The Future of Film Is Now

The Cannes Film Festival concluded Saturday, and while it is certain that we will be hearing all about the films that premiered there in the coming months, it is also certain that the most memorable moment of this year's Festival occurred a month before it opened.

In response to a rule requiring that any films entered in to the competition be released theatrically in France, Netflix announced it would pull all of its films from the slate last month. 

Given that two of its most critically acclaimed original films, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), played there just last year, it is a bold move by the company and one that, at the time, felt like an end-of-the-beginning moment.

As Netflix and Amazon have wormed their way in to the larger cinematic landscape over the past few years, slowly but surely finding their way in to Academy Award nominations and critics' top-10 lists, they have been regarded, at arm's length, with a healthy mix of curiosity, condescension and contempt by the traditional film industry. Here, I thought at the time, was a sign that we were entering a new phase - an intensification of hostilities in a war that would reshape the business of film in to something drastically different. It would look like something we could not quite imagine in the moment.

In the intervening weeks, I have completely revised that position. In fact, I have come to believe that whatever war was to be fought between the traditional side of the industry and the so-called disruptors like Netflix already has been.

The future of film is here, and Netflix's Cannes stance is more properly seen as the beginning of the end.

All that is left is for all of us to decide how we feel about it.

"So Here's Your Future"

I did not come to these conclusions by myself. Smart, well-sourced people helped me to it. The first was Ben Fritz, who, just this year, released a definitive history of the film business in the 21st century. 

Fritz's book, The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, uses the massive Sony Pictures leak, and in particular one of its central figures, former studio head Amy Pascal, as a jumping off point for charting the ascent of the franchise film and the dramatic decline of small and medium star vehicles.

If you love film, Pascal seems like the kind of executive you would want to work for - taste-making much more than number-crunching and cultivating fruitful partnerships with the industry's biggest stars.

As Fritz puts it in his book:

Sony thrived in [the mid-2000s] because Pascal thrived at making all kinds of movies for all types of people. She wasn't much at maximizing the value of a branded franchise, but she knew how to develop a script to perfection, make just the right change in the editing room to take a film from good to great, and how to charm the most talented filmmakers and actors.
Sony's motion picture profits did swing up and down in the 2000s, which according to conventional Hollywood thinking was inevitable, since it was tough to tell ahead of time which original films would prove popular and which wouldn't. But with [co-studio chief Michael] Lynton managing the business and Pascal the moviemaking, financial results were satisfying more often than not.

Pascal was, in essence, a highly skilled and shrewd gambler in her time at Sony, succeeding more often than she failed because of her instincts. The problem for her - and the reason she's no longer the head of a major studio - is that Marvel Studios and Disney, the studio that ultimately acquired the upstart, proved that you don't have to gamble at all.

Juxtaposing Pascal's approach with the likes of Kevin Feige and others at Marvel and Disney, Fritz tells a story better fit for a business school than a film studies class. By doing far less in terms of output and focusing relentlessly on the kind of quality that will be crowdpleasing even if it doesn't win awards, Disney has done something remarkable in the film industry: it has built a true brand, or more accurately brands, that resonate with moviegoers.

Simply by putting Pixar or Lucasfilm or especially Marvel on something, it is able to generate record business. As recently as the last decade, that wasn't true of Disney's movie business, though in the context of this particular company, which has almost always had a great grasp of its identity and the value of its brand, it makes perfect logical sense that it managed to.

Again, Fritz:

Disney doesn't make dramas for adults. It doesn't make thrillers. It doesn't make romantic comedies. It doesn't make bawdy comedies. It doesn't make horror movies. It doesn't make star vehicles. It doesn't adapt novels. It doesn't buy original scripts. It doesn't buy anything at film festivals. It doesn't make anything political or controversial. It doesn't give award-winning directors like Alfonso Cuaron or Christopher Nolan wide latitude to pursue their visions.
Though Disney still has flops, it has fewer than any other studio - fewer than anyone ever dreamed was possible in a business that has for decades seen more failures than successes and has been compared to riding a roller coaster. Disney has, in short, taken a huge chunk of the risk out of a risky business.
Many in Hollywood view Disney as a soulless, creativity-killing machine that treats motion pictures like toothpaste and leaves no room for the next great talent, the next great idea, or the belief that films have any meaning beyond their contribution to the bottom line. By contrast, investors and MBAs are thrilled that Disney has figured out how to make more money, more consistently, from the film business than anyone ever has before. But actually, Disney isn't in the movie business, at least as we previously understood it. It's in the Disney brands business. Movies are meant to serve those brands. Not the other way around.

Of course, the kind of movies that Disney "doesn't make" do still get made. Indeed, even as the options available to theatergoers are contracting, the total number of films at the fingertips of fans has exploded to the point that it is overwhelming to sit on the couch on a Friday night and pick something to watch.

The Streaming Paradox

I speak, of course, of Netflix and Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Hulu and HBO Now, and all of the other streaming platforms available to consumers now or coming in the near future. Even Disney is likely to get in on the act before long. Combined, they have done more than fill the void left as the major studios put less and less in the theater every year.

While the streaming platforms are better known at this point for prestigious and/or bingeworthy "television" shows like Stranger Things and The Handmaid's Tale, they are also awash in original films either created and produced directly for the platforms themselves or financed with the platforms as an endpoint heavily in mind. By late April, Netflix had released an astonishing 25 films in 2018 alone. Amazon has been far more selective to date and thus more successful in the critical sense, scoring Oscar nominations in each of the last two years. But, and this is where my mind begins to bend a bit, quality and critical success is totally and utterly secondary in the streaming world. 

The Amy Pascal-style approach to film, in fact, lives on at places like Netflix and Amazon. Indeed, it may have been the more natural home all along. And that's where we start to entertain a bit of a paradox. Netflix and Amazon are "saving" the kind of adult fare Pascal was so adept at nurturing even though they, like Disney, don't really care at all whether a movie is critically successful or wins awards.

The difference in approach is in the medium itself and the way the media is being consumed - film and the experience of going to a theater vs. visual stories, long or short, accessed instantly from the comfort of your living room. In the latter conceit, placing a lot of skilled bets - making "all kinds of movies for all types of people" - makes perfect sense strategically. In the streaming world, you don't really care what people are watching on your platform at any given moment, just that they are watching. (Yes, there is a feedback loop where you tailor your original content more and more the more people watch, but this is about getting people to watch at an increasing rate more than it is about the original choice to watch.)

If you were ever wondering what Netflix sees in Adam Sandler, well, here's your explanation. He doesn't have the broad appeal of a Marvel movie that is increasingly required for a film to be open in thousands of theaters, but he does have a very loyal following that will keep a large enough audience coming back. That aligns perfectly with the streaming business model.

Put another way by Fritz, here writing about Amazon's foray in to original content, it "didn't make movies primarily to make money from movies. It used movies to draw attention, to increase engagement, and to dominate people's time and digital behavior so they would ultimately buy more stuff from the company."

"We're All Fine Here, Now, Thank You"

What I find so interesting about this in a historical sense is how long film actually managed to be the way it was through about the middle of the last decade. Enter the second, well-sourced person who helped me arrive where I am: Tim Wu, the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.

Wu's book is essentially a history of advertising - from print to radio to television to the digital age. It's a great way to get grounded about the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica revelations among many other things. Film is noticeably absent from much of the book.

The movie theater has, for so long, been a relative safe haven from the near constant come-ons from advertisers. Sure, you get candy and soft drink ads and ads for other movies before the show, and you might see product placement in the movie itself, but relative to any other sort of media you consume, spending two hours in a dark room watching a movie has largely been a reprieve from advertising for more than a century.

The rise of Netflix in particular, though, has permanently turned the theater part of that equation on its head.

As Wu writes:

In a sense, Netflix rediscovered a lost trove of human attention; not the splintered and fleeting kind being plundered by the web and cable TV, but deeper, sustained attention. It was a rich vein indeed, filled with an evident hunger for more engaging immersive content. Netflix wasn't the only one providing it, but it was the only Internet company.

I'm not foolish enough to think of Netflix as some sort of cinematic savior/messiah. For one, its competitive differentiator right now is its data. Mining that and spinning out content based off of it is no guarantee of quality; rather, it's a guarantee of finding out what people like or, even more questionably from an artistic perspective, find addictive. Second, this is the first year it is likely to be profitable as a company, and, as Wu so eloquently points out over the course of his book, the history of advertising is advertisers finding new ways to harvest attention where there are already eyeballs. I'm not saying Netflix is going to start running ads, I'm just saying it'd be foolhardy to think of that (or something like it) as an impossibility.

What is clear to me is that the industry trends of the last few years that I've viewed as disruptive but slow-moving have, in reality, sped past us and reached some sort of terminus.

Disney has blazed a trail so far forward that, to borrow a cliche, the goalposts have been moved permanently for the other major studios that put films out in theaters. At the same time, Netflix and Amazon and a handful of other players on the streaming side of things have "rescued" indie arthouse films, adult dramas, star vehicles and all other manner of things Disney doesn't make. They have done this not out of some benevolence or Medici-style patronage, but because their business model is so different.

As Fritz puts it, speaking on behalf Ted Hope, a deeply passionate independent film producer who became the head of Amazon Original Movies in 2015: "All he needed was a company that, at its core, couldn't care less about movies."

What is at risk right now - what I worry about losing, especially outside of major cities that can support eclectic film tastes of all varieties - is not so much film as it is the theater. (And no, please don't bring up MoviePass here.)

Oh, we'll always be able to see Marvel and Star Wars at the multiplex. And the experience itself, forced to compete with the convenience of Netflix and Amazon, is getting better, whether it's reserved seating or elevated food and beverage options.

But, if you're a cinephile, the thing actually showing on the screen still matters greatly, and the experience of seeing it in the theater ought to always trump the smaller screen. That, more than traditional vs. disruptor, is what the Cannes flap really seems to be all about.

Going to the theater is at once meditative and communal. It is a vastly different thing to spend two hours watching something in a darkened room with your phone shut off and surrounded by strangers than it is to watch the very same thing at home with the lights dimmed, only your friends and family nearby, your phone buzzing away, and a pause button in reach for even the slightest interruption.

It is the theatergoing experience as we know it that is in danger in the coming years. Even if it becomes something different and, on the balance, better, there is also great risk that something very valuable will be lost in the process.