chastain. ‘A really huge studio told us, “Hey, a woman of color should be the lead of this movie.” And we went, “Great!” I don’t think we would have heard that five years ago from a major studio’ — Kumail Nanjiani
Perhaps “Hollywood,” as the maker and purveyor of huge-budget, huge-footprint, in-theaters-everywhere entertainment, is indeed a dinosaur finally starting to diminish … but if streaming services are allowing more and more people to create scripted entertainment of every kind, on every budget, then their success is no bad thing. I don’t think movies are going to die. I think there will long be people like me, who so prefer the immersive experience of a theater to the in-passing one of streaming at home that we’re willing to pay for it.
But I can envision a future in which a Hollywood Movie is no longer the alpha king of cultural experiences — where, instead, shared worlds spread across many entertainment form-factors, including lower-cost ones, made by a diverse crowd of contributors, take prime position in our collective mindshare. In that future, theatrical releases become a relatively niche market compared to streaming.
In such future the theatrical business model will change, too, and rightly so. I’m still baffled why I couldn’t see the last season of Game of Thrones in any nearby theater, for instance. But there will be far more kinds of entertainment to choose from, undercutting the century-long dominance of “three acts in two hours,” from far more kinds of people. Even to a hardcore cinemaphile like me, the more I think about such a future, the more it seems better to me than the status quo.