Branded Worlds: how technology recentralized entertainment

I love Hollywood box-office numbers because they provide a hard statistical view of cultural currents. Did you know, for instance, that there had never been a weekend when 8 of the top 10 movies in America were sequels — until this month? Or that, while almost 400 movies were released in the first half of 2018, nearly 40% of their total accumulated revenue came from just four releases, all of which were superhero sequels?

This is not what was supposed to happen. Ten years ago people thought that visual storytelling would be democratized; that new cameras, new editing suites, cheap streaming, and BitTorrent would combine to render high-cost obsolete-infrastructure Hollywood irrelevant. A worldwide cohort of genius independent filmmakers would use this new generation of accessible tools to slowly supplant Hollywood studios and producers as the drivers of visual and narrative culture.

Hoo boy, did that ever not happen. Instead we just added a few new gatekeepers to the entertainment oligarchy: YouTube, Amazon, Netflix. Instead of a new era of auteurs, of unique voices and stories, the entertainment industry has had enormous success doing the complete opposite: doubling down on sequels, and expanding brands and franchises into massive worlds of corporate-licensed, committee-written, producer-driven branded entertainment, often spanning movies, television, books, video games, and amusement parks. The Marvel Cinematic (and televised) Universe. Worlds of DC. Star Wars. Star Trek. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Jurassic World.

This is not in and of itself a bad thing. I’m a fan of most of those myself. But it’s worth asking; why didn’t we get that decentralized diaspora of auteurs that was once widely predicted? And what are the longer-term effects of the triumph of Branded Worlds on the grassroots, and the next generations, of pop culture?

There are two answers to the first question: cost and time. Maybe it’s a lot easier to shoot and edit movies/TV than it used to be, but sets, locations, actors, scripts — those are all expensive and difficult. Better amateur work is still far from professional. And while it’s true we’re seeing interesting new visual modes of storytelling, e.g. on Twitch and YouTube,¬† it’s very rarely narrative fiction, and it’s still¬† distributed and monetized via Twitch and YouTube, gatekeepers who implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) shape what’s popular.

More importantly, though, democratizing the means of production does not increase demand. A 10x increase in the number of TV shows, however accessible they may be, does not 10x the time any person spends watching television. For a time the “long tail” theory, that you could make a lot of money from niche audiences as long as your total accessible market grew large enough, was in vogue. This was essentially a mathematical claim, that audience demand was “fat-tailed” rather than “thin-tailed.”

But it seems that the demand for entertainment is quite thin-tailed indeed. The more options we have, the more we seem to want characters we already know, in worlds with which we’re already familiar. This makes sense — it takes a lot of work to engage with a new world and a new cast, with no guarantee at all that they will be worth the effort. But the result is that Branded Worlds increasingly feel like vast open-world video games, even including side quests (Rogue One or Ant-Man And The Wasp) along with the “main story,” and a seemingly endless amount of new downloadable content.

I also suspect that many-chaptered, many-charactered worlds are more viable than they used to be because we’re more connected to them. Did you miss a Marvel movie leading up to Infinity War? Well, you can recap its handful of key and killer scenes on YouTube, in fifteen minutes, without having to rent/watch the whole thing. Did you miss the last episode of a TV show, or do you just want to skip to its conclusion? If it has enough cultural resonance, Vulture or The AVClub probably posted a recap you can use as quick Cliff’s Notes. We can dip our toes into Branded Worlds whenever we like, in between diving into them at a movie theater or serious bingewatching session.

The other interesting question is: what does the growing supremacy of Branded Worlds mean for the next generation of writers, directors, and producers? Obviously producers will try to turn tentpoles into sequels, and sequels into franchises, as before; but now they have a new goal, that of transforming a franchise into the apotheosis of a Branded World. (Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Westworld are obvious candidates, though each faces its own set of hurdles.)

Obviously writers and directors are incentivized to create what is most likely to be successful. This doesn’t mean the complete absence of standalone one-offs — we’ve also seen that horror, long a springboard for auteurs breaking into the biz, seems to give us one surprise crossover hit every year, such as Get Out and A Quiet Place. But it does mean that creators will focus on worlds as much as stories, and that fanfiction will become a completely viable path into the industry — after all, writing within a Branded World is simply paid fanfiction. (Creators will also be incentivized to write stories which might do well in China’s burgeoning market, but that’s a different post.)

Again, none of this is intrinsically bad. What I worry about a little, though, is whether the demand for entertainment is so thin-tailed that, as the number of Branded Worlds increases, that demand begins to end with them. It’s pretty clear that once a Branded World gets big enough it doesn’t necessarily have to be good to be successful. (See Age of Ultron, Batman v Superman, the bad Star Trek movies, arguably Solo, etc.) Left-field hits like Get Out are funded because their collective batting average is acceptably high. If Branded Worlds take enough of the mindshare of the masses that the batting average of original works drops faster than their production cost, then we’ll start seeing even fewer of those.

Will that happen? I can’t say — but I can tell you that a good way to measure whether it’s happening is to look at the weekend box office a few years from now and see if, for the first time, fully 9 out of the top 10 are sequels. Watch the numbers; they rarely lie.