January 9th, 2020

The death of the film industry

There has been various commentary for some years now about how the film industry is in trouble, but perhaps there has never been as obvious and dramatic a demonstration of this process as the recently-aired 2020 Golden Globe Awards.

The show started, of course, with Ricky Gervais' instant-classic opening monologue. Gervais was both praised and criticized for his handling of the event, standing in front of an audience of some of Hollywood's biggest names and telling them bluntly that they're not as important as they think they are. Particularly controversial were Gervais' comments at the end of the monologue when he admonished the night's winners to not use their acceptance speech as an opportunity to moralize to others: "If you do win an award tonight, don't use it as a platform to make a political speech. You're in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your God, and fuck off. Okay?"

From my side, I've long said that Hollywood stars, being among the wealthiest people in the world, cannot sincerely claim to understand the real lives of average, everyday people and thus are hardly in a position to talk down to the public about what's right and wrong, and so I can only give Gervais my agreement with regard to this part of his speech, but more interesting to me was a set of comments Gervais made earlier in his monologue implying that the film industry as a whole is a dying beast: "No one cares about movies anymore. No one goes to the cinema. No one really watches network TV".

Indeed, statistics suggest that cinema attendance is on a slow but steady decline throughout most of the world. As for the movies that people do go to see, it seems like most of them tend to be sequels to existing franchises; in particular, it seems like most of the movies that get talked about these days are just Marvel blockbusters. In October of 2019, Martin Scorsese made headlines when he denigrated this development, going so far as to dismiss Marvel films as "not cinema". Scorsese, too, was widely criticized for these remarks (so much so that he wrote an article for the New York Times to address public response), but Gervais, in his monologue, backed up Scorsese: "Seriously, most films are awful. Lazy. Remakes. Sequels... The actors who just do Hollywood movies now do fantasy adventure nonsense... Their job isn't acting anymore. It's going to the gym twice a day and taking steroids, really... Martin Scorsese, the greatest living director, made the news for his controversial comments about the Marvel franchise. He said they're not real cinema and they remind him of theme parks. I agree".

It's the combination of remarks from Scorsese, one of the most legendary and respected film directors in history, and the in-your-face comments from Gervais on one of the film industry's major awards shows, that seems to have struck a nerve with the industry. If Gervais had been speaking alone from his own opinion, people could have dismissed him as a joker: He did, after all, preface his monologue with a warning to everyone to not get offended by the remarks he was about to deliver: "Remember, they're just jokes". And yet when he stands there quoting Scorsese, one of the industry's own oracles, and literally proclaiming "No one cares about movies anymore", it's difficult for Hollywood to not feel threatened and attacked.

Speaking of jokers, Gervais' antics weren't the only time someone used the show to punch Hollywood in the face. When Joaquin Phoenix took the stage for his predictable win of Best Actor for Joker, he calmly declared: "To my fellow nominees, we all know there's no fucking competition between us. It's like this thing that is created to sell advertisements for the TV show". After Gervais told Hollywood's biggest names that no one cares about them, one of the hottest actors of the moment then took the stage to proclaim that the awards show itself is bogus, that the whole notion of a "Best Actor" is a false competition used to get people to watch the show and thus sell advertising. Some of the most visible people in the film industry are now standing up and telling us very clearly that we're being exploited by that industry for money so it can sell us endless vapid action-movie sequels and advertising. It was like a real-life moment from the Joker movie itself: An oddly compelling figure on the television telling us that we're being used and lied to, that there's an establishment which we need to burn to the ground. (Joaquin Phoenix On an Awards Show, What Will He Do?) Amusingly, Phoenix ignored Gervais' advice by making political statements with his acceptance speech, but this only seemed to amplify the sense of chaos that evening: There weren't just two sides fighting each other, there were multiple ideological factions present and representing themselves.

To be fair, one could make the case that this kind of on-stage drama is actually good for the awards show because it attracts viewers. After all, people are bored of watching stuffy Hollywood actors stride onto a stage and give brief thank-you speeches before striding off with their trophy in hand. Just as manufactured conflicts between rappers help fuel interest in (and thus sales of) their rap music, one could rightfully say that the Golden Globes awards show is a whole lot more entertaining when actors go on stage and say "This show is stupid, and so are you". Let's be realistic: Why did NBC invite Ricky Gervais to host the show a fifth time, particularly after Gervais' last time hosting in which he made a joke about the Golden Globes awards being "just the right shape and size" to use as anal sex toys, before clarifying, for anyone who didn't get the joke: "To be clear: That was a joke about me shoving Golden Globes that I've won up my ass. And they asked me to host four times!" The fact that they invited him back after that means that the positive public response to such comments is worth it.

Think back to the 88th Academy Awards--also known as the "2016 Oscars"--and the "Oscars so white" controversy from that year: For the second year in a row, all twenty acting nominees were white people, so how did the Oscars deal with the negative public response to this? They got Chris Rock to host the show. Rock dutifully joked about the situation, declaring: "Well, I'm here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People's Choice Awards", but this didn't actually change the situation; it made people feel better because there was a black comedian pointing out what people already knew, but it didn't change the fact that all the nominees that year were white. Likewise, getting Ricky Gervais and Joaquin Phoenix to go on stage and say that Hollywood is dying might seem like a bold move, but it probably helped increase viewership more than anything else could have, and if it brings in the views and thus the advertising money, then the awards show is happy. Businesspeople don't mind being criticized as long as they keep getting their money; if your criticism of a business helps that business gain publicity and thus money, they'll be happy to have you criticize them as much as you want. This is similar to claims made when the Dilbert comic strip was becoming popular in the 1990s that although Dilbert actually seems like a bold attack against businesspeople and corporate life, the net effect of the strip is to bolster the position of wealthy businesspeople, because it makes their behavior seem normal, and reinforces the message that you can do what you want as long as the company's interests are served: Yes, laugh all you want, as long as you get us our money.

So letting people have a laugh is good for NBC because it gets more people to watch the Golden Globes. The entity with real problems is, once again, Hollywood, because Hollywood is no longer the place to make movies, and the act of going out to movie theaters is becoming the past. What are they being replaced by? Well, it's not just one thing: The single biggest killer of movie theaters was television, because when people became able to watch movies via broadcast TV instead of having to go out, that absolutely devastated movie attendance statistics. A few decades later, home video media--first videotapes and later DVDs--also took away from box office gains, as many people chose to wait until they could rent a movie and watch it at home rather than having to go out to the cinema.

Today, however, there's an entirely new force putting pressure on the film industry, and although everyone at the Golden Globes knew what it is, Gervais, in his role as the guy who chooses to announce what everyone's thinking but no one wants to say, spelled it out: "Everyone's watching Netflix. This show should just be me coming out going: 'Well done Netflix, you win everything. Goodnight'. But no, no, we've got to drag it out for three hours".

Netflix presents a particularly devastating double threat to Hollywood because it has gone beyond its original role as a distributor and become a producer of films. Being a distribution network for viewing films was bad enough for Hollywood, because it takes more people away from theaters and allows them to watch as many movies as they want in the comfort of their own homes, and it also limits film studios' ability to gather marketing information, since Netflix does not usually release viewership numbers; many movies are now released solely through Netflix, and we don't even know how many people watch these movies, because Netflix does not publicly release those statistics. Indeed, one of 2019's biggest movies, well represented at the Golden Globes, was Marriage Story, distributed solely by Netflix and starring A-list Hollywood actors. The film industry would dearly love to know exactly how many people watched Marriage Story and traditional film studios would love to know how they can produce similar films, because many of Hollywood's top actors are now moving to Netflix-exclusive films, finding Netflix a more creative environment than film studios which are motivated entirely by profits and are afraid to take a risk on any movie that isn't part of an existing franchise. Even Joker, which seems like a daring movie, would never have been released if it weren't based on a character from the Batman franchise; yes, Joker is not really a Batman movie in any meaningful way, but it's based on a long-running and highly popular character.

After all of this discussion, however, I must ask one simple and, I think, important question: Is the death of Hollywood good for us, the viewers, or not?

I think the initial reaction of most people to all of these goings-on is one of glee: Finally, we see overpaid Hollywood actors and studios getting what they deserve, as they realize they can't simply feed us the same old recycled ideas countless times over; eventually the viewers will get tired of that and move on to more creative studios which are willing to do more original and daring things with their movies. Rather than making ridiculously high-budget movies and just saturating our media with advertising, film studios will be expected to make movies that are actually interesting and which don't just depend on giant CGI budgets. That's a good thing, right? Most people seem to think so.

Well, I think it is, too. But there's a cloud behind that silver lining: If movies are moving to Netflix, then Netflix simply becomes the next Hollywood. Whatever is new and popular quickly takes on the characteristics of whatever it's replacing. And there are serious problems with how Netflix distributes movies for cinephiles who want to be able to enjoy their movies going into the future.

When videotapes and VCRs became common in the 1980s, this marked a significant period for film enthusiasts, because it meant they could collect movies at home. No longer dependent on film studios to play movies in theaters or on television, people could own Hollywood's biggest-budget output at home and watch those movies whenever they felt like it. This also led to collectors amassing significant collections of videotapes, of course, because movies often go out of production, and there are always a lot of people who like a certain movie which didn't do too well at the box office and who would like to own that movie on tape so they can watch that movie later when it's not likely to ever screen in theaters or air on television again. Of course, videotapes were later phased out in favor of DVDs, but this was just a difference in technical format: The principle was the same.

Today, however, with Internet-based video streaming becoming people's preferred way to watch movies, we're beginning to face the problem that people do not and cannot own their own copies of movies anymore. If I again go back to Marriage Story, one of the most acclaimed movies of 2019, there has been no release of this movie on DVD or in any other physical format, and there probably won't be. Netflix did a very limited theatrical run of the movie, as they often do, but if you want to watch the movie right now, the only way you're likely to be able to do so is through streaming on the Internet. That's fine if you have a Netflix account, but what if you don't have one and really just want to watch that one movie? I don't have a Netflix account because I don't often watch movies or television, but sometimes I do, and when I do so, it's usually because I want to watch something quite specific. I am literally not able to watch one of the biggest movies of 2019 unless I sign up for a streaming service, even if I really want to watch just that one movie.

Besides the obvious consumer problems this creates--where you're forced to subscribe to a service even if you just want to make a one-time purchase of a single product--the streaming model creates for movies the same problem which computer games have long struggled with in regard to DRM: Many computer games require a connection to a licensing server on the Internet in order to function. This prevents people from playing games if they're not connected to the Internet, but more worrying for the future, it also means that those games become unplayable if the company goes out of business. While it's appreciably unlikely that Netflix will go out of business in the near future, what happens if they, for some reason, decide to withdraw a particular movie from their library? As the rights holders to a film, Netflix could do this at any time, for any arbitrary reason. This would make a movie unwatchable for the entire world, simply because some business made a decision to do so. What does this mean for the future of movies that have no physical release and are available only through Internet streaming?

To be clear, I'm not attacking the idea of streaming itself. It's okay that you can watch Marriage Story on the Internet. What's not okay is that you can't watch it any other way. Will we still be able to watch it 50 years from now in the same way we can watch it today? If not, then how will future students of film be able to watch the movie?

The death of Hollywood is being welcomed by people who want new blood and a new order in the film industry. But just as we've seen time and time again in politics, where an entrenched dictatorship is overthrown only to be promptly replaced by another one that's even worse because it's less stable, we need to understand that just kicking Hollywood in the pants isn't the solution to the problem of making better movies. The overturning of the existing film industry might just be the death of the film industry altogether, because while people live under the illusion that Netflix gives them the ability to watch whatever they want, the reality is that Netflix controls what we can watch; in this sense, Internet streaming actually causes us to lose control over what we can watch. Yes, we have a huge library of media to choose from, but we lack the ability to buy our own copies of that media, and if media is ever pulled from that library for any reason whatsoever, there's nothing we can do about it. Yes, we have more options than we've ever had before, but the more options we have, the more dependent we become on those options.