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film netflix streaming studios television

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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disney film nostalgia studios television

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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feminism MeToo television

Whedon Part Two: Misogynists Behind the Feminist Mask

In today’s patriarchal society, it is men who are often recognized for their feminist efforts above others. When a man embraces the title of ‘feminist,’ everyone “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” at his bravery and thanks him for his efforts, despite the effort often just being the statement of feminism. The reality is, many male “feminists” do little else besides claiming the title of feminist. In fact, many men use the title itself to avoid being “#MeToo’d” or to evade being questioned as sexist. In particularly insidious instances, such as the case of former New York politician Eric Schneiderman who voted in favor of laws that would advocate for women’s rights while at the same time abusing his wife and mistresses, these men will actively participate in advocating for feminist issues while being horribly abusive and misogynistic behind closed doors.

In the entertainment industry, the man in the hot seat of this issue right now is Joss Whedon. Whedon is perhaps best known for one of his earliest works, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By placing a bubbly, meek-looking, shoe-loving teenage girl in the driver’s seat of this action-packed monster-of-the-week series, Whedon subverted all expectations of gender roles in television at the time. Since the show aired, it has been analyzed and beloved by academics for its gender-subverting themes and outwardly feminist ideals, which have been explored in its own academic journal, Slayage, created by the Whedon Studies Association. However, since Whedon’s darker side has been coming to light in recent years, it’s important to take a closer look at the underlying messages Buffy was actually sending to the girls and women who grew up looking to this show as their image of girl power and feminism. What does it mean for viewers when a closeted misogynist makes feminist media? What lessons can we learn twenty years post-Buffy; is the damage already done? How can we as consumers and creators of media prevent misogynist ideals from seeping into our work and our society?

Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a force of nature, both the show and the character. In watching the show, Whedon’s feminist merits are clear and it’s immediately obvious why so many girls and women love Buffy. One important point of the show was that despite being the “one and only” slayer, Buffy never worked alone. Whedon surrounded Buffy with powerful women allies like Willow, an extremely powerful witch with a knack for hacking and technological research; Anya, a former vengeance-demon whose emotions are arguably the most powerful thing about her; Cordelia, who, despite being your stereotypical popular mean girl, proves to be a fierce fighter; Dawn, Buffy’s younger sister who starts as a meek child but blossoms into a primary researcher and confident fighter; Tara, a kind and empathetic witch; as well as countless other fierce women who come and go throughout the series.

Whedon has been praised for these consistent displays of powerful femininity in its many different forms and for putting women in positions of power while pushing men into the passenger seat. In fact, acts of toxic masculinity are not only discouraged but actively punished within the show. One of many Buffy academics, Angelica Divito, states in her essay “I Want to be a Macho Man’: Examining Rape Culture, Adolescent Female Sexuality, and the Destabilisation of Gender Binaries in Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that “Whedon routinely punishes macho masculine fantasies and behaviour in BtVS when they centre on diminishing women to inflate male illusions of power.” Additionally, unlike other sci-fi or action stories of prior days, Whedon chose not to masculinize Buffy for her to be considered a “strong woman.” While it can be argued that Buffy performs masculinity in the violence she ensues and therefore is reaffirming patriarchal superiority, she still maintains her own personality and femininity in her style, way of speaking, and interests. Despite being violent, aggressive, and blunt, she still has emotional breakdowns, leans on her friends for emotional support, and indulges in fun, teenage activities like having movie marathons and going to prom. All of this subverts the expectations of an action hero in general, especially subverting the expectations that a female action hero needs to be masculine in order to be as effective as the traditionally male heroes. Whedon wanted to not only challenge the idea of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie” to “create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim,” as he detailed in the DVD commentary for season one, but also to resist the invincible, masculine hero stereotype and to “keep that quirkiness, that vulnerability… She’ll make the joke, she’ll get scared, she’ll be a person in that situation and not just Superman.” Due to these subversions and emphases placed on women being powerful because of their womanhood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a fast favorite amongst teenage girls looking to see themselves reflected in media. Subsequently, Whedon became the face of feminist television of the late ’90s and early ’00s, even being honored by Equality Now for his “outstanding contributions to gender equality in film and television,” speaking on multiple occasions about his passion for gender equality and affinity for representing powerful women in his stories.

Obviously, things have taken quite the turn since then. The shift in public opinion of Whedon began in 2017 when Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole published a blog detailing his extramarital affairs. Initially, fans and critics were resistant to the idea that a private affair had anything to do with Whedon’s feminist accolades. In the letters Whedon wrote to Cole in which he admitted to the affairs, he wrote, “when I was running Buffy, I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.” While one’s marital issues are in no way necessarily correlated to their stances on feminist issues, this line is rather incriminating, as he describes himself as unable to resist his sexual urges towards young women as a person in a position of power. He knew his authority made any romantic or sexual interaction with coworkers or actors an act of coercion, yet he could not resist. More recently, in 2020, actor Ray Fisher took to Twitter to say that Whedon’s “on-set treatment of the cast and crew of Justice League was gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable…”, a statement backed by Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa who both worked on Justice League alongside Whedon and Fisher. Following Fisher’s statement, Buffy actress Charisma Carpenter released her personal experiences of the abuse she faced at the hands of Whedon primarily on the set of the spin-off series Angel. Carpenter’s experiences were backed by Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, as well as countless other Buffy actors like Michele Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, James Marsters, David Boreanaz, Eliza Dushku, Buffy stunt double Sophia Crawford and stunt coordinator Josh Pruitt, and writer Jose Molina. To sum up, these actors and industry professionals all assert that Whedon was routinely “casually cruel,” “not appropriate,” “threatening,” an “ego-maniac” and a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals.” 

Now that we are equipped with this knowledge of Whedon’s true nature, what else is lurking in the subtext of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? One main pattern that runs continuously through the series is how Whedon uses female pain as plot devices. It could be argued that this is inevitable considering the titular character is a woman who battles evil daily. However, stacking it up next to what the men in this show experience will reveal a frightening lack of equality in trauma experienced. First of all, when seventeen-year-old Buffy has sex for the first time, it’s with her first love, the 240-ish-year-old vampire, Angel. In addition to the statutory rape angle, Buffy is immediately punished for having sex when Angel turns evil due to the act and proceeds to mentally torture her and her friends for the remainder of the season. He kills one of Buffy’s most coveted allies, the powerful “technopagan” and teacher, Jenny Calendar just to send a message; the first of the entirely unnecessary female deaths. The most notable being Willow’s girlfriend, Tara, whose death happened suddenly and without warning after being an established and beloved part of the show for two seasons.

Whedon maintains that Tara’s death was “necessary” in order for Willow to hit “rock bottom” so her character could complete her full arc, fulfilling the bury-your-gays trope. In the same episode — universally everyone’s least favorite episode — Buffy becomes a survivor of sexual assault after her vampiric former enemy-turned former lover, Spike hits his rock bottom in a harrowing scene that left many of the actors and viewers scarred. Whedon never allows Buffy to process this and the audience never gets to see the effects this has on her. “You tried to rape me — I don’t have the words,” Buffy said and Whedon wrote, refusing to take this opportunity to address a reality that many women experience and take a stance on violence against women. She never speaks on it again. However, Spike in turn gets a major story arc from this assault, leaving Sunnydale to get his soul back in a journey of redemption. The viewers are supposed to forgive him of these actions as Buffy does. Buffy’s involvement in this plot point had very little to do with her or her story. If the series were combed with a fine-tooth, so much more hair-raising, vomit-inducing anti-feminist messages would be discovered. As far as male trauma in the series goes — Buffy’s advisor experiences a great loss when Jenny is killed, as they were romantically involved, and that’s about it. The series explores past traumas of Spike and Angel, but none happen during the time the series takes place that has a lasting impact on the characters or the plot. Whedon almost exclusively uses the trauma of the powerful women he claims to admire and advocate for as the basis of his entertainment.

So what can be done now that we see the misogynistic imprint Joss left throughout Buffy? Unfortunately, there’s no way to ensure that rampant sexists don’t make popular television shows. However, we can continue to look at new media with the critical eye that many will denounce as “political correctness” or “cancel culture.” It is exactly this harsh examination — in real-time, not twenty years too late — that will help us evaluate the themes we’re consuming as a society and weed out the harmful ones. Teaching children media literacy will be a huge tool in this. Children absorb and internalize information at astonishing rates and in ways we still don’t fully understand. According to research compiled by Common Sense Research:

“In adolescence, media use is associated with more tolerant views of sexual harassment and more support for the belief that women are at least partially responsible for their own sexual assaults… including the tolerance of sexual harassment, acceptance of dating violence, and the endorsement of rape myths, a set of beliefs suggesting that women’s behavior and choices are to blame for rape.”

Adolescents watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer would not only internalize the deconstruction of gender roles and the images of powerful women who own their womanhood, but they would also take in the ideas that women’s trauma is a necessary part of life, that sexual assault isn’t a big deal, and that while men may not be a central part of the narrative, a woman’s decisions are always revolving around them. While Whedon imparted some important and valuable ideas of girl-power into the youth of the ‘00s, he also did them a huge disservice by serving up violently misogynistic themes alongside the feminist ones. Unfortunately, they flew under the radar while he hid his hatred and objectification of women behind a mask of equalism.

Dazed writer Marianne Eloise sums it up best by saying that “Being a good ally to women isn’t as simple as calling yourself a feminist: it’s actions, it’s words, it’s actually defending the rights of women. It’s elevating the voices of women you don’t want to fuck. It’s being willing to be challenged.” We can’t erase or ignore Whedon’s significant impact on television and women in media, but we can keep a watchful eye, teach one another how to interpret the media we consume, and continue to challenge ourselves, our peers, and our leaders to listen to the voices of those we’re telling our stories about, and to only tell stories that reduce harm and make a statement.

Categories
feminism film MeToo television

Are You Uncomfortable Yet?

As a woman, I’m always trying to define what a woman’s place is within the industry. When on set are we meant to feel uncomfortable or is it our job, nowadays, to make YOU feel uncomfortable? When I think about the roles that women play, I usually come up with a few coming-of-age roles, a ton of mean girl or sad girl roles, and the majority sex appeal roles. I was recently talking with a friend about how I love Margot Robbie for her part in I, Tonya and the only thing he could recall of her work was, of course, Wolf of Wall Street. Is this purely part of the dreaded “male-gaze” or is it a bigger issue within the industry?

In The Hollywood Reporter, Billie Piper delves into her own personal experience as a woman and how she genuinely feels about the roles she has been given. “Disingenuous” is the word she uses to describe the many sex scenes she had to take part in. Over many years women have felt objectified while in the industry, but now more than ever women are starting to create their own work that offers characters and plots that allow them to feel comfortable when on set. People are coming together to support causes that fight for their rights and actors like Billie Piper, Keira Knightley, and many more have been making a huge difference. How are women using their feminism and vulnerability to make you uncomfortable? It all comes down to people being afraid of what true womanhood looks like when it’s put on display, such as, breast feeding, masturbation and honestly the power that women hold altogether.

Billie Piper has worked on many different productions that have focused on her sexuality, while also not giving her a say in how its presented. Throughout society women are put into audition room after audition room being told how to look and act. Billie Piper delves into the character study of I Hate Suzie that was created by her and Lucy Prebble. She mentions to The Hollywood Reporter that “up until a few years ago, character studies like I Hate Suzie didn’t get the green light unless they were made by men.” Just like in I Hate Suzie women are constantly being robbed of agency and not only does the show touch on this topic but women are fighting to have this conversation every day. Sociologically, agency is a right given to everyone to make their own free choice. However, regardless of who you are and what you look like the industry takes that away in some ways from everyone. To make a living, women are going out for roles that don’t suit their personal morals and ethics. Due to recent societal changes people are now being given the chance to create their own work and women are taking the liberty to due so. Billie Piper speaks on the topic of perfect looking women gaining traction more than women who may not be as symmetrical as others. Why is this, you may ask? For the longest time the people behind the table were rich men who had enough money to control the decisions being made. Actors like Piper are sticking it to the man by going through with the characters she has created and plots that may make people see sides of women that “upset” them. What matters to the actors is becoming more prevalent in conversation now that women are speaking up. Creating work that stands out isn’t about selling tickets anymore, it’s about the audience relating to the characters.

Kiera Knightley is another woman that has had to make drastic changes to her way of approaching new productions. Since becoming a mother “Knightley added a ‘no nudity clause’ to her film contracts.” Kiera brings up an idea that she is portraying the male gaze when given roles that involve sex. Similarly to Knightley, Piper wants to make a change to the industry when considering the woman’s point of view. Piper speaks on the idea of selling sex and the aftereffects of sexual violence, but through a woman’s perspective. The drastic difference of how women are perceived through the male’s perspective is quite large, and therefore many women choose to not partake in sex scenes when directed by men. I think this decision is a strong start to more women feeling comfortable within the industry.

People think they own the right to feeling comfortable by the natural state of a woman, but that should never be the case. However, our society chooses to view women as someone who needs to tend to men’s comfortability. I believe Piper has the right idea when creating projects that delve into the mind of a woman. While these experiences are only one of many it still aims to please no one but the people who feel comfortable with vulnerable and strong women. So honestly it is our job to make people feel uncomfortable and be contemptuous for MEN. Because WOMEN are beautiful even in the darkest parts of our lives. After reading this article my gut reaction is to do everything in my power to make men see the true sides of women. Might even partake in free the nipple or breast feeding in public (obviously when I become pregnant) … Who knows what my next steps to this new version of me will be, but I’m excited to see the reactions I will be given. Piper will and has already inspired new creators to speak out about their experience in Hollywood and this is the start of a revolution.

Categories
film law streaming studios television

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
disney law streaming television

Bill Nye Makes Disney Sigh: Residuals in the Streaming Era

A recent piece by Gene Maddaus published in Variety takes a look at a decision made by Judge David Cowan this February in regards to a lawsuit between Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and the Walt Disney Company. The beloved entertainer took Disney to court in 2017 over their practice of keeping 80% of streaming revenue from older content under the pretense that the relatively new method of distribution can be considered “home video,” leaving a mere 20% for talent like Nye and other profiting parties. Apparently, Disney has historically taken such a high margin due to the costs associated with distribution of home video. However, Nye has called out this practice, noting that in the modern era of streaming, distribution is far cheaper than when the Science Guy negotiated his contract in 1993. Nye’s representation, Raymond Hamrick, intends to appeal after Cowan’s siding with Disney on the grounds that streaming does qualify as home video. On the contrary, Nye’s attorneys argue that “Disney is simply grabbing whatever it can based on a tortured reading of contracts that predate the streaming era.”

This case strikes up a compelling debate over the implications of evolving technology within entertainment law. Nye’s initial negotiations were conducted under the assumption that home video implied the production of a physical product or “video device” such as a DVD or VHS tape. Nye and his attorneys argue that streaming equates far more to pay TV than home video, as much of the presumed costs associated with home video distribution do not apply to streaming. Disney, on the other hand, claims that from the audience’s perspective, “streaming is similar to home video and represents an evolution from the earlier technology.” These contrasting views are well grounded in both logic and legality, forcing the reader to think critically as to the ethical implications of such a conflict. Accelerated by COVID-19, the streaming era will only continue to grow and dominate distribution influencing development, production, and all other facets of the industry for the foreseeable future. As such, it is essential to discuss and ponder these squabbles, for their outcomes will likely determine how similar conflicts are to be resolved going forward.

The core of this issue boils down to the fact that Disney, and presumably other such media conglomerates, continue to rake in profits under outdated legal justification. Given how rapidly and overwhelmingly the entertainment industry has evolved over the last decade or so, concerns of ethics and legality as they relate to business practices need to be continually recontextualized. Because of the increasing unanimity of streaming services as a dominant platform of distribution, the key to addressing this situation arises in the law rather than in the particular case of Bill Nye vs. Disney. When it comes down to it, Nye has the stronger argument. I feel a bit biased to side with creators as opposed to enormous corporations when the situation calls for it (despite my admitted love of all things Disney), so I give credence to the qualms of Bill Nye and his representation. Judge Cowan went as far as to say that Nye was “credible”, but that he found his arguments legally unconvincing, “because it would mean that Disney would not be able to collect any distribution fee at all.” Disney’s argument that streaming is an evolution of home video comes across as porous and theoretical in comparison to Nye’s more grounded claim that the same profit structures should not apply to an entirely digital medium of distribution which does not entail the production of a physical product.

Personally, I don’t find either party to necessarily be in the wrong here. Nye understandably feels entitled to a higher share of profit, given the outdated nature of his contract. Whereas, Disney is entitled to the profits they currently take as the judge has ruled under the protection of the law. Thus, it seems to me like the issue is found within the law itself more so than with either party. As is highlighted in the article, streaming operates far differently than the traditional methods of physical distribution, to which Nye’s contract originally pertained. “Unless the ruling is upheld on appeal, it does not establish a precedent that could be applied in other cases. But it still bothers attorneys who represent performers in profit participation lawsuits.” As such, the legality of the division of profits in cases like Nye’s needs to be reconsidered and potentially amended to more justly reflect the evolving industry. Otherwise, the various other streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Paramount+, HBO Max, and so on, which also hold the rights to vast libraries of legacy properties and valuable IPs will likely take advantage of this same loophole assuming they are not already doing so.

The article quotes Douglas Johnson, managing partner of Johnson & Johnson LLP, throughout, ending on his comment that “streamers are paying those big first window license fees that are usually your largest gains on the title. This should be a wakeup call to the artists and the people who make movies. This is outrageous.” In this statement, Johnson hits the nail on the head in highlighting the implications of such a case, in that while Disney’s business practices may be technically legal, they are detrimental to creatives and artists and indirectly harmful to the industry as a whole. As is the nature of business, there is an imminent danger that competitors will adopt this seemingly obvious yet morally questionable strategy in order to boost profits in the streaming era at the expense of talent. In conclusion, I think the solution to this issue comes in a reconsideration of the legality of back-end contracts like Nye’s to more fairly represent all parties in the context of the era of streaming.

While I find the legal minutiae of this case to be quite fascinating, the true interest for me comes in how much it seems to have slipped through the cracks of public consciousness. Though the article states that a legal precedent has not necessarily been set unless the ruling is upheld after further appeals, it’s difficult to imagine such a loophole going unnoticed by competitors, given the prevalence of streaming as the potentially dominant method of distribution in a post-COVID world.

Categories
feminism MeToo television

Whedon’s Fallout: Is “Big Bad” Buffy Creator Finally Getting Dusted?

Joss Whedon’s reign of terror may finally be coming to a close. For decades now, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator has perpetuated the abusive standards tolerated in the entertainment industry by verbally assaulting, coercing, manipulating, and generally abusing those he’s worked with, his actors in particular. Last year, actor Ray Fisher opened up about his experiences with Whedon on the set of the 2017 film Justice League. Since then, several actors, including most Buffy alumni, have come forward to echo these sentiments and support Fisher in speaking out, detailing the cruel and unusual behavior he inflicted upon them. Whedon isn’t the first man in the industry to use his talent and status to intimidate those around him, but his decline in status and reputation signals a sign of better times.

Hollywood is no stranger to power-based interpersonal violence. For decades, powerful men have reigned with minimal oversight and maximum control. Historically, consequences aren’t something white men in Hollywood have had to face. Now, however, we find ourselves in a time where power-based abuse is no longer being tolerated as it has been. Former Weinstein Company head Harvey Weinstein was not only fired from his production company and suspended or expelled from all the other accredited groups he was part of, but he was also locked behind bars after over a dozen women came forward in 2017 to share their experiences of sexual assault and rape. If a powerful mogul like Weinstein is no longer welcome in Hollywood, there is no longer room for anyone perpetuating abuse.

However, counterintuitively, it may be the smaller players like Whedon, those not quite on top of the world like Weinstein was, that prove to be trickier to drive out. Adam B. Vary and Elizabeth Wagmeister wrote in their Variety exclusive that Whedon’s shows “‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel’ aired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, long before the #MeToo movement, when the industry more freely abetted on-set misconduct to keep top talent happy and working.” They also echo that Whedon’s talent for writing dramatic and traumatic supernatural stories is evident, and pertinent to the excusal of his behavior over the years.

Whedon quickly established himself as a feminist with Buffy, a show centering around the spooky trials and ooky tribulations of a bubbly blonde teenage girl who has the super strength to battle vampires night after night, the brains expel demons back to hell, to travel through dimensions, and even come back from the dead herself. Despite his “girl power” mantra, Whedon consistently harassed the women of Buffy, playing mind games with the cast and crew to establish and maintain his idea of the pecking order. Charisma Carpenter detailed her experiences on the Buffy spinoff series Angel, divulging how Whedon was enraged to find out about Carpenter’s pregnancy, harassing her, and killing her character off the show in revenge. Following Carpenter’s brave and detailed post, other Whedonverse actors stepped up to show their support or share their experiences. Notably, Michele Trachtenberg, who was 14 years old at the start of her Buffy career, revealed that following an undisclosed incident, there was an on-set rule that Whedon wasn’t allowed to be alone with the 14-year-old actress any longer. The extent of his perversions is truly sickening and baffling — but it flew under the radar due to his success, his self-asserted and surface-level feminism, and his ability to mask his narcissism around higher-ups. 

As a self-proclaimed Buffy fanatic, Whedon’s offenses weigh particularly heavy in my mind. It’s painful and difficult to reconcile the fact that a show that has been so empowering to so many girls and women was built on abuse and toxic masculinity. Whedon weaseled his way into feminist media during a time when women and girls weren’t often the main characters of an action television series, and he was regaled for it. Despite many harmful underlying ideas circulating in the plotlines of Buffy, it was ahead of its time in many ways and provided an oasis for girls in the middle of a male-dominated entertainment desert. It’s actually encouraging to imagine if Buffy was created new in today’s world; so much of it would be ripped to shreds online. While many feel that today’s society is too critical, picky, or “politically correct” in our discussion of media, the harsh scrutiny is serving a higher purpose. Too often have offensive, ignorant, and violent narratives been overlooked in television and film. The critical eye of today’s youth plays a crucial role in holding creators accountable for fallacies they may be perpetuating. People are sick of the abuse, on-screen and off-screen.

Watching Ray Fisher stick to his guns with his catchphrase “Accountability over Entertainment” and encourage all of these other actors to come forward to halt the spread of the “casual cruelty” exhibited by Whedon and men like him is simultaneously exhausting and inspiring. Uprooting systemic and traditionally accepted interpersonal power-based violence is not an easy task, but it’s obviously one that many of today’s stars are up for and impassioned by. Their courage is inspiring. As creators, administrators, heads-of-companies, and general industry cohorts, it’s all of our jobs to support those who speak out about industry abuse and to speak up ourselves if we come across these injustices firsthand. Abusive and power-hungry creators like Joss Whedon have always existed and will always exist — that doesn’t mean they have to exist within Hollywood. Thankfully, Whedon’s reputation is now marred, with no projects currently in the works and legal penalties potentially on the horizon. All that is left to do is to don our crucifixes, sharpen our stakes, and keep slaying the exploitative, power-hungry demons that emerge.

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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.