When Will Doom Come To Hollywood?

Jane Austen? Shakespeare? Tolstoy? Hacks. Beethoven? Bach? Mozart? Wildly overrated. Statistically speaking, at least.

It’s a curious fact that while the long-dead titans of literature and music are revered above all others, they were working in a time when the talent pool — the educated population of the planet — was a tiny rounding error compared to today’s. What’s more, today’s writers and musicians have the advantage of learning from those who went before. Simple statistics implies that most of history’s great works of art must have been created within the last 50 years–

–but you’ve probably never heard of them. These days it’s nearly impossible for even geniuses to elbow their way out of the teeming masses of would-be writers, musicians, and other artists. It was bad enough back in the 18th century, when Samuel Johnson’s biographer Boswell wrote:

I told him that our friend Goldsmith had said to me, that he had come too late into the world, for that Pope and other poets had taken up the places in the Temple of Fame; so that, as but a few at any period can possess poetical reputation, a man of genius can now hardly acquire it. JOHNSON. ‘That is one of the most sensible things I have ever heard of Goldsmith. It is difficult to get literary fame, and it is every day growing more difficult.’

That’s a sentiment echoed more recently by Microsoft Research’s Duncan Watts, who a few years ago performed an experiment that indicated

market success is driven less by intrinsic talent than by “cumulative advantage,” a rich-get-richer process in which early, possibly even random events are amplified by social feedback and produce large differences in future outcomes… someone who is incredibly successful may owe their success to a combination of luck and cumulative advantage rather than superior talent.

What’s more, the traditional gatekeepers have mostly been beaten down by the hammer of technology, and find themselves fighting for smaller slices of a diminishing financial pie. The music industry has been so utterly transformed that we barely remember what it was. The book business is in the throes of the same transformation: Borders is dead, Barnes & Noble is floundering, 60 percent of book purchases happen online, the lines between agent, publisher, distributor, and retailer grow blurrier daily, and anyone who wants to can and frequently does self-publish.

As for television, as Ryan Lawler pointed out a couple of days ago, TV isn’t even really TV any more:

But even as the supply of what the industry cynically calls “content” skyrockets, the demand for it is at best flat. There are only so many books one can read, so much music one can listen to, so many movies and TV shows one can watch, so much content one can consume — and many consumers nowadays refuse to pay for any of the above when free or pirated versions are available.

Paradoxically, in the face of this ever-expanding panoply of choices, today’s audiences are frequently reading and viewing less diversely. It seems that today’s tech has actually intensified the Watts effect mentioned above — meaning that if you don’t already have a brand or a franchise, odds are you’re in big trouble before you even get started. Just ask J.K. Rowling and/or her nom de plume Robert Galbraith.

Or ask Jonny Geller, CEO of major literary/talent agency Curtis Brown, who says: “We used to operate on the 80-20 rule. Now, it’s more like 96 to four.” I’m all too grimly aware of that myself; I was represented by Curtis Brown back when I was a full-time thriller writer. I’m pleased to report that my novels were quite well-reviewed but sold very modestly. Just like J.K. Rowling’s! …er, as Robert Galbraith. (But it’s okay. Writing software is three times as lucrative and sometimes almost as fun.)

And yet.

There remains one last unransacked bastion, one creative castle as yet unconquered by this rising sea of disruptive technology and social change. I refer, of course, to Hollywood. They’re making more money from the box office than ever, thanks to higher ticket prices. The common wisdom is that they’ve become more megahit-driven, but if you look at the numbers, the top 10 releases of 2012 commanded 31 percent of all U.S. box-office income that year, compared to 27 percent and 30 percent 10 and 20 years ago; not exactly a shocking change.

True, streaming has destroyed the enormous DVD profits to which the studios had become accustomed: but at the same time, the rest of the planet has grown enormously wealthier over the last 20 years, and it turns out they like going to movies, too. Almost everyone does. It’s a social event that isn’t really a social event; how great is that? So: “In the past decade total box-office spending has risen by about one-third in North America while more than doubling elsewhere,” saith The Economist.

As a result the studios just keep sailing along. True, Spielberg and Lucas have predicted a Hollywood “implosion” — but they see it happening because “three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” Not because of Netflix, or piracy, or increased supply, or diminished demand, or the democratization of the means of production. None of those actually seem to be a problem yet.

Is this a false sense of security? A rising tide lifting a fleet of sinking ships? Maybe–but I don’t think so. I think Hollywood is on to something here, and that the death of the DVD was not such a bad thing in the long run.

Movies at home have to compete with every other form of entertainment, and that’s a loser’s game; but if you can drag people out of their living rooms and into your theaters, then you’ve won the battle already. People who see movies in theaters aren’t just absorbing entertainment, they’re attending a performance. In the same way that live shows remain music’s great cash cow, movie theaters can vaccinate Hollywood against Netflix and BitTorrent.

So that big red flag waving over the iconic Hollywood sign isn’t the death of the DVD; it’s the steadily diminishing number of tickets sold. Ticket inflation may keep short-term revenues high, but in the long run it could be what cripples the business forever. The question is, will Hollywood realize in time that they need to take a short-term revenue hit, and lower their ticket prices, in order to keep their audience coming out to theaters? As a movie lover, here’s hoping that the answer is yes.

Image: Kaiju, Pacific Rim. Go see it.