T his post is going to be a little Thought Experiment where I peer into the mists of time to see if I can pluck out a few futuristic gems for us to examine. My goal is to look at this brave new world full of screens, and find the uniquely human threads that link past to present, and present to future. So keep reading and enjoy the show!
“We are in the same tent as the clowns and the freaks – that’s show business.”
Edward R. Murrow
The Photo Worth a Thousand Words
There are four seminal events that shaped the modern American film & TV business. First, from 1908 to 1915, when Thomas Edison and the Patents Trust attempted to crush independent filmmaking and monopolize the business – which had the unforeseen side effect of establishing “Hollywood” as the ultimate mecca for Creatives escaping the legal reach of the east coast monopolists.
Second, in 1919, and shown in the ‘thousand word’ photo above, when United Artists became the first movie studio founded & owned by superstar Creatives: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford, and showed us that the essential power and continued success of visual entertainment is based on the star power of it’s Creatives, in alliance with forward thinking business professionals.
Third, the 1944 Paramount Consent decree, which forced movie studios who ruled the integrated process of film production, distribution & exhibition with an iron fist, to limit their participation to two of the three. The major studios chose production & distribution, and that is how things stayed until TV & video technology opened up additional revenue streams that allowed direct studio sales to video rental stores & audiences.
And Finally Number four, where advances in streaming technology in the late 1990’s & early 2000’s established online exhibition, and now has studios scrambling to consolidate and establish their own online platforms to compete with Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and now Alphabet & ATT, who are producing, distributing & streaming a trillion dollar whirlwind of original content. Forget the 1944 consent decree, this is a battle of mega-titans for the creative blood & strategic soul of The Biz!
E ach of these ‘Disruptions’ cracked open the entertainment industry, increased competition & content production, and sparked what I call “The Biz 4.0:” An astounding era of technological re-invention that is driven by increased network capacity & speed, Social Networks, Big Data, and the commodification of Attention.
“Most of the good things in pictures happen by accident”
Ownership in 99.999% of the Law
My mentor, Director Alexander Mackendrick, once told me a story of walking through one of his sets and hearing a set painter bragging that Mackendrick was working on ‘his’ (the set painter’s) film. And that’s the key. Every movie and TV show is ‘owned’ by everyone who works on it, regardless of position. When everybody strives to give their best for their movie, magic happens, and that magic expands exponentially when we, the public, finally take ownership.
“We Own the Attention that Industry needs to sell their products, which proves that ‘Our’ Money Actually makes the World go Around.”
This point is at the heart of modern Film, TV and content creation: Ownership is power! First there was “#Oscars so white”, then “#Me too,” and now the persistent call to increase the high level participation of women & minorities. And companies are responding, because they recognize that the only way to keep their increasingly diverse audiences spending, is to show them that they share their values. And more to the point, it shows us that consumers and creatives can use the power of Social Media to change the narrative, and bend history to an collectively enlightened, economic will.
“I have a theory that movies operate on the level of dreams, where you dream yourself.”
Be. Here. Now.
Now that I’ve laid out a little context for you, its time to look at the Now. One high placed studio executive quipped that “Blockbuster franchises are the new business of the movie business.” And profits are so high who can deny it. But that’s old news, and by old news I’m referring to the 1950’s & 60’s when the studios gleefully followed a similar line of thinking, until the youth revolution of the 60’s blew the gears out of their industrial money making machine.
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
The problem with always following a ‘Sure Thing,’ is myopia. Every time you strip mine your products, you’re inviting overexposure & obsolescence, so my warning to the Big Dogs is this: Take a page from the tech world, where the norm is creating new products designed to kill your old ones. Start investing in a more entrepreneurial mindset that empowers new voices that are dedicated to pushing the edge of audience expectation. Brand loyalty in the entertainment business goes to the Talent first – the faces & ideas that the public identifies & resonates with – and then to the studio. Audiences follow the talent, they’re why we watch, and studios no longer have the advantage of sticking to a singular identity. The Mouse (Disney) just bought the Fox (Fox) to expand the diversity of their product line – let’s hope they’re smart enough not to change the Fox into a Mouse.
As William James observed, we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine.”
The Second Golden Age of TV
The brightest spot in the screen firmament is TV & Streaming, where genre busting movies, series, specials & web content abound. Like the first Golden Age in the 1950’s & 60’s, it’s a fabulous free for all, and the only downside I see is the shadow of consolidation – but that’s one heck of a big shadow. The nature of corporations is to grow market share, revenue, power & prestige, that’s all good, right? But the problem with growth is that it often heralds a change in how a company sees it’s mission and identity, and when you go from being a luxury yacht to super tanker, you realize that it takes a long time to turn your ship around. And these days, companies need the ability to turn on a dime to profit from changing markets & technology.
T he old term ‘Power Corrupts’ is a reminder that when mega success happens, management sometimes forgets that success is a team effort. In movies & TV success is measured by the popularity of the content. Sure, management chose the projects, worked with their creators, and marketed & distributed it, but artists & technicians created the content the pays the bills. Balance is the key here. Power corrupts when business and creative objectives are at odds, but true success is when management encourages balance, and rewards it with an eye toward creative sustainability.
Every company starts out with a new vision designed to disrupt their marketplace, so they can stake their unique claim. This entrepreneurial energy forces them to adopt new ways of doing business, which means new types of content for media companies. This has given a leg up to independent producers and artists, and given us the diversity of content that’s filling our screens. But many of these companies are maturing, so there’s a real danger that they’ll standardize content creation, and eliminate the cutting edge artists & ideas that made them successful in the first place. When that happens, the audience loses interest – and companies lose profits.
“Act locally – think globally: For Movies & TV this translates to companies partnering with new artists (the Local), by giving them the credibility & funding they need to do the work; then considering the audience (the Global), by creating content that serves their diverse needs.”
Doing the Nostradamus ‘Hustle’
Now that we’ve got a handle on the past & present of The Biz 4.0, what about The Biz 5.0? The Big Studios have been scrambling to consolidate their control over content, especially franchises, as tech giants move into their territory. This media hustle brings to mind another old saying about storytelling that my mentor pounded into my brain: “Who does What; with Which; and to Whom?
“Film is, to me, just unimportant. But people are very important.”
So what does this say about the future? The Who: Major Companies; will use the Which: Money & Technology; to capture the Attention of the Whom: Us, to lock in the most advertising & content revenue. The viewing public will continue to seek programs that resonate, while tech companies refine their A.I. algorithms in a valiant attempt to give us what we want, with – yes folks you guessed it – Big Data. But the difficulty of relying on Big Data is that it shows us patterns of behavior based on where we’ve been, but it has difficulty in predicting where we are, and where we are going, so statistically speaking: The ‘Mean’ has trouble with the ‘Mien.’
“After all, the true seeing is within.”
This brings us back to ownership. When we own something it becomes a part of us, emotionally, intellectually & spiritually. So my prediction is that the futurists, engineers and scientists that are shaping A.I., will eventually stumble on this humanistic Rosetta stone by involving the audience directly in their process. When this happens, they’ll see that the programs that really resonate with us, are made by artists who are actively mining the human experience to show us ourselves in all the magnificently unique ways we want to be seen.
“No person, trying to take responsibility for her or his identity, should have to be so alone. There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors.”
A ‘Disruptive’ Idea
I believe it’s time to create a global media incubator, an artist & audience based Social Media platform, that is fully funded and supported by the industry. Audiences would be invited to collaborate, vote, and comment on projects still in the idea stage. The most promising projects & creators would receive mentoring and a development stipend from participating studios & media companies, then companies would bid to produce the final project and finally bring it to our screens. The goal is to bring the audience into the creative process – remember that ‘ownership’ thing I mentioned before? – and use the power of Big Data to drive innovation. We’re already headed in this direction in other industries, so it doesn’t take a media Savant to see that this path is the future of tech driven media.
“A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection — not an invitation for hypnosis.”
The Secret of Success
The incredibly powerful, interwoven threads of the media past, present & future are no secret, and like our waistlines, are in a continual process of expansion & contraction that’s driven by two forces: The industry’s need to maximize profit; and the public’s need to be entertained. Which brings to mind Albert Einstein’s #1 secret for success, “A quiet and modest life brings more joy, than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.”
“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
Nobody thinks Einstein lived a modestly quiet life, so I’ll fill in the logic gap here by saying that ‘modesty’ is the ability not to take yourself, or the world, too seriously, and ‘quiet’ is keeping your mind & heart open, so you can creatively embrace the diversity of human experience. If we embody these two qualities we eliminate ‘Unrest’ and live successful lives. And “The Biz 4.0 & 5.0?” it’s success depends on a willingness to embrace it’s audience, and let it guide them to new glories.
Wherever You Are – We’re There
The good news is that “The Biz 4.0” is moving closer to us by exploring the stories we love with more depth, and acknowledging how vital ‘Attention’ is to enjoying a meaningful life. I heard one TV show runner say that each new season now rolls out like a ten to thirteen hour long movie thanks to binge watching. Why? Because now more than ever, we are living inside the stories we consume, searching for answers as well as entertainment. Which means that we’ve reached a tipping point – either media companies choose to deepen their collaboration with their audiences’ need ‘to see and be seen,’ or risk becoming irrelevant in a deeply networked, socially interdependent world. Hint. The winners will tip toward the Audience.
“No matter what you do, Your Will is your Way. So follow your Bliss wherever it leads, and keep finding joy in all your Modest & Quiet Ways!”