I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!: The ominous paradigm shift from the big screen to the small screen

Sunset Boulevard is a time-honoured classic, a true homage to the fickle nature of the entertainment industry. The film itself, released in 1950 was a lavish depiction of the falsities of Hollywood, the ecosystem in which some thrive and others paddle furiously until they die. That the film opens in classic neo-noir style with William Holden’s body lying face down in a pool is no surprise, and is an ominous reminder of the pernicious leech that is the entertainment industry. At the preview screening of Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s satirical masterpiece on the Hollywood system, the pioneering studio head Louis B. Mayer, is said to have shouted: “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you.” Wilder was clearly seeking to express his frustrations and cynical outlook on the industry that was at the peak of its power. While it’s too early to predict if the same anti-establishment approach to art will emerge as studio heads of the 21st century (streamers) get more competitive it’s no doubt that the streamers and their overarching media conglomerates are setting the agenda for this new era of entertainment. And in these kinds of races, creatives tend to get left behind.

As Warner Media released a press release to the market announcing that they would be releasing their entire slate of 2021 films via streaming services, they were met by a grim response from the film community. Hot on the heels of the Warner Media announcement, Disney held its own investor presentation which similarly sent the suits in Wall Street into an ecstatic tailspin. While Disney was just as bullish about its streaming prospects, it also made pains to note that they would be releasing in theatres simultaneously for some releases. The entertainment conglomerate couldn’t help itself by stating clearly where it was placing its bets, by setting out an extraordinarily ambitious catalogue of releases for its streaming service, Disney Plus. Fortuitous timing with COVID-19 and an iconic brand name has spurned the exponential increase in subscribers to 86 million in little over a year since its launch in October, a feat that took Netflix over seven years. At 137 million subscribers across all its diverse streaming platforms (including both Hulu and ESPN), it is snapping at Netflix’s ankles every day by narrowing the gap. However both do offer distinct experiences, with Netflix’s aggressive content roadmap set on hitting the zeitgeist which tends to buoy its subscriber base, while Disney Plus focuses on rehashing originals, plugging sequels and pushing nostalgia into people’s daily lives. Disney and Netflix are different beasts, but their ambitions know no boundaries. Disney mentioned very little of its Oscar-bait arm, Searchlight (Formerly Fox Searchlight Pictures) at its investor presentation. What was indicated in the release however was that Searchlight would be used as a source of original, adult-focused films for Disney’s Hulu platform. It’s incredible how the tables have turned in such a short time, that the once upon a time Oscar darling of Hollywood is being used as a backdoor for streaming services to promote its films.

Both market announcements stink of the supremacy of shareholder value over the stakeholders: the filmgoers and filmmakers. While I’m intricately aware of what makes the world go round, there must still be a balance struck between the end product to the customer and what dividends are paid. The entertainment industry has always suffered with this lack of imbalance, giving fiduciary relationships more value than creatives. Industry stalwarts such as Christopher Nolan, Denis Villenuve and representatives from the Directors Guild of America (DGA) have voiced their frustrations as such oversights. Nolan denounced the Warner Brothers announcement, noting how he went to bed working with one of the greatest studios in Hollywood and woke up working with the worst streaming service. “Warner Brothers had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

Between March and August 2020, U.S. adults spent 12.2 trillion minutes with digital, 11.1 trillion minutes with linear TV and 2.8 trillion minutes streaming, so it’s no wonder that Warner and Disney’s pointed approaches had Wall Street foaming at the mouth. With the rise of streaming, ad revenue generation has risen in tandem and it’s one of the most lucrative markets for advertisers right now. Nielsen, the data and information firm announced last week that it would be launching a cross-media measurement solution that will encompass consumption across platforms and devices and is expected to become the industry standard for online video consumption by 2024. While it sounds like just another metric for streaming services to dictate monetizing ads through their platforms it could also signal a new era for an online box office. All of these details still need to be ironed out as there is still no gold standard for viewing figures in the streaming world. Netflix has been loathe to release its streaming views in recent years and some creative metrics may be at play here as Netflix currently counts a “view” as someone who chooses to watch a program for at least two minutes.

As Warner Brothers plans to primarily release every film via its streaming service rather than a traditional theatrical release, my mind is drawn to the decaying old Hollywood starlet Norma Desmond who screeches in desperation that she is big, it’s the pictures that got small!’ The insidious shift from the big screen to the small screen has already begun, resources and funds have been allocated to this shift and it’s inevitable. What is yet to be seen is how this will play out in terms of opportunities and threats to the industry as a whole. Will Warner’s announcement be retrospectively seen as a premature bet taken in a COVID-hit environment? Will streaming recede in a post COVID world as cinemagoers crave in-person entertainment more than ever? Will tentpole films be released exclusively online while indie and arthouse productions shift to the cinema screen? It truly is anyone’s guess at how the new streaming era will unfold.

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