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Why Data Science Will Be the Future of Entertainment

Since its inception, Netflix has paved the way for streaming to become the new way to watch content and it’s no surprise either. If we look back upon the history of content distribution in the entertainment industry, technology has always been at the forefront. Look no further back than when radio helped bring entertainment across frequencies, or when television brought movies and sitcoms into the homes of suburban America. And now thanks to mobile technology, we have a radio, television, and computer all combined into a device that can fit into our pocket. Technology has always been the limit to what the entertainment industry can accomplish, but with the digital age increasing the interconnectedness of consumer to merchant, it appears that the limit may be no more thanks to data science.

Before discussing how streaming takes advantage of data science, we have to talk about how it got there. With almost everybody relying on mobile technology, especially their smartphones, it’s now far more easier to obtain information and data on people. The digital age has introduced corporations and business to the digital footprint: a collection of data that summarizes a consumer’s purchasing habits and, most importantly, their online activity. That online activity is what draws the attention of businesses and advertisers. By using data analytics, businesses and advertisers can create a profile of their target audience that gives them the best opportunity to sell their products and/or services. In the case of something like Netflix, data science can not only help sell its services, but develop products based on their users activity.

Netflix has always been a data science driven company. On their own website, they state:

“Partnering closely with business teams in product, content, studio, marketing, and business operations, we perform context-rich analysis to provide insight into every aspect of our business, our partners, and of course our members’ experience with Netflix.”

Netflix is one of the first online content platforms to take advantage of data science and algorithms. Their software engineers are able to detect the viewing habits of their users and create personalized recommendations for them in order to generate more web traffic on their site. Netflix’s reliance on data and algorithms is so strong that they even developed algorithms that change the thumbnail image of a movie or TV show. For example, they’ll change the thumbnail if the image contains the likeness of an actor or genre that you prevalently watched on Netflix. Their system is so efficient and effective that Netflix knows all of their users’ viewing habits 80% of the time. And with their content library being one of the largest, they can cover a large market of consumers with personalized algorithms for each of them.

Netflix doesn’t have to rely on a system like the Nielsen Ratings to determine what shows they need to produce. They have access to data that detects even the tiniest detail. Netflix’s data reaches so far that they can even detect a user’s browsing and scrolling behavior on their interface. The main point being is that Netflix deeply knows its user base and market. And the thing that makes Netflix such a smart company is that they utilize their data to not only manage licensed content, but to create their own.

In a New York Times article titled “Giving Viewers What They Want,” David Carr writes, “Netflix is commissioning original content because it knows what people want before they do.” The subject of Carr’s article was about how Netflix’s new show at the time, House of Cards, was unlike any other show. It has nothing to do with its content but rather with its inception. House of Cards was one of the first streamed shows, and according to Forbes, its first season was ordered in full. Netflix did not order a single pilot so that they can show test audiences. They already knew that their user base would want to watch House of Cards due to their data analysis supporting it.

Netflix churned out more hits like their collection of superhero shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, and The Queen’s Gambit. Netflix’s success was what led to what’s been deemed the “Streaming Wars.” All of a sudden services like Hulu started rivaling Netflix, and then movie studios started introducing streaming services like WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and Disney+ that add content libraries to their respective properties. And with these streaming services, original content was made for streaming.

With streaming becoming so big and popular, the biggest question is how does this affect the entertainment industry, or more importantly, how it affects the type of content we’ll watch in the future?

Netflix’s data science driven production process somewhat clashes with how a movie or TV show is regularly produced for conventional platforms. For the traditional method, it relies on what worked in the past and gut instinct. Film studios rely on the success of past films in order to help them decide what to greenligiht. For Netflix, they only need to see what their data analysts report. For Netflix, a success of a show is already determined before it gets greenlit due to their data analytics. What this suggests is that Netflix isn’t looking for a creative filmmaker or writer that could pitch them a new show. Rather, it suggest that Netflix is only looking for a competent filmmaker that can make the type of show that they already know what they want. In other words, it seems like they’re looking for a simple role player rather than a creative artist.

It’s to no one’s surprise that movies and TV is equally as a business as it is an art form. Netflix commissioning artists and filmmakers to produce content for their platform isn’t something we haven’t seen before, but what is different is the lack of artistic risk that studio executives have a sixth sense for. A lot of the great films and TV shows we’ve cherished in our popular culture were deemed too risky or a guaranteed failure. Cultural icons like Star Wars or even Seinfeld wouldn’t have happened if not for studio executives taking that leap of faith and relying on their intuition.

This seesaw of what’s successful and what’s not is what led to the popular William Goldman quote “Nobody knows nothing.” For a streaming service like Netflix, they’re trying to erase that need for a leap of faith. From a business perspective, it makes sense that Netflix is trying to erase that risk that could lose the company millions of dollars, but Netflix isn’t selling a product that can be bought off the shelf in a last minute Black Friday shopping deal. They’re providing movies and TV shows, products that don’t have an expiration date or a need to be replaced for the newest model. They live in the hearts and souls of people’s memories, and are ways for people to connect. Bringing that cold, calculative approach that Netflix is using to commission their original content can take away the artistic imprint that’s essential to what makes a good movie or TV show.

With other streaming services trying to replicate Netflix’s success, relying on data science rather than artistic risk could be the future of producing movies and television. If I were writing this before March 2020, my concerns would stop at the future of just streaming content, but since I’m assessing the future of producing content after experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of data science may go beyond the internet.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Warner Bros. decided to release their 2021 slate of films in both theaters and on HBO Max. What appears to be an attempt to gain as much profit as possible during the pandemic could be the future of theatrical releases. From a business perspective, the use of data science and analytics could help assess the success of theatrically-released films a lot better than box office earnings. That being said, though, moving to streaming can mean the further decline of movie theaters. Considering the situation that they were in, Warner Bros. made a smart business decision in testing out what releasing theatrical films on streaming could potentially look like. The first two flagship films that they released on HBO Max was Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League and Godzilla vs. Kong. Both films have reportedly increased the number of subscribers during their releases (myself included). While not a ground-breaking success that made Warner Bros. automatically think that streaming is the new movie theater, it still offers a glimpse of what’s possible to come.

The films that Warner Bros. released weren’t just any ordinary films; they’re tentpole films that can help sustain a franchise and thus produce more films. If this move by Warner Bros. further encourages studios to rely on streaming services, some movie theaters could end up closing their buildings. Some smaller theater chains like Arclight are shutting down operations due to the pandemic. It’s not a question of whether the theatrical experience is essential to the viewing of cinema, but evaluating the artistic value of how we consume our content is often replaced with the goal of convenience, especially with movie ticket prices preventing people from willing to come to the theater. For theaters, a lot of contributions are affecting its sustainability, and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic just made the the situation a whole lot worse.

With all the potential foreshadowing and warning that industry analysts have said about how streaming can affect the entertainment industry, they’re all still predictions. Analysts have said the same about television, so it’s no surprise that history is repeating itself with streaming. If we were to look through a lens of how streaming can make the entertainment industry different rather than in trouble, there are some potential upsides.

With streaming taking advantage of the mobile technology that is essential in everybody’s lives, it’s especially essential to the younger audiences. The profile of the current younger audiences is that they’re more diverse and accepting of new ideas, and they’re the most reliant on technology. The data science of streaming is eliminating that risk of producing content that may seem too risky, which is also a practice that prevents different stories from being told. In other words, movies and TV with diverse points of view are limited in the traditional form of producing content, which leads to accusations of prejudice and discrimination of the studio heads. With that said, we know that these studio heads only care about money, and the data science of streaming giving them a more secure way to obtain that money. With the young, diverse audiences showing that they’re into diverse storytelling in that content, it’ll be reflected in the data, which is where the money is.

To sum it all up, the power and influence of data science on executives can lead to more diverse storytelling and possibly better representation. An example can be seen in the handling of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In the theatrical release, the character of Cyborg, a Black superhero, has a very limited role. In the director’s cut released on HBO Max, his role was so essential to the story that it drew massive praise from fans and HBO Max’s users.

Movie theaters can also change in a positive way depending on how you look at it. The economic incentive of data science in streaming could push studios to put their blockbuster content onto streaming. Since the masses rely on convenience, and streaming offers that convenience, studios can have a better understanding of how to somewhat beat the market. With movie theaters losing all big ticket items, they would have to adapt. They could do that by bringing in smaller, independent films onto their screens and target their audiences through there. Independent films were losing theater space due to the popularity of blockbuster films, but if studios were to move those blockbuster films to streaming, there would be room left for the indie films. Now the question is if this switch were to happen, would everything feel the same with the exception of streaming taking the blockbusters? Probably not. Movie theater chains might have to limit the number of theaters so that they can invest in markets that are into indie films while studios may need to put a cap limit on blockbuster budgets. But it would be a situation where everyone comes out on top.

The main point of all this isn’t to point out that streaming is good or bad for the entertainment industry. If I were to use the history of the entertainment industry as my evidence, then it’ll prove that streaming is just a different platform for watching content. And with that different platform, everybody will adapt despite Hollywood being plagued with chaos, it thrives on the chaos. I predict that in the next ten years, industry analysts will look back on this moment and just say that streaming is another hump that Hollywood had to get over like they did with television.

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Reboots and Remakes: Exploration or Exploitation?

Hollywood remakes are nothing new. We have seen countless remakes of timeless Disney films, such as Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella and reboots of popular cult TV shows such as Full House or Gilmore Girls. The film Star Is Born has been remade three times since the original in 1937, whilst Little Women has been adapted and remade seven times since the first silent version premiering in 1917.

One obvious reasoning for reboots and remakes is to bring new generations of fans to established stories. Another motivation is profit, as factors such as a returning cast or a continuation of a fan favorite character almost guarantee audience turn-out. In the last decade it would seem that any noteworthy film or TV show from the 20th century has been remade and it therefore raises the question: does Hollywood do so for profit or have all original stories been told? In this case study, I will examine the phenomenon of reboots and remakes, their functionality, and whether or not they are successful in their goals.

Reboots and Remakes
First, one must understand the terminology used in film and TV rejuvenation to explore the motivation behind it. A remake is defined as “a new Motion Picture derived from an existing Motion Picture or its Underlying Material in which substantially the same characters and events as shown in the existing Motion Picture are depicted.” An example of a remake would be Little Women (2019) or Beauty and the Beast (2017). Remakes usually involve different actors and creators, or sometimes a new media (animation to live-action), but will generally stick to the same storyline with potential minor differences.

Reboots do not have an official definition, however, they are recognised in the industry as “a new start to an established fictional universe, work, or series.” They are different from a franchise, prequel, or sequel, as they usually serve as a remake that is substantially different from the original “incarnation.” Marvel is known for such reboots, for example rebooting Spider-Man for the second time since the year 2000, just five years after The Amazing Spider-Man’s release in 2012. Although the inspiration and the universe of Spiderman are the same, the actors and the storyline are different, essentially pretending that the previous films didn’t exist. This makes it different from both sequels as well as remakes. The terminology of reboots, remakes, franchises, and delayed sequels is still very vague within the industry and the conditions for each term are not clear, thus the lines between reboots and remakes can often be blurred.

Exploitation
Hollywood has always been criticised for valuing profit over quality, thus profit as the sole motivation behind remakes and reboots must be considered. It is often said that updating is cheaper than innovating. Rebooting franchises such as Star Wars or Batman could be considered exploitative. They have established market bases and storylines, therefore audience awareness and turnout are almost guaranteed. For instance, Star Wars 7 grossed $2 billion and there is no financial reason why the franchise shouldn’t continue to be rebooted. Franchises such as Batman or Spiderman benefit from a predictable story that is known and loved by a large portion of movie watchers. The star era of Hollywood is considered to be gone, and it matters less how well known the new actors or creators are, as audiences will be hungry to see the new take on these stories and characters.

The same motivation can be seen behind seemingly endless sequels such as the Fast and Furious franchise, that benefit from a returning cast ensemble. Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez have become household names in the Fast and Furious universe, and no matter the reception of the film, audiences will continue to show support for the established characters. The franchise is able to drastically increase the budget with each installment, with the first one having a budget of $38 million and the ninth instalment reaching over $200 million.

Engines for Change
Profit, however, may not be the sole motivation behind Hollywood’s tendency to produce reboots and remakes. One such motivation could be trying to be an engine for change. Many remakes and reboots happen as Hollywood tries to fix its mistakes, such as bad representation, sexism, lack of diversity, etc. For example, many Disney films have been remade with a deeper focus on the female lead characters and their empowerment and decision-making. Disney has an indisputable impact on its target audience. A large number of children in the western-world oriented culture grow up watching Disney films, observing and imitating the behavioural patterns presented in these tales, and absorbing the gender roles and stereotypes. It makes sense for a brand and influential as Disney to remake some of their most classic tales to appeal to a wider range of audiences, by empowering their lead characters and re-imagining the stories with a more diverse cast/characters.

The upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid will star Halle Bailey as Ariel. The director Rob Marshall enthusiastically talked about bringing freshness to the role, while Daveed Diggs added that the remake will give “some more power” to Ariel than the original film. It should be noted, however, that perhaps the biggest change to the role will be the fact, that Halle Bailey is a Black actress. To this day, there had only been one official Black Disney princess: Tiana from The Princess and the Frog in 2009.

Little Mermaid will mark the first remake and a second Disney film overall to have a Black female lead character. As many generations have grown up with Disney’s animated version of Little Mermaid, first premiering in 1989, the new live-action remake will undoubtedly inspire many young black children, and allow them to experience Disney in a completely new way.

Aside from recasting, some remakes focus on a complex and distinct retelling of cult stories. Maleficent (2014) revises the storyline of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty and almost completely redefines its narrative by inserting more complex moral dilemmas into the originally simple narrative. While many remakes tend to retell the same story with minor updates, Maleficent manages to omit some core aspects of the fairytale, resulting in a different outcome and making the main female heroines much less passive than in the original animation. By adding more complexity to the original tale and giving its characters more depth, Maleficent blurs the lines between good and evil, bringing a new perspective to the story and humanising the main villainess in the process. Many would argue that that serves as a much better example of female and human complexity and is thus proving to be more beneficial for new generations, while still regaining the magic of the original tale.

Audience
Audiences are a huge driving force behind many reboots. In the last several decades, it has been the norm for fans to share their thoughts and theories on a multitude of online fan forums. They point out gaps in the storylines, discuss their favourite characters and devise backstories. Many fans create what is called fan-fiction, where they write up their own imagined continuation of the story and share it with the rest of the fandom, as oftentimes the original source material has the power to define generations of audiences.

By removing Gene Roddenberry, producer and creator of Star Trek: The Original Series, from the primary focus, the franchise stopped belonging to solely one person, as there was no need for Roddenberry’s approval as a sole creator. The 2009 Star Trek reboot restricted the importance of both Roddenberry and Abrams by not emphasising their creative role. The franchise was then in effect taken out of the hands of the creators and put into the hands of a collective force, thus giving the audiences a sense of responsibility for the franchise and boosting the economy behind it, while giving the fans a sense of communal experience and belonging.

New technology
Indisputably, one of the major driving forces behind remakes and reboots is the constant advancement of technology in the film industry. One of the most successful reboots in that sense was the reboot of Planet of the Apes, which was followed by four sequels, two remakes, and a rebooted franchise since the release of the original film in 1968. The rebooted franchise began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), which was intended to serve as an origin film for a whole new franchise. While having a similar premise as some of the previous instalments in the original series, it is not a direct remake. The films employed groundbreaking new visual effects technology, with the main breakthrough being in the advancement of performance capture which allowed for a more realistic portrayal of the apes as well as the environment. The franchise has received high critical acclaim and numerous accolades for its visual effects, as well as substantial financial success. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), the last installment in the reboot trilogy, has grossed a total of $490.7 million worldwide, against a production budget of $150 million. This is a prime example of a reboot done well, where a franchise has taken inspiration from the original series and combined it with new technology and successfully reimagined script. The new reboot has been able to not only attract old fans of the series but also gain a completely brand new audience and fans of science fiction films and blockbusters.

The same purpose can be seen behind reboots such as the Jurassic World franchise, where the story takes place in the same universe while taking advantage of advanced CGI technology. Jurassic World (2015) a sequel/reboot of the original Jurassic Park (1993) series, has gained immense financial success, grossing a worldwide total of $1.670 billion against a production budget of $150 million. With one critic noting that “Jurassic World can’t match the original for sheer inventiveness and impact, but it works in its own right as an entertaining — and visually dazzling — popcorn thriller,” it is clear that new technology can rarely recapture the magic of the original series, but is enough to attract fans and audience and gain profit. In this case, such reboots can be seen as exploitative as well.

Conclusion
While there seem to be enough reasons and motivation for Hollywood to continue to invest in reboots and remakes, the question remains whether they should. Reboots of reboots are becoming the new norm, causing the audience to know exactly what to expect from the film. One could argue that that takes away from the excitement of the overall experience and leaves less room for original new stories to be told. Of course, some remakes such as Disney fairytales, allow audiences to enjoy their beloved stories in a more politically correct and ethical manner, but is that progressive or retroactive? It may seem to some, that Hollywood would rather invest in “fixing” established stories than creating new ones, because, as previously examined, remakes may have a higher likelihood of success.

One should question why there is less content being created that is directly catered to a wider range of characters, such as stories centering on female heroes, BIPOC families, or LGBTQ+ princesses? Would casting a woman in the role of James Bond, an established male character with a male-oriented storyline be better, than writing a script catered to a woman agent? While sometimes remakes are successful in gender swapping or casting diversity, it may seem like a “lazy way out” do so only for the guaranteed profit.

Although the need for nostalgia can often be a powerful force, it is worth asking ourselves if the return of the familiarity is worth ruining the new franchise altogether, as it is rare that anyone is ever able to recapture the magic and essence of what made the original content so special. Although acknowledging past Hollywood mistakes is important, it is also vital for our society to move forward and continue to improve, rather than go back in time and fix something that has already been done. The objectively unsuccessful reboots and remakes such and Ghostbusters (2016) and Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016) prove that works with such longevity are sometimes best left alone if there isn’t a high need for a remake. They say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Hollywood, do you hear that?

Works Cited

Gleiberman, Owen. ‘Charlie’s Angels’ AGAIN? How Reboots of Reboots Became the New Normal. Variety, Aug 7, 2016

Hollands, David. “Toward a New Category of Remake: A First Analysis of the Reboot.” Film Matters 1.3 (2010): 9–13.

Vágnerová, Barbora. ‘Tale as Old as Time:’ Modernization of Gender Roles in Disney Remakes. Master’s thesis. Masaryk University, Faculty of Arts, 2018.

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Tarnished Silver: The Big Screen in the Age of Streaming

Last week, I returned to a world I could never have imagined I’d be forced to depart: a world of wonder, thrill, and awe, held very dear to me. Past a temperature check and the scan of a barcode, I was ushered through a quiet, regally secluded courtyard temporarily cordoned off from the grime and traffic of the bustling Hollywood Boulevard, walking in the literal footsteps of the greatest stars that our industry has seen immortalized in concrete. The aroma of freshly popped popcorn wafted out the open doors of a dimly lit lobby propagated with iconic memorabilia from classic films. Buzzing with a restrained euphoria, I took a seat towards the back of a cavernous auditorium adorned from floor to ceiling in ornate chinoiserie. The lights dimmed and for the first time in many months, I enjoyed a brand new film in a glorious IMAX cinema.

To me, the silver screen is far more than just another option for a Friday night on-the-town. In the words of Wired’s Jordan Crucchiola, “it’s not just a way people kill two hours in air conditioning on a hot day. It’s the concert experience of cinema. It’s an exercise in shared empathy. It’s the chance to be immersed in a world of fantasy, to laugh and scream with strangers, to learn more about what it is to be human—all without the distractions of the outside world” (Crucchiola, 2020). The theater is a portal to other times, stories, and worlds: a sanctum of art, entertainment, and community.

For the first three years of my time at Emerson College, I worked as part of the film crew at AMC Boston Common, connecting me more intimately with the experience of theatrical distribution than I had ever been before, even if it meant trudging up and down auditorium stairs sweeping M&Ms and stale popcorn kernels from underneath seats for hours on end. The experience was well worth it. Throughout the year 2018 I was able to see approximately 75 different films in the theater, the most memorable of which exemplify why I hold the pastime so close to my heart.

As a lifelong consumer and current student of media, I understand the power of storytelling and how important it can be for quality content to reach audiences and actively engage them. At AMC, as I’m sure is the case for many of us cinephiles, I’ve witnessed the power of what great filmmaking can do to an audience, as well as the chaos that erupts when a rebooting computer system or a broken popper threaten that sacred experience! The energy of a theater eagerly anticipating a new release, or the joy of simply seeing people leave satisfied and enriched by their experience showcase what makes the entertainment industry so unique.

When the pandemic hit full force in March of 2020, it quickly became apparent that movie theaters would unfortunately have to shut down, which, in conjunction with the closure of the College, led to my leaving AMC. In the succeeding months, studios with a backlog of content were forced to seek out alternative methods of distribution, as they could not stand idly by as their massive investments sat stagnant, accruing interest. Incidentally, the industry has been steadily adopting a streaming model of content distribution of the last few years, which in the face of the pandemic was fast tracked as a dominant strategy. Now, the time has come for the theaters across the country to once again welcome audiences through their doors after over a year. However, in a post-pandemic age of streaming, the future of movie theaters has been called into question. As a passionate, ardent lover of theatrical moviegoing, I ponder with a blend of optimism and nerves: what does the future hold for the cinematic experience?

To put it bluntly and simply, writer William Goldman says it best with his famed Hollywood mantra: “nobody knows anything” (Brueggemann et al., 2021). Nobody can be certain where exactly the industry will go. IndieWire goes as far as to assert that “anyone who claims to know the future of movie theaters is wrong” (Brueggemann et al., 2021). Because the answers to these looming concerns remain to be seen, the best way to predict the future is to understand the past.

To a degree, this has actually happened before. In a poetic rhyme of history, the pandemic known as the Spanish Flu, or the 1918 influenza, ravaged the world just over a century ago. The flu, which infected an estimated 500 million people (a whopping one-third of the world’s population at the time) and killed around 50 million, spread with deadly vigor, particularly in Europe during the final months of the first World War (CDC, 2018). With mask mandates, quarantines, and lockdowns taking place globally, the impacts of COVID-19 echo the devastation of the 1918 pandemic, including the shackling of cinemas and live theaters. From an economic standpoint, the theater business in the late 1910s was at its lowest point perhaps since its inception, positioning moguls to swoop in and take advantage of the floundering market.

Producer Adolph Zukor, who would eventually go on to head Paramount Pictures, bought out multiple defunct or failing theaters in the wake of the pandemic. Thus, the stage was set for success in the era of vertical integration, during which studios had financial control of the entire production process, from development through to exhibition (Crucchiola, 2020). The opulence of the 1920s germinated in the aftermath of the pandemic, as theaters and other social and leisure businesses “had to give people a reason to leave their homes” (Stewart, 2020). Maggie Valentine, a theater historian, reflects on the rise of theaters after the 1918 pandemic in a statement of hope, assuring that “theaters have always come back, and when they do, they’ve been better” (Stewart, 2020). This grandiose migration back into the theaters, in combination with the vertically integrated studio pipeline made way for Hollywood to prosper from the late 1930s through the 1950s in an era known as its Golden Age. Smooth sailing would not, however, carry on much longer.

In 1948, Hollywood’s systems of production were majorly disrupted by the Paramount Consent Decrees, a decision motivated by a national antitrust sentiment in the wake of World War II forcing studios to divest their interest in exhibition (Gardner, 2020). On top of the restructuring caused by the Paramount decision, the entire film industry faced a serious threat in the advent of television. The post-war era saw mass migrations outside of city centers to the developing suburbs, as well as a renewed interest in family life and domesticity. In such a cultural climate, the television was widely adopted as a luxurious home appliance offering families a wealth of entertainment in the comfort of their own home, not entirely dissimilar to the popularization of streaming services over the last few years.

In the face of a threat to the viability of not only cinemas but the medium of film as a whole, studios were forced to diversify and work in conjunction with exhibitors to revitalize the theatrical experience, differentiating it from the in-home appeals of the TV. Out of this necessity came the grand epics of the late 1950s and 1960s featuring innovations like Cinerama, VistaVision, and Cinemascope, which took advantage of wide theatrical aspect ratios to create a sense of magnificence and scale, as well as improved audio and visual technologies. Films like Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr. Zhivago (1965), and The Sound of Music (1965), showcased glorious technicolor, lengthy runtimes, and impressive production design to impress upon audiences what a television set never could (Sklar, et al., 2021). Many gimmicks like Sensurround and Stereoscopic 3D came out of this urge to draw people back into the theater, the remnants of which still remain today with most major multiplexes featuring Dolby and IMAX theaters and of course the occasional 3D flick, inescapably dominant in the early 2010s. To combat the popularity of television, the infrastructure of theaters evolved to better fit the needs and expectations of the consumer, with the revelation of air conditioning adding an extra level of comfort. The concept of the multiplex largely sprung up in following the development of middle class suburban communities as opposed to tight individual auditoriums in city centers (Stewart, 2020).

With the 1918 pandemic spawning the Golden Age of Hollywood and the threat of television forcing the boundaries of cinema to be pushed far wider and eventually into the blockbuster era, the cinematic experience has always been resilient. Fascinatingly, one of the key operating parameters under which the industry developed for decades has recently been dissolved, drastically altering the future of potential distribution and exhibition. In August of 2020, under the vague deregulatory fervor of the Trump administration, U.S. District Court Judge Analisa Torres repealed the Paramount Consent Decrees of 1948. Torres defends her decision by stating that in considering the nature of the marketplace and the value of a wide theatrical release, “the Court finds that it is unlikely that the remaining Defendants would collude to once again limit their film distribution to a select group of theaters in the absence of the Decrees and, finds, therefore, that termination is in the public interest”. Additionally, the Court assumes that the nature of streaming as a supplementary model of distribution eliminates any likelihood of block booking, another practice protected against in the Paramount decision (Gardner, 2020). This game changing move opens up the possibility for studios and distributors to own and operate theaters themselves, beyond the few individual prestige theaters already owned by Netflix largely for the purposes of Academy Awards qualification: The Egyptian in Hollywood and The Paris in New York City, as well as Disney’s El Capitan.

A few months ago, the debate over the future of theaters seemed focused on concerns of health – how safe it would be to actually go to a theater before a vaccine – and business – the logistics of opening a movie without major markets like New York and Los Angeles. Now that we have a vaccine and society seems to be on the mend, these particular concerns have subsided a bit. Perhaps the most significant lasting question now becomes how theaters will adapt in an era where the predominant method of distribution is now streaming?

Just as was the case in response to the 1918 pandemic and the threat of television, the industry must revitalize itself and once again prove to audiences why the cinema is so special. In the words of Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “the issue is that between the streaming revolution, the rise of COVID, and the fact that so many viewers have been grousing about the theater experience for years (the ads, the cell phones, the sticky floors — we all know the mythic litany of complaints), the notion that going out to a movie simply isn’t worth the trouble has taken root” (Lang, et al., 2020). As an avid lover of theatrical moviegoing and former employee of an enormous multiplex, the validity of Gleiberman’s thoughts concern me. Throughout the industry and across the general public, similar worries have taken hold, from Tom Hanks, who concedes that a sea-change has been a long time coming (Hanks, et al., 2020) to President of ArcLight Cinemas, Ted Mundorff, who derided the industry’s “awful release patterns” even before the pandemic (Kohn, 2019).

In conversation with Kevin Reilly, I was lucky enough to hear the prolific TV executive and former Chief Content Officer of HBO Max’s take on the future of theaters: “{Theater chains} were a terrible monopoly with a terrible consumer experience. You can only see it now either in old reels of people watching movies or in films where they show people going to the theater – the early talkies, the first time people heard sound. That was an amazing experience, decades later you’re sitting in a shitty movie seat that hurts your back with a sticky floor and a $30 popcorn and it’s not a good consumer experience. Now they’re going to have to think about how they work in tandem with the streaming business. It’ll ultimately be: release a product, market it once in different experiences” (Reilly, 2021). Besides the lack of care given towards consumer experience from the highest levels of corporate oversight to the often sub-par service of film crew to which I can unfortunately attest, the way theaters functioned pre-COVID also exacerbated unfortunate industry trends. Tight theatrical windows and evolving attendance patterns shifted the evaluation of a theatrical run from a longer term experiment like the legendary performance of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) to a make or break sprint focused disproportionately on opening weekend totals (Crucchiola, 2020). Thus, little opportunity remained for the midrange movie to succeed, or the sleeper hit to find its footing.

As was the case in the years after the 1918 pandemic, some, like Forbes’ Rob Salkowitz, view movie theaters as the “bargain basement deal of the decade” for those willing to take on the risk (Salkowitz, 2021). According to the magazine’s cardinal rule of investing – “buy low/sell high” – theaters are in the optimal position to be bought up by large corporations like Amazon, Netflix, and Disney. These major players have the capital and leverage to potentially acquire theaters either on an individual or chain level and “invest heavily in enhancements to the viewing experience along with other perks to get butts back in seats”. This eventuality is even more apparent given the recent repeal of the Paramount Decrees (Salkowitz, 2021). Among the more unusual results of the scramble for revenue during the pandemic came about via separate models of distribution and exhibition employed by each of the major studios, integrating streaming and theatrical to varying degrees. The majority of these models build off an initial theatrical release combined with a significantly shortened (traditionally ~75 day) window before having the option to move to paid video-on-demand (PVOD): 45 days in the case of Paramount, 30 or so for Lionsgate, and a mere 17 days for Universal, with Sony expected to follow suit (Clark, 2021). Disney has been releasing films on streaming both at no extra cost (Soul (2020), Luca (2021)), catching some flack from those at Pixar who feel they’ve been gypped (Sharf, 2021), and for an additional $30, dubbed “Premiere Access” (Mulan (2020), Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)), the latter of which also played in theaters (Clark, 2021). They’ve claimed, however, that they plan to return to a purely theatrical model by the summer, though this is not set in stone. Warner Brothers, on the other hand, has perhaps the most controversial strategy. The studio’s announcement that all of it’s 2021 releases would simultaneously debut in theaters and on HBO Max shocked the industry, but according to a Morning Consult survey, general audiences seem to be on board with the strategy (Clark, 2021). Though, I personally find it tragic that Dune (2021) will be relegated to a streaming venture with an adjacent theatrical component, potentially diminishing its potential to be recognized as a cultural juggernaut among the likes of Star Wars and Harry Potter.

Though we cannot yet attribute much in terms of success or failure to any of these individual strategies, though it will certainly be interesting to follow how these different models influence the studio’s respective revenue streams, and consequently their continued viability in the marketplace. There are some concerns in regards to how streaming revenues will compare to direct box office revenue given the opacity of streaming data compared to the relative transparency of box office reports: a byproduct of the multiple parties involved in the pipeline of theatrical distribution. Tom and Jerry (2021), Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), and now Mortal Kombat (2021) prove that there is at least some appetite for theatrical moviegoing, even when PVOD and streaming options are available (Brueggemann et al., 2021). It seems unlikely that corporations would risk letting go of such a powerful potential for revenue; “nothing to sneeze at” boasts Disney CEO Bob Chapek on his company’s $13 Billion in 2019 box office receipts (Whitten, 2021).

In examining and predicting the future of movie theaters, it’s impossible not to reconcile with the fact that streaming has revolutionized the industry from both the consumer facing and business facing perspectives. Streaming platforms undoubtedly provide many benefits, from socialization via adjunct services like Netflix Party (now Teleparty) to the breadth of content and personalization of the user interface. The weekly release strategy of Disney+ has particularly revitalized a sense of communal engagement with content with shows like The Mandalorian and WandaVision. Despite these positives, streaming is not the end-all-be-all. It’s been said that streaming reduces every piece of content down to essentially an item on a list, a row on a balance sheet with minimal differentiation or individual identity.

Collider’s Matt Goldberg professes that “it’s hard to make anyone care about one thing over another” when everything is reduced to a mere piece of content (Goldberg, 2020). Kevin Reilly echoed these sentiments, positing that we might not “even get to appreciate the greats, does it all just come and go? If it drops, then you stream it, then it’s gone – is that cinema?” (Reilly, 2021). Reilly elaborated a concern that streaming sanitizes and commoditizes content to an extent not experienced through theatrical distribution, stripping it of potential value and acclaim (Reilly, 2021). Gleiberman of Variety optimistically pleads for the return of the cinematic experience, rhetorically asking if we are willing to enable the dissolution of the cinema “so we can spend the next 100 years sitting on our couches watching a never-ending stream of product? Moviegoing in theaters will survive if we as a culture — theaters, studios, politicians, audiences — decide that we want it to survive” (Lang, et al., 2020).

On a final note, I clearly find the theatrical experience to be invaluable: a social indulgence that deserves to persevere, though it rightfully must adapt to survive. Examining the issue from a social, as well as an economic standpoint, theatrical distribution as a business model may likely end up serving more of a niche market than it has in the past as a result of both the decline in the quality and consumer experience of exhibition venues and the post-pandemic dominance of streaming. However, theaters have always made it through rough times and came out of it stronger than before. Goldman rings true once again in that “nobody knows anything”, but what we do know, and what might ultimately propel the future prosperity of theatrical moviegoing is that “humans are social creatures, and we want the communal experiences, especially after a year where they’ve been denied to us” (Goldberg, 2020).

Works Cited

Brueggemann, Tom, et al. “Why Anyone Who Claims to Know the Future of Movie Theaters Is Wrong.” IndieWire, 12 Mar. 2021

Clark, Travis. “Warner Bros.’ Strategy of Releasing Movies to Theaters and HBO Max on the Same Day Is Very Popular with Consumers, According to a New Survey.” Business Insider, 10 Mar. 2021.

Crucchiola, Jordan. “On the Future of (Going to the) Movies.” Wired, Conde Nast, 1 Oct. 2020

Gardner, Eriq. “Judge Agrees to End Paramount Consent Decrees.” The Hollywood Reporter, 7 Aug. 2020

Goldberg, Matt. “Streaming Is the Future for 2021, But I’m Not Convinced It’s the Future of Movies.” Collider, 4 Dec. 2020.

Kohn, Eric. “Here’s How Movie Theaters Will Survive the Next 10 Years: Exhibitors Speak Out.” IndieWire, 29 June 2019.

Lang, Brent, et al. “The Future of Movie Theaters In the Age of Coronavirus: A Dialogue.” Variety, 9 Oct. 2020.

Salkowitz, Rob. “Here’s Why The Future Of Movie Theaters May Be Brighter Than It Looks.” Forbes, 8 Jan. 2021

Sharf, Zack. “Pixar Staff Speaks Out Against Disney Moving Its Films to Streaming Only: ‘It’s Hard to Grasp’.” IndieWire, 28 Apr. 2021.

Sklar, Robert, et al. “The Threat of Television”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 16 Feb. 2021.

Stewart, James B. “Movie Theaters Are on the Brink. Can Wine and Cheese Save Them?The New York Times, 15 May 2020

Taylor, Drew, and Tom Hanks. “Tom Hanks on the Future of Movie Theaters: ‘A Sea Change Was Due.’” Collider, 17 Dec. 2020,

Tight, Andrew, and Kevin Reilly. Katch Media, 14 Apr. 2021. 

Whitten, Sarah. “Movie Theater Owners Are Frustrated about Streaming, but Their Survival Depends on Studios.” CNBC, NBCUniversal, 2 Jan. 2021

History of 1918 Flu Pandemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Mar. 2018.

Categories
film streaming studios

Independent Filmmaking in the Age of Streaming

As the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic passes and most remnants of “regular life” slowly start to be reintroduced, one element remains behind the rest. The theater industry has been in an existential crisis since Netflix unveiled its video on demand platform back in 2007. This is a distribution shift that has created clone after clone and now every major studio has made an effort to recreate that magic. ViacomCBS is the latest entity to join the streaming world with their Paramount+, making seven major streaming platforms available.

To the benefit of the streamers and viewers, the saying of “quality, not quantity” doesn’t exist in this world. These streaming platforms can and do have it both ways. Yet therein lies a problem for these new streaming platforms. Because of the growing number of platforms, each streaming service needs more and more novel content to remain competitive. 

Historically, streaming platforms would license films and television shows and produce individual content to round out their library. This worked at the inception of this distribution method, but now some streaming services are forced to take the inverse approach to compete with those that have “vaults” to dip into, specifically Disney+ and HBO Max. Due to the high cost of licensing and the lack of licensable intellectual property, self-produced content is key. Instant fan-favorite shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016) or Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) wouldn’t exist without this paradigm shift in the streaming marketplace. 

Though not every show can be a Stranger Things or Handmaid’s Tale. For one, these shows are extraordinarily expensive to produce. According to CinemaBlend, each season of The Crown (2016), another widely popular show on Netflix, costs the company 130 million dollars to produce. Netflix’s content acquisition budget went from 2.4 billion dollars in 2013 to 17.3 billion dollars in 2020, with a sharp rise of 3.14 billion dollars between 2017 and 2018(statista.com). In 2018 Disney CEO Bob Iger announced the launch of their proprietary streaming service Disney+, a move that not only added further competition and further saturated the market but also removed Marvel films and television shows from Netflix’s dashboard. If these big-budget line items take the place of the licensed content, what will be the new typical items that round out the catalog? The answer: independent films.

Independent films as a genre, if you will, is an untapped market normally relegated to the fringes of filmmaking. Films designated as “indies” are inherently seen as highbrow, only to be appreciated by the small number of cinephiles that enjoy such a niche. In other terms, they don’t make money, but this may no longer be the case. In my opinion, independent films are the pinnacle of filmmaking; they require a high level of creativity and ingenuity to mitigate their microscopic budgets. Or at least microscopic relative to their studio counterparts, and yet the genre continues to grow year after year. In the article “Indie Films: A Genre to Take Over the Industry,” writer Spokkz stated, “According to Kickstarter, the largest online crowdfunding platform, film, and video projects are the fourth largest section where creators are seeking funding, and when the success of these projects are evaluated, film and video is the second most successful category lagging only behind the music. So far, almost 70,000 filmmakers raised more than $413 million.” The vast majority of these projects don’t reach the level of funding they need to finish their projects, but it is evident that there is a massive community of future showrunners and producers telling unique stories.

Independent films that do get enough funding to finish normally go through a gauntlet of festivals to gain some sort of notoriety for their films. The disruption streaming could have in this normally small market could have everlasting effects and completely change the landscape of independent filmmaking. Would it be a net positive or negative?  

Being totally transparent, I am currently employed as an editor on an independent documentary so my perspective of this topic could be considered biased, although I don’t see it as such. Rather, my personal connection to this shift in the independent film genre is invaluable to this ongoing discussion, as are all other independent filmmakers. In the case of the film that I am working on, it is primarily funded by grants from the Sundance Institute and a modicum of small personal donations similar to that of the crowdfunding I stated earlier.

During an editing meeting in February, my director Javid Soriano shared with me that his biggest anxiety of working as an independent filmmaker is his film not being distributed. He is contractually obligated to release at Sundance but given how large the festival is, there isn’t any promise a representative from a distribution company would want to purchase the rights to his film. “It would all be beyond me to schmooze the right people and try to get the highest lowball price to pay myself back.”  The vast amount of money streaming platforms have to buy new content will be the best place for independent filmmakers to go to get that return of investment. 

Streaming platforms have a much larger incentive to find the content at festivals like Sundance to fill their catalogs because of a recent change to Oscar eligibility after the 93rd Oscars broadcast this past April. In one part due to the pandemic but also the shifting landscape of film releases in the digital age, this eligibility shift is a symbiotic benefit to both filmmaker and streamer. Although independent filmmakers are more known for their success in smaller film festivals, streaming platforms can use the infrastructure of their digital advertising and marketing departments to get prospective independent films considered for Hollywood’s highest honor. 

There is some pushback to this new development, mostly from established industry professionals accustomed to the old, and to them, the “better” way, of being considered for the award. As we read in an article published in The Hollywood Reporter, “writer-director Paul Schrader wrote, ‘Dear Academy: Send me DVDs and I will watch them. Send me links [to online screeners] and they disappear into the vast catalog of streaming links that may or may not be seen.’” Films widely accepted as being Oscar-worthy now can be considered for the award because an archaic limiter has been lifted.

Even if there is a deal lined up, some independent filmmakers would rather continue the arduousness of the festival run than sell out and lose creative control. At the time of the event, relatively independent filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho battled with the now disgraced Harvey Weinstein over the control of a scene in his film Snowpiercer (2012). Because of a rider in Bong’s contract, he had the final say over the edit of the theatrical release. In retaliation, Weinstein limited the film’s release to regional theaters rather than a national one. Bong spoke on this exchange, “Maybe for [Weinstein], it was some kind of punishment to a filmmaker who doesn’t do what he wants. But for me, we were all very happy. Yeah! Director’s cut!” 

This is less evident with streaming platforms but is still very possible. Streaming platforms have curated images of themselves and their content, an array of set standards that independent filmmakers might have to comply with to get the financial benefits of being on those platforms. Independent documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer spoke to this point in a discussion during a “Sociology of Show Business” class at Emerson Los Angeles. He said, “Independent filmmaking as it’s formally known is becoming an endangered genre. With the rise in streaming platforms perpetually needing new content, two of the largest uncertainties that surround independent filmmaking, financing and distribution, dissolve away. Yet it’s at the expense of the creative control Indies used to secure for and define themselves as.” While a pessimistic perspective, Tyrnauer’s tenure as a successful filmmaker gives his statement legitimacy. 

To Tyrnauer’s point I would say don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, to invoke Voltaire. Independent filmmakers’ largest hurdle is financing so for streaming ability to shave some height from that hurdle is a positive even if they have to relinquish some amount of creative control. The ability to put one’s name on the map of filmmaking and the larger content creation world gives independent filmmakers the ability to create the perfect project on their second go-around. If anything, the disrupting factor of streaming on independent filmmakers is but a stepping stone towards that ideal of a totally independent, auteur level of creative control.

And even then if there are filmmakers who still want to remain entirely independent, there are still have avenues to do so within the streaming world, albeit smaller in market share relative to the larger streaming platforms. A rise in niche streaming platforms gives filmmakers the chance to have their films shown to a wider audience than they would doing the conventional route. Platforms like Mubi, Shudder, and IFC Online all cater to the cinephile demographic some independent filmmakers want to remain in.

The possibilities of larger investment for independent filmmakers are overwhelmingly positive. This shift is also not specific to long-form content like film and television. The Netflix animated series, Love Death + Robots are made of short-form animated vignettes and have grown a cult following. Short films could soon be included in the lexicon of mass marketable digital content. As streaming becomes more accessible, so will the genre of independent filmmaking of which I am excited and proud to consider myself a part. 

Categories
agencies labor studios

WGA Takes Down Last Man Standing and Changes The Industry Forever

Due to the global pandemic, this past year has been filled with twists, turns, ups, downs, and forced pivots. Although all businesses were affected, there were some that were and continue to be more affected than others. One of those businesses is entertainment. Between live concerts that got canceled, productions that were put on pause, movies theaters shutting down, film festivals that got postponed and so much more, this industry was challenged and changed forever. 

Within the entertainment industry, talent agencies took a turn that will go down in history. Over the past two to three years, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) has been fighting against the top Hollywood agencies. After many long negotiations and legal battles, Verve was the first agency to comply with WGA in May of 2019, then Kaplan Stahler and Buchwald in July of 2019, the Gersh Agency and the Agency of Performing Arts in January of 2020,  Paradigm last March, UTA in July, ICM Partners in August and finally, WME a couple of months ago in February.

All of these abbreviations of major companies and unions can be intimidating. That is why I turned to the Deadline article “WME Signs WGA Franchise Agreement, Giving Guild Historic Win In Campaign To Reshape Talent Agency Business” by David Robb. This article not only reported the ins and outs of WME signing the deal with WGA but the previous history of the situation, and why this signed deal was such an important moment in entertainment history.

WME was the last major agency to sign a deal with the Writers Guild of America after the two to three year battle. The battle was for agents who have writers as clients to put the writers first and not be able to create a production that contains conflicts of interest. Agents would bring creative elements to a production by taking a writer, a producer and actor, etc. that were each a client. The agent would not charge their clients for a percentage of the profit they were making off of the production (which is traditionally how agents make their money) but make a profit off of the production as a whole. This would give agents the incentive to low ball writers in productions they have a financial interest in. It was also appealing to their clients because they would not have to cough up a chunk of their income to their agents. From the agents point of view, they were putting all of the creative elements together, packaging it up and handing it over as if it was a premade hit. This is called packaging

The guild claimed that the packaging fees paid by the studios to the agencies were a violation of state and federal labor law because they amounted to “illegal kickbacks” from an employer to an employee representative. Now, this deal between WGA and all of the major talent agencies, will return agents to a 10% commissioning business that the entertainment industry has not seen in decades. This will put an end to the desire for agents to create productions that are fully staffed with their clients because there will be no financial interest in the production as a whole but in their clients individually.

WGA President David A. Goodman stated, “I’m very pleased that we’ve achieved our goal: the agencies who represent us now have their financial interests aligned with their writer clients, and the agency’s problematic business practices such as packaging fees and agency owned-productions entities are at an end.” The agreement that was made on February 5th allowed WME writer-clients to return to the agency for the first time since 2019. In 2019 the West and East chapters of WGA ordered their fellow members to fire their agents if they would not comply and sign the new Guild’s Code of Conduct. 

Although labor disputes come and go, this dispute will forever have an impact on not only writers and their agents, but on the industry as a whole. By WGA members firing their agents in 2019 it took the labor dispute from a phase that will die out to a war that would not end until changes were made. WGA’s victory could also open the door for the DGA to negotiate new franchise agreements. The DGA recently weighed in on the dispute between WGA and WME. The DGA showed their support when the national executive director Russell Hollander reached out to WME president Ari Greenburg stating that they had been following the dispute closely and that they believed it was the right time to communicate their strong support for the WGA. This could have instilled fear in talent agencies that more than one union was going to go in for the fight.

“The issue of talent agencies owning production entities is, and always has been, an issue of great concern to the DGA,” Hollander wrote. “Affiliated ownership carries with it inherent and obvious conflicts of interest. Agents should be free and unencumbered to carry out their duties to their director-clients with only the directors’ interests in mind, and should procure work for directors without the incentive to make cost-effective deals with production companies owned by the same parent company as their agency…”. Directors should be able to trust that their agents have their best interest in mind- not the writer, the actor, the producer in mind all at once for the cost-effective deal. You should be able to trust the people that you’re working with. Agents are being called out for being money hungry and making the best business move for themselves, even though it might not be the best move for their clients. 

The WGA sent out a letter to its members on February 5th outlining the deal of the franchise agreement that they signed with WME, which matched the same agreements that were reached with UTA, CAA, and ICM Partners. Some key factors were a strict 20% limitation on agency ownership of production entities, a sunset period that ends packaging by June 30th, 2022, a mutually chosen third party to monitor, and a plan to ensure the agency sells down its interest in Endeavor Content to the required 20%. That could be 20% from the agency alone or a combined 20% between the agency and a production company. Production companies like Silver Lake that are owned by the same mother company as WME would be perfect for an agent to partner with because it would be cost effective. Agents will no longer have this luxury to the extent that they previously did.

Since agents are the people that book and up until now, basically put together and created productions they are extremely important characters within the industry. If we change the rules for agents and the way that they operate, it will trickle down and effect the way the industry as a whole operates. Packaging was where the real opportunity to make money was for agents. Could this change the income for agents? Could this affect how many people pursue careers as clients now that the opportunities are the same?

All of these changes are major not only for agents but their clients and the industry as a whole. It sets an example that just because something has been in practice for years does not mean that it is the best practice and that it should be challenged. This has been a positive outcome of this past year full of twists, turns, ups, downs and forced pivots. All of the major Hollywood agencies, including WME, were forced to pivot.  Not only did they have to pivot, they agreed to drop legal charges that they put against the WGA. This outcome will set an example and give other unions in Hollywood alike to do the same. It’s only getting started!

Categories
cable streaming studios television

Pandemic Solidifies Consumer Viewing Trends

Since Netflix started streaming television and movie content in 2007, the question of whether it might one day take the place of broadcast television has been in the back of people’s minds. As the years have gone on, that question has shifted from if to when, as streaming platforms grew in number and scope. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, that time seems closer than ever.

Even before the world was suddenly locked inside their homes, broadcast was certainly feeling on the outs. With the generations who grew up with the internet now being of age to consider buying their first cable package, many are turning to streaming services instead.

This could be due to multiple reasons. One reason is that a subscription to a streaming service costs exponentially less than a cable package, which might include hundreds of channels that you have no interest in watching. With nearly 300 streaming services currently available in the United States ranging from broad collections, like Netflix, to Network/Studio run, like Disney+, to niche categories, like CrunchyRoll. Audiences can easily pick and choose what they would like to be actively watching and ignore the rest. While some argue that with a large amount of those services having exclusive titles forcing you to sign up for multiple, you end up paying the same amount if not more than you would for a television package you would have to accumulate at least five concurrent services to even begin approaching that number, more often closer to ten. Forbes reports that, “On average, (in 2020) Americans subscribe to three paid streaming services, spending an average of $37 per month.” This is almost half the average cable television package starting at $60 per month. This also points to the increasing popularity and growth in the streaming industry. Compared to three years prior (2017), “the majority of Americans only paid for one streaming service, which was almost always Netflix,” according to that same Forbes article. To juxtapose that, the annual pace of subscriber decline for cable television hit 5.4%.

It can also be argued that streaming content is overall a better and more user-friendly experience. Obviously, cable television does not have a user interface the way that streaming platforms do, so it is hard to compare the two in that regard. But, that lack in many ways puts streaming leagues ahead in the way it displays and recommends content. Gone are the days of channel surfing and hoping that a show will catch your interest in the few seconds you are willing to dedicate to it before flipping to the next channel. Streaming services, far more often than not, have algorithms built into them that can 1) track what you are watching, 2) are able to recommend things that you may also like, thereby quickly easing the process of finding a new show (not to mention that you have access to their entire library at once, but we will dive further into that later), and 3) if you know you are in the mood for a specific genre, you can easily sort content to find what you are looking for.  So not only are you not paying for channels that you will never watch but you are having content that is curated to your preferences fed directly to you, a practice that many viewers are getting used to. One could imagine that once you get used to being fed content chosen specifically for you, it would be hard to go back to flipping channels.

Beyond just having a better experience accessing content, it might just be better content. Many of these services have started creating their own shows and movies so they can have more control over their library and worry less about managing contracts with outside studios to keep some of our favorite shows on their site. This content is not subjected to the same game of catering to advertisers or the regulations of broadcast television so they are able to create content that is much more niche and has more minority representation than broadcast television. More than ever the content is dictated by what the audiences want to watch. And, it seems to be working. At the Golden Globes this year (2021) streaming platforms were on their way to winning almost double the awards of cable, taking home 34 (20 of which were Netflix’s) compared to cable’s 20. The SAG Awards were similar with 28 to cable’s 16.

Even news, which many have latched on to as one of the remaining pillars of cable television that will keep it alive, has gotten a polish in the streaming sphere. Since news executives do not need to worry about getting stories in before the next commercial break or pulling in viewers for the moment that it a story is airing, they are more worried about how many viewers watch every month and how many hours have been streamed overall. This allows segments to be much longer, some stories nearing 15-20 minutes each, allowing them to be much more in-depth. This allows news to go beyond quick segments and verge on mini-documentaries that can really highlight what they are talking about, better informing the public. So, the idea of streaming live broadcasts combined with these more in-depth stories replacing traditional news broadcasts does not seem too off base.

Ads are not only holding news reporters back. To be completely frank, the vast majority of viewers are not a fan of advertisements and paying for cable television feels like paying to be advertised to. As previously stated, streaming services cost less than your average television package but you no longer have to worry about  Popeyes interrupting your show at the most stressful moment. With the invention of DVR, most television viewers became accustomed to fast-forwarding through their commercials to get to the good stuff and with streaming platforms, you do not even have to watch them at 32x speed, they just are not there. For those aforementioned people who think that paying for multiple services at once is too much, there are occasionally free versions of the application available and those are the only places where you will see advertisements on streaming apps. So instead of traditional cable television where you pay and you have ads, you can either pay and have none or get the service for free and have to deal with being marketed at every now and then.

This can be quite advantageous to streaming company’s as well, especially those who started in broadcast and are making the transition. Companies like NBCUniversal who have their streaming service Peacock offer both a paid and non-paid version allowing them to sell ads just as they would for cable. WarnerMedia, on the other hand, is trying to find a way to convince more users to sign-up and actively use their service, and is considering rolling out a cheaper version that would include advertisements as an incentive for people who do not want to spend as much.

Even for advertisers streaming content may be a superior way to spend their money. The algorithms that streaming services use to recommend films and TV shows to you could also be used to recommend you products. The information that these services collect could be used by advertisers to hyper-target their products. Instead of spending money to target a demographic of one show, that may not be too specific, they can target individuals specifically, so a person watching the same show as you might get completely different advertisements while watching it. This allows companies to make their money go further and ensure they get in front of the exact eyes they want.

Advertisers have not quite caught onto that fact just yet. Scott Rosenberg, senior vice president of Roku, explained to Variety that, “About 30% of all TV viewership is now done…through streaming. But only 3%, 4%, 5% of TV [global advertising] budgets are spent there.” This means that the vast majority of advertising money is still being spent on broadcast television.  Sure, this could also be due to the lower number of platforms currently offering non-ad-free versions of their platform but certainly is still exponentially lower than it should be. Perhaps, this points to the industry’s uneasiness about the switch or maybe they are in denial that it is happening altogether.

The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has made it quite clear that the switch is real. With everyone locked in their homes in quarantine, streaming skyrocketed to the top as it became, in a way, the only option. As the world became a place of fear and uncertainty, many people turned to entertainment that they already knew instead of seeking out new content, and with all of these services’ extensive catalogs, one does not have to wait for a rerun of Friends to come on. Instead, they can simply look up their favorite episode on Netflix, or, in more proper Netflix style, binge the whole series. Before the pandemic started, binge culture was already a well known Netflix trope but with everyone having quite literally all the time in the world, being able to binge all of a show, and not have to wait for a new episode every week, became invaluable, an experience offered exclusively by streaming platforms.

Also, with the onslaught of the pandemic closing all businesses, including movie theaters, the big Hollywood studios had to find new ways to release their films. While many of the major blockbusters are being continually pushed back for a hopeful post-pandemic release where they are expected to make a larger profit, there have been a large number of streaming-exclusive movies to come out this year where a subscription was all you needed to watch (not to mention that subscription is often equal if not cheaper than an average trip to a movie theater pre-pandemic), and a large number of these films were met with great success and many new movie deals being made with platforms to get new releases quite quickly after their theatrical release (i.e., the Warner Bros. HBO Max deal). So while made-for-television movies are not exactly known to be the most Oscar-worthy of products, HBO Max is getting major motion pictures like Dune the same day it hits theaters. This lack of theater revenue to companies is also causing them to reallocate more money to streaming, the one sector that is doing well. This restructuring of major media companies will likely stick around after the pandemic as the increase in money now will likely increase its profitability post-pandemic as well.

The other major thing that the pandemic changed was sports.  Even more so than news, sports were seen as the main reason to keep your cable television subscription. With the pandemic, all live sports events stopped. With sports channels only able to play reruns it was the last straw for many people and cut their cable and we will see if they ever come back, especially with some major events already transitioning to being live-streamed over the internet.

With all this being said, what is actually being done at companies and where does it seem like they are headed? According to Scott Rosenberg, “Every major media company understands that the future of television is 100% streamed. It is a trend that started before the pandemic, and the pandemic has really acted to just accelerate and cement the trend.” Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News, seemed to echo that statement saying, “One thing we can say with certainty is that streaming has to be a part of any responsible strategy. It’s increasingly the center of any responsible strategy.” These statements seem to be holding true. Disney CEO Bob Chapek issued a press release stating that Disney’s priorities are streaming first. AT&T put two previous streaming heads in CEO positions which The Verge speculates that, “directives for WarnerMedia are clear: turn the company’s entertainment divisions, including cable TV and film, into a streaming-focused business. The Wall Street Journal reported that NBCUniversal was looking into reorganizing so it could focus more on streaming and less on cable TV. ViacomCBS is supposedly considering getting rid of entire networks. At this point, it is going to be necessary for media companies to take part in streaming services or they will either become irrelevant or become solely a producer of content for other streamers. As The Verge so perfectly put it, “The bottom line is that if these companies want to be in on streaming, it means they have to slim down and abandoned other parts of their business that have become dinosaurs. In many cases, that means shedding cable networks.” In a world where companies need to cut things to make it in the streaming space, television is the first to go.

Cable television has been on its way out for a while now. With the pandemic, its exit has been greatly expedited. The pandemic has caused drastic losses for everyone and when the studios were met with needing to reprioritize where they were putting their money, they took it away from the already dying cable television divisions and fed everything into streaming which was thriving in the pandemic. The pandemic took a slow fade out and put it out of its misery.