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Media Theory

Hollywood vs Silicon Valley

I know I’m late to the party on this one, but there is an epic six part series on disruption in Hollywood at the End Crawl blog. The entire series, and links!, are worth a read. Seriously, go read it and come back.

Caught up? Great!

Pliny’s series made me dust off a post that been sitting in my drafts folder for ages, because I’m starting to believe that Hollywood (and maybe even Art in general) may be immune to disruption, at least in the Silicon Valley definition of word. Pliny’s series also made me question; why do we want to Kill Hollywood so badly anyway?

Netflix

For all of their talk about disrupting television, I think it is important to keep in mind that we are generally referring to Netflix disrupting traditional distribution. There is very little talk about disrupting the production process.

What is Netflix doing to change the way film and television gets made? Because in many ways it’s business as usual to how its shows are developed, packaged, financed, and produced through release.

As a thought experiment: how many new shows is Netflix releasing in 2017 and how does its slate compare against the tradition network and cable companies? Is Netflix really batting higher than the incumbent players? Sure titles like Stranger Things grab all of the headlines, but dollar-for-dollar I wonder if Netflix is truly besting everyone from ABC to USA.

The trouble with The Get Down

If you read Variety’s story about The Get Down’s troubled production, there is nothing news worthy about it for anyone with any experience working in the industry. The only reason it’s news worthy is because The Get Down is a Netflix show.

And when you get down to it, Netflix compromised the very core of their user experience, i.e., the binge watch, in order to capitulate to Baz Luhrmann’s “creative vision”. After the first writer’s room was shutdown in Los Angeles and relocated to New York did Netflix evaluate what went wrong and put mechanisms in place to prevent it from happening again? What was going on when a second Showrunner was replaced and production was delayed yet again?

Where were the fancy Silicon Valley discussion about “Process”? Where was the production version of the Netflix Chaos Monkey??

Right now it looks like Netflix is throwing it’s “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” Silicon Valley money at talent that’s already been identified by the system it’s trying to disrupt. And before you say, “but Stranger Things…,” keep in mind that Netflix only picked Stranger Things up after everyone else turned it down. Netflix did not identify and get a hold of something new before one of the major studios.

It’s not that Netflix should be responsible for identifying creative talent before the incumbent studios. But we should be more realistic and realize Netflix’s accomplishment more modestly. And that if Netflix somehow developed a machine learning box that ‘read’ scripts that Netflix greenlit solely on the magic box’s decision that then went on to become Stranger Things levels of success… well that that would be something.

Machine Learning is already tackling problems as complex at cancer research and energy efficiency; so why is greenlighting a movie or television script any different?

Silicon Valley vs Hollywood

Silicon Valley seems to have a tradition of thought leadership at all levels that seems noticeably absent from Hollywood. In the blog space, where is the Rands in Repose of television production management? Who is the Daring Fireball of the entertainment industry who applies Gruber’s level of Kremlinology analysis to Disney or Warner Brothers?

Daring Fireball is ostensively a blog about Apple. John Grubber is hyper focused on Apple and what makes it unique in the worlds of business, culture, and technology. The quality of his writing rivals anything you’d read in The New Yorker whether he is reviewing an iPhone or analyzing internal shake-ups. All this from a company that release half a dozen products three or four times a year.

The television industry is built around announcing new shows, the yearly cancelations, and the award seasons. But where is the thoughtful analysis and speculation about these moves? Are the creations of Bravo and FX not worthy of the same level of thoughtful analysis? Or is there something different at play?

Rands in Repose is the blog of Michael Loop who writes extensively about his experience managing humans. Specifically, humans who happen to be computer engineers at some of Silicon Valley’s top firms. His excellent book Managing Humans is a collection of his posts and if you’re a Line Producer, Production Manager, Supervising Producer, or Post Supervisor you should read his book right now. And if you work below-the-line you deserve department heads who think about things like: Why Bored People Quit.

Side note: Rands is a huge reason I developed the A.E. curriculum.

Rands in Repose and Daring Fireball are just two examples of quality writing that I just haven’t come across when it comes to the entertainment industry. And it is even more pronounced when it concerns good writing about the production process itself.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I’ve only been able to think of a two explanations. The first is that there is a level of self selection at play. Could it be that the type of person who is self reflective, capable of breaking things down in a logical way, and articulating it at an academic level would not work in entertainment in the first place?

The other possibility is that there is a deeper irreconcilable difference between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Iteration

In Silicon Valley the word iterate is everywhere. “Fail Fast, Fail Often” is the mantra you read about everywhere. But unfortunately this concept doesn’t translate to Hollywood. My SnapChat App is on version 10.12.2. I can use it, update it, use a recently added feature; but how would this work with Game of Thrones? You either know Ned Stark is dead, or you don’t. And don’t get me started about Star Wars, because we all know that Hans fired first!

Hollywood already does its own version of iteration called the focus group. But these pre-release screenings that influence the final product are usually kept small for the very reason that the producers don’t want to ruin the surprise for everyone else. I think it is impossible to reconcile this idea of iteration with the fact that art delights us when it’s surprising. Like the saying goes, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.”

The idea of iteration being contra to surprise is even more pronounced in these days of the risk adverse tentpole franchise film. Would the Marvel Cinematic Universe exist today if 2008’s Iron Man bombed? After all what is Guardians of Galaxy Vol. 2 but Iron Man Part 15? Getting it right the first time is more important than ever.

How do you Disrupt the Oscars?

Disruption is throw around without realizing that Clayton Christensen with writer of the The Innovator’s Dilemma laid out a very specific definition of what disruption is. And much like iteration not really making sense when applied to filmmaking. Christensen’s definition of disruption doesn’t make much sense either. For example:

as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers

The number one complaint I hear against Hollywood movies or Broadcast television is that they try to appeal to the lowest common denominator. That by trying to appeal to everyone, they actually create entertainment that appeals to no one.

Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments, gaining a foothold by delivering more-suitable functionality—frequently at a lower price.

Youtube killed the talent agency and Nickelodeon. But once talent has been identified, the glamour of Hollywood is very alluring, because often Hollywood is a substitute word for fame. Even if the major studios were to go bankrupt tomorrow, as long as theaters exist, there will always be a businessman making a dollar selling spectacle. And the artists who crave the validation of the lime light will always be their accomplices.

Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred.

There is no Silicon Valley equivalent to the Oscars (as much as TED would like to be). But even after the incumbents fail, if our culture creates an Oscars 2.0 to celebrate Youtube actors and Machinima creators; what would have really changed? How do you disrupt a system that celebrates creativity and emotional exploitation?

Why do we want to “Kill Hollywood” anyway?

Perhaps we want to kill Hollywood to restore a sense of fairness to the world, after all Baz Lahrmann is a jerk and why should he be so handsomely rewarded for delivering an over-budget over-schedule borefest? When corresponding performance at our own job would most likely result in immediately termination.

A lot of people in the entertainment industry are not very nice, although they pretend to be. In many ways Hollywood celebrities are the United States’s version of royalty. That we want to see some comeuppance makes sense. But let’s go deeper. Because their are more worthy targets if restoring inequality were our subconscious goal.

As we all learned in Jurassic Park, some people “are so focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something.” So why do we want to kill Hollywood so badly? Especially when Cable TV is socialism that works!

Do we honestly believe that there is a vast trove of stories just waiting to be told if only the evil studio system were to collapse once and for all? What do we as an audience hope to experience that the spectrum of current programming isn’t addressing? We already have trouble consuming all of the programming available to us. I’ve yet to meet someone who’s Netflix queue isn’t overloaded with shows they’ve yet to watch.

It seems to me that when we say that we want to ‘kill’ Hollywood, maybe what we really want is to reform our Copyright Laws. We want more stories in the universes that other people have created, and perhaps we want the freedom to create them ourselves. Like CGP Grey says in his video linked above:

imagine for a moment, if copyright still worked as first intended. In 2011 the whole of the original Star Wars trilogy – all of its artwork, its characters, its music – would have left copyright protection and been available to aspiring directors and writers to build upon and make their own versions of. There would be a treasure trove of new Star Wars stories for fans to enjoy.

But as long as the current copyright laws remain as they are, no living person will ever get to tell a Darth Vader story, or a Harry Potter Story, or a Hobbit Story or any other story that matters to them, that the author or, when after their death, their company, disagrees with.

I recognize that my points haven’t been logically rigorous. And that was kinda the point. When we talk about disrupting Hollywood, I think we need to recognize that ‘Hollywood’ is a catchall term for so many different things; a technical process, a culture, a geographical location, a type of entertainment, etc etc etc…

Before we kill Hollywood, we need to have a clear understanding of what we want disrupted, and if we are willing to be a bit wiser; and why?