The Murderer Is…

I encourage you to read Daniel Bessner’s article at Harper’s Magazine, “The Life and Death of Hollywood”. In it he crafts a narrative of an industry in which there was a Golden Age of “prestige television”, roughly 1995-2015, during which:

TV had become a place for sharp wit, singular voices, people with vision—and they were getting paid.

It was the era of Frasier, The West Wing, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad. The article has a considerable amount of information about Hollywood’s structure and inner workings. He attributes the decline from the heights of 20 years ago to a number of factors:

  • Consolidation
  • Deregulation
  • Financialization
  • Pursuit of international audiences
  • Changes in how the product was produced

But the business of Hollywood had undergone a foundational change. The new effective bosses of the industry—colossal conglomerates, asset-management companies, and private-equity firms—had not been simply pushing workers too hard and grabbing more than their fair share of the profits. They had been stripping value from the production system like copper pipes from a house—threatening the sustainability of the studios themselves. Today’s business side does not have a necessary vested interest in “the business”—in the health of what we think of as Hollywood, a place and system in which creativity is exchanged for capital. The union wins did not begin to address this fundamental problem.

Currently, the machine is sputtering, running on fumes. According to research by Bloomberg, in 2013 the largest companies in film and television were more than $20 billion in the black; by 2022, that number had fallen by roughly half. From 2021 to 2022, revenue growth for the industry dropped by almost 50 percent. At U.S. box offices, by the end of last year, revenue was down 22 percent from 2019. Experts estimate that cable-television revenue has fallen 40 percent since 2015. Streaming has rarely been profitable at all. Until very recently, Netflix was the sole platform to make money; among the other companies with streaming services, only Warner Bros. Discovery’s platforms may have eked out a profit last year.

His prescriptions are, somewhat unsurprisingly, given his analysis of the problem for the federal government to step in and break up the media conglomerates and for reregulation to prevent their re-establishing themselves. I would completely agree with one of his prescriptions: actual creators (rather than the companies that employ creators) should hold full copyrights to their works. I would add that I believe the terms of such copyrights should be for 25 years or until the natural death of the creator, whichever comes first.

While the author’s contribution is valuable, I think he’s ignoring some fundamentals. First, supply and demand. When the first screenwriters union was founded in 1921 there were fewer than 20 members. The relatively small number of screenwriters remained the norm for decades. Today the Writers Guild of America has more than 10,000 members.

Second, Hollywood is obsessed with making pictures that Americans don’t want to see. Rather I think they’re making the pictures they want to make with the stories they want to tell and the messages they want to send. When they make pictures that Americans do want to see, e.g. Barbie and Top Gun: Maverick, they do well and people are even willing to go to the theater to see them.

Third, when you can make a quality production with an iPhone and a personal computer and whose production costs can be crowdsourced I think that Hollywood is doomed. The only thing keeping it afloat is a lock on distribution and streaming is weakening that lock.

Finally, when everything is a spin-off, reboot, remake or otherwise derived from something made before and smart, creative dialogue is actually an impediment to the work’s being suitable for the overseas market, generative artificial intelligence might actually be a better fit for writing those works than real live writers.

7 comments… add one
  • TastyBits Link

    It sounds like the entertainment industry is going through the same thing as manufacturing, heavy industries, mining, etc. I could produce a screed about outsourcing (on or off shore), but why bother?

    Most of the under 30 crowd I know are watching anime.

  • Andy Link

    I agree with a lot of this, but I think the market is still working in Hollywood. For example, I think there is a lot of truth to the idea that Hollywood has wanted to make ” pictures they want to make with the stories they want to tell and the messages they want to send,” and the reality is that those pictures have generally performed poorly.

    I don’t really care if Hollywood makes crap because I have choices in my consumption habits like everyone else on the planet (except China and a few other places) and I just won’t watch.

  • I don’t really care if Hollywood makes crap

    Hollywood’s decline has significant economic and political ramifications for Los Angeles and Southern California more generally. It’s a bone of contention but Hollywood is estimated to be as much as 20% of the Los Angeles economy (some scoffers say 5%). I wonder what the implications are for middle income and above workers there.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m not all convinced that changing the structure of the film industry is the issue, particularly the complaint based on “soft monopolization.” What the consumer experiences is fragmentation, too many streaming services to pay for all the subscriptions. The article focuses on some Apple TV shows which I probably will never see because I’m not in the Apple-verse. The situation is more like the vertical integration of studios and theatres mentioned in the articles. If we were to take that analogy seriously, we would be wondering why Dickinson is only streaming on Apple? Seems like exclusive arrangements are more about Apple-branding than reaching a larger audience and the payout to talent may not be as good as well. Same as Amazon, studious that are more than studious. But does Dickinson fair better or worse without the Apple option?

    With so much product out there, including from free services, new is competing with old more than ever? I just finished watching the first season of Fargo from ten years ago. I will probably watch the second season sometime, maybe months or years down the line. I have lists of movies I want to watch first. I finally watched Red Shoes, the movie Dave has probably mentioned more than any other here. There is more like that I haven’t seen.

  • steve Link

    Meh. We didnt have streaming, or much of it, from 1995-2015. I am not really sure TV from the 20 year period was really better than any other preceding 20 year period for that matter. This seems a lot like what happened with music. We fairly suddenly got lots more options. Talent got spread everywhere. Plus, it’s pretty clear streaming has created lots of issues.

    From my POV the large majority of TV and movies were never worth watching. That’s still true, just a bit worse. OTOH, I can go to YouTube and find excellent pieces on all kinds fo history, modern tech, theology, physics (science in general) you name it.


  • Shorter: 90% of everything is crap.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    The biggest problem for Hollywood is it is based on a declining medium that people use for entertainment.

    TV / movies are “one to many” technologies. With the advent of the internet came social media and online computer gaming; which are “many to many” technologies.

    People’s leisure time and budget is limited. TV and movies had a near monopoly on time and budgets before the internet. It had nowhere to go but down.

    There’s some interesting observations if you review the “video” industry by looking at 4 key players — Netflix, Youtube, Tiktok, Twitch.

    Of the four, I would argue only Netflix believes its main asset is the same thing that Hollywood does, scripted entertainment with high production values.

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