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(PART ONE OF TWO)
The entertainment industry is changing. Everyone knows that. Even the thickest executive to the most stoned production assistant sees the writing on the wall. Usually when you hear the industry is changing, it’s meaningless execuspeak for wall street earnings reports or it’s an excuse for lowball contract negotiations with writers directors and actors. It’s usually nonsense. But not this time. This time things really are changing.
From the advent of motion pictures and television a handful, that’s right a HANDFUL of studios, networks and big entertainment companies controlled what you watched. Maybe less than 10 CEOS of Newscorp, Viacom, Disney, etc controlled what you saw. Not just on networks but on basic cable too. How did they do this? It’s really quite simple and genius. You can control what people watch by controlling only two things: Distribution and Money. Controlling those two things have allowed essentially old white men to keep a lock on the entertainment industry for years.
But what happened when basic cable came along? All those channels, all those choices. That should have spurred competition, right? Most of them were crap, and then the ones worth anything, what did the studios do instead of competing? They merged and bought. Now look at your cable landscape. Almost every channel is owned by someone else. FX (FOX) SCI FI Channel (UNIVERSAL) Comedy Central, Nick, (VIACOM) and anything with Disney and ABC in the title is all one company. CBS owns Showtime and they have a system developed where they can make feature films at zero risk as they already know they’ll play on Showtime and CBS. From the March Hollywood Reporter Article:
“Moonves has signaled CBS could produce four to six films a year in the $10 million-$50 million budget range, allowing Showtime to partly make up for some lost film product on canceled output deals while also giving it a chance to participate in the upside. CBS executives have said the company could make up its film costs thanks to other rights, such as TV and international, before the box office run of movies even starts. And after several years, CBS would have a library it can further leverage in the digital age, they have argued.”
And yet, even with all of this spending and pedantic hands-on micro management from start to finish, the studios and networks know they are losing control. Why? Because of the reason you tech savvy reader already knew about. The internet.
Studios have always competed with each other. But studios compete with each other the way oil companies compete with each other. Which is to say, not really at all. They realize there is enough profit to go around as long as there are only a handful of companies. When there is just Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Universal and a few others then there is enough room at the table. Some friendly competition exists but no one is ever really worried. Occasionally an upstart like Lions’ Gate will make a splash and shake things up a bit with a SAW or a CRASH but again, no one was really worried.
But all of a sudden studios are losing one of the things they controlled. Distribution. They owned the channels. The shelf space on video rental stores and big department stores was limited and controlled by the big companies. No one else could get it, so no one else could be seen or purchased.
But along came the internet. No one can buy the internet. Now matter how hard Disney and Newscorp try. And Amazon.com and Netflix have unlimited shelf space. In fact, one of the reasons for the growth of Netflix was because of all of the indie titles it carries. Films that were just not available anywhere else or too hard to find. All of a sudden the internet has leveled the playing field or at least made it possible to compete fairly. There’s more stuff out there and it’s easier to find. Message Boards and specialty sites along with e-mailed viral videos make what you want easier to get and easier to locate. No fuss, no muss. Add in Amazon and Netflix’s “recommendations” system and it’s even easier. What you want is literally just a click away.
But what about the second thing they control? Money. They are losing some control of that too, but much less quickly. It used to cost a fortune to make a movie or a TV show. Now anyone with a DV camera and a MAC is a filmmaker. That is wonderful and horrifying all at the same time. It doesn’t cost thousands of dollars to produce content anymore. People are doing in their own home. Sure, most if it is horrible. Maybe 5% of YOUTUBE content is actually watchable. But just the fact that it is getting made AND SEEN is remarkable. In essence large amounts of content is being produced and distributed without a studio ever touching it. That has NEVER happened before.
Filmmakers who are amateur, pro, or that middle ground “prosumer” can break through and find an audience via the internet. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either. Then artists are sometimes offered their “big break” by a studio or distributor. But then artists will realize they don’t need their big break anymore. They already have it. Through the beauty of DVD publishing on demand do you even need a distributor anymore? Well, yes if the artist wants to be in stores and sell overseas, but if they don’t it’s in their own reach to do it all by themselves. All the heavy lifting is already done. The artist has found an audience and it is enough to support their work. Niche artists can find niche audiences much more easily and quickly. No more gatekeepers, no more “focus groups” and most importantly, no one to say no. It’s in your power to create or consume. Use it.