And we loaded the gun 20 years ago.
Of all the heated debates I had with classmates at my very liberal college, one always got me really fired up: is it okay to illegally download content? I was pretty alone in thinking: absolutely not. It was the glory years of Napster, Limewire, and peer-to-peer technology, the first indications that the internet was a torrent, connecting people. Facebook was still cute. The iPhone was not born yet. Myspace was where we showed off our best selves. I’m not going to lie, I downloaded too. But I quickly gave myself some rules: only download what the market has not made available for you to buy (so basically U2 live recordings and episodes of Lost not available in my country.) But enough about me. Let’s talk about what you all told me back then.
Because oh I heard it all. From “it allows you to discover new things” to “oh, it’s okay, these industries are making so much money already” to “it’s fine, they’ll make money elsewhere, like with concerts and merchandise.” Of course these were not arguments, they were excuses. The real reason was: I can get stuff for free, without consequence, why are you bothering me? It’s human — every time there’s something free we grab it, even if we don’t need it. That’s how dumb we can be. The same people who didn’t want to spend $15 on music they would enjoy for the rest of their lives, saw no problem spending $20 on two beers they’ll have fully processed in 24 hours. I never understood how the debate didn’t stop there. But it didn’t. So let’s continue.
The day we told ourselves and the business world that, because of the internet, we weren’t going to pay for entertainment anymore, our generation started a bleed that has drained creativity like no generation before us. Wait, hold on! That can’t be right! Millennials invented the Creator Economy. Millennials and the internet, we democratized creation, allowing anyone to find their audience online. Lovely idea, until reality (aka greed and power) kicked in. I’ll talk about what’s really going on behind the scenes of the so-called Creator Economy another time. For now, I want us to stop looking at our selfies and instead take a bird’s eye look at the past 20 years for a second.
- We decided we didn’t need to pay for news anymore.
Flash forward: journalists fired left and right — who knows how many stories and corruption remained uncovered because of it, but who cares. Need new revenue streams. Okay we got it: advertising + clickbait. Nah, nobody sees ads on the internet.
Google enters. “Wait, but we know what everybody searches!”
Facebook enters. “Wait! We also have something: we know what everybody reads.”
Google comes back. “Hold on, we do that too and we also know what they watch, we just bought Youtube and…hold on, one second… yeah we also know what they buy!”
Facebook. “Umm… yes, us too!”
Platforms won. Publishers lost.
Huge win for our souls, our privacy and our democracies.
- We decided we didn’t need to pay for music. It’s okay, they’ll make money via concert right? Right, they did: Concert tickets have quintupled over the past 3 decades. So now only rich people can afford to go see their favorite bands live. Hurray democratization! The music industry seem to have successfully left darker times behind. Although some artists might disagree. In any case, music was never going to be as hurt as the film industry: the economics of both industries are entirely different only because recording an album is drastically cheaper than producing a movie…
- Yes, we also decided we didn’t need to pay for movies. Oh it’s fine, one person isn’t going to hurt the box office and movie tickets are getting expensive (hey, ever wondered why?!) Also, they’re already making so much money, they can just cut their salaries. When people use they in their argument it’s always such a pleasure. The idea that they will cut their salaries was always the last straw for me, the proof that my argumentative opponents just didn’t realize yet how the world worked (nah, of course they did, but anything will do when you’re just looking for an excuse.) Of course, they will never cut their salaries — the financiers, shareholders and studio moguls.They will cut somewhere else. If trickle down economics don’t or barely work, the opposite works like a charm: if we stop paying for things, be sure that those on top will find ways to produce things more cheaply and give you something less valuable in return. And here. we. are.
Numbers don’t lie…about numbers.
Now here’s where my side of the argument gets pretty murky, but let’s go there. The domestic US box office has, at least up to 2020, almost consistently increased year over year, from $7.3B in 1999 to 11.4B in 2019. And the amount of movies released also went up, from 448 in 1999 to 910 in 2018. So what am I talking about?! The film industry is doing great!
Well, yes they are happy. But here’s why a whole generation of filmmakers is not and audiences shouldn’t be either: while the amount of movies released went up by 103%, the box office only went up by 56% meaning the average revenue per movie collapsed. On average, a movie would make $18.3M at the box office in the 1990s. That number went down to $13.3M in the 2010s. Meaning fewer movies took bigger pieces of the pie. And we know which movies those are and we know the one (or two) studios that produce them. If capitalism likes competition because it spurs innovate, well guess what, nobody innovates in Hollywood anymore, because there’s no more competition.
I could also make the same argument I once made in college that producing too many movies actually hurts a country’s film industry. It creates too much noise and reduces the chances for the good ones to stand out. But I think the teacher and my classmates almost kicked me out of the room when I broached that idea, so I’m not going to go there today. Although when you scroll through Netflix for one hour unable to decide what to watch, you’ve made my case.
Numbers never lie (it’s true, they don’t.) They also never tell the whole story. And the other part of the story is that movies just aren’t good anymore. Or at least we can probably agree on the fact that they’re not as varied, original or innovative as they once were. Can you imagine a meeting today at a studio where a 34 year-old Australian guy with one movie under his belt, comes and says: I want to do a famous Shakespeare play, original text, but in Venice Beach and with a rock’n roll soundtrack. Yes original text, but there’s going to be guns, cigarette, aquariums, flower-patterned shirts, and it will star two teenage actors you’ve probably never heard of! What would the exec answer: try it on Youtube first. Maybe there’s a Fans of Shakespeare group that you can send to your GoFundMe page?
Movies used to change lives
I don’t know about you, but when I saw Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet at 13-years-old, it changed my life (I was probably the only one in the theater who didn’t how it was going to end — imagine the trauma!) So let me ask you this: the ’90s and early ’00s generated cultural masterpieces like Hook, Edwards Scissorhands, Pretty Woman, The Matrix, Titanic, Moulin Rouge, Jurassic Park, Casino, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Speed, Pulp Fiction, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club, Ocean’s Eleven, American Beauty, The Big Lebowski, Toy Story, King Kong, Lost In Translation, Memento… movies pretty much every single Millennial has seen, that have shaped who we are and that we still constantly refer to. Where are the equivalents today for Gen Z? Where are they going to be for our kids? You’re only allowed two Disney movies on your list. It’s hard, isn’t it?
So where are the life changing stories today?
On TV? Maybe 5 years ago. Today, are we still saying the same thing?
On TikTok? Fuck you!
On YouTube? Fuck you!
Okay, fuck you is a terrible argument, but seriously, sometimes…
So here’s my real answer: as a parent, do you feel good when your kids spend two hours on YouTube or TikTok on a Saturday night? Because my parents never questioned when I went to the movies. Do you really feel like they’re learning and feeling the same things we learned and felt watching all those films growing up when YouTuber #3 gives away $1,000 dollars to the winner of a NerfBall contest or when Influencer #15,789 shows how she takes her coffee before buying a new pair shoes she got for free from the brand she’s promoting? And look, it’s not all bad: we all also watched crappy content when we were young, and some creators on social are good, some really have something (some, not a lot) but they’re young. What happens when they need to pay big bills and take the time create something with actual meat on it. And do we really want this to be the only type of entertainment out there just because that’s where the kids are?
YouTube and TikTok are amazing business models: not a dime spent on production and people watch it for hours. It all worked out for them in the end, didn’t it? (although not necessarily the same them.) The market did what it was always going to do. Audiences don’t want to pay for content? Fine! We won’t either.
We are what we watch
Hollywood gave up, much faster than I thought it would. Because the redistribution of wealth within the film industry is not even anymore, so no studio is taking an ounce of risk. And the producers who still try are not getting rewarded. Execs don’t give their shots to unknown people with ambitious ideas the way they used to. And the truth is filmmaking is really hard — almost no one hits a home run with their first film. They need another one. That can’t happen anymore, if the vaults are empty (or at least, what they consider empty.)
And it happened on our watch. We loved movies so much we decided they weren’t worth our money. First thing to do to change anything is to take responsibility. And this is our fault.
It is our fault that talent agencies and casting directors care more about young actors and actresses followings on social than their raw talent.
It is our fault that entertainment companies are merging left and right, absolutely destroying competition, therefore innovation.
It is our fault that movie studios are being bought by companies that don’t care what cinema is or how existential storytelling is to a society (FYI storytelling shapes civilization, it started with mythology and a little later, the Bible.)
It is our fault that execs are now putting all their eggs in one or two superhero, remake, prequel or biopic movie baskets every year. Talk about pushing the boundaries of our collective imagination.
It is our fault that the industry has now completed its move to the subscription model, which in case you haven’t noticed (and true, it is well hidden) is the absolute worst for the audience. It has only one goal: make you come back so you keep paying every month. They don’t care if you watch one good movie, so why bother taking the risk to finance it. They need you to constantly come back for more. It is the fast food of entertainment: easy to eat, quickly digested, and makes you almost immediately hungry again.
“We are what we eat!” shouted the Millennials. It’s high time we realize we are also what we watch.
Another economic truth about the subscription model: they need to be able to put new things on the menu all the time. So they must cook quickly and as cheaply as possible because they need quantity above all else. And the best way to do that is to reproduce the same recipe over and over again, just with a different glaze.
While our parents used to pay between $5 to $10 for one movie, we now complain when Netflix raises its price to $15 for 36,000 hours of audiovisual storytelling available at all time (that’s about $0.0008 for a 2-hour movie). See the pattern here? And we don’t like to be called entitled. One last question: name one essential life product (yes movies are essential, shut up!) that has lost more value in the past 20 years. As we came of age our generation paid more for about everything: cars, rent, school, coffee. Just not for art. Yeah, we truly were a bunch of idealists.
Go viral and come back
Some might say I’m just bitter or I’m over-exaggerating the situation: great movies and great TV shows are still being made. And it is true that the film industry, just like the rest of the world, has gone through too many changes and reckoning these past 20 years to fairly recap them in one — albeit long — Medium post. But one thing I can assure you, having lived it firsthand, is that anyone working toward a film career in front or behind the camera in the past 15 years has heard the same three things over and over: make something amazing for cheap that goes viral; build your own social following; or write the book and get it published (a new one has apparently started to emerge that I’ve personally heard a few times: try to find the money abroad. No comment.)
Basically take all the risk — financial, emotional, personal — on your own and we’ll reap the benefits once you do. Now, of course everyone knows the best way to go viral or build an audience online is to release a 90-minute indie produced cheaply. Also cheap doesn’t mean the same thing when you were able to pay over $75k a year for a prestigious film school on the coasts versus producing homemade shorts in your backyard in the middle of the country or, in my case, another one. And believe me, no matter what anyone says, cheap always comes at a cost: there are only so many stories you can tell, locations you can go to and talent you can get for no money.
Having captivating stories, character conflict that resonates with our own psyche, gorgeous imagery and eccentric directors that inspire our souls, gives oxygen to our hearts and pushes us to think bigger and differently — something American cinema was just so fucking good at — is just as important for a life well-lived as having shelter, community and food on the table.
Cinema, just like Theater, is resilient and will never disappear. Talented people will still gather to tell amazing stories, and some people with money will still have the courage to finance them. But on what scale? That’s up to us now.
As Millennials become parents, as the last of us wrap up our twenties, and we all start to wonder why we love nostalgia so much, my hope is that we realize that we actually miss Cinema. We need to change our habits and find ways to give producers in Hollywood the money to take chances on films we may not yet know we need to see. My hope is that Millennials, who now have positions of power in the industry, are starting to think about their legacy, and what, outside of numbers and PR, they want this world that they absolutely revered growing up, to look like today. And millennial filmmakers, we’re going to need to get our shit together, get creative and be stubborn AF. Yes, we’re exhausted, discouraged and all we’ve heard for the past 20 years is why nothing can get made. We need to ignore the noise of the so-called Creator Economy, the pressure of social media, and whatever industry insiders are telling us we really should be doing instead of dreaming of big stories. Even if it means all the doors get slammed in our faces again and again if we ever find them.
I know I will keep at it until I drop. I have to at least try. For myself, for the young men and women who would skip class to go see the latest Spielberg or Coen Brothers movie, but most importantly for the next generation. I remember what impacted me when I was young, and it was not the game shows I watched on TV when I came back from school. My kids are going to be shaped by what they watch. I will pay them money to go the movies if it comes to it. But if there are good movies playing, I know for a fact I won’t have to.