Film Fund-amentals: The Co-Evolution of Cinema

There’s a lot of co-evolution going on. Changes in one thing produce corresponding changes in many other things. The term is most commonly used in biology, but it is also applicable to the current state of film and media. It’s more than applicable. It is the single most important concept that explains the ever-shifting patterns that are overwhelming the entire business.

The movie business as it has been known for the past fifty or more years (counting from the previous shift caused by the 1948 Supreme Court anti-trust ruling against the old studio system) will eventually cease to exist. Movies will continue in various forms, but the industry (as it is now structured) will systematically evaporate. The process is already in full swing, and privately a growing number of people in the industry have a gnawing if dim idea that something major is rumbling beneath their feet.

The film industry is not alone in this process. The availability of music has, thanks to the digital world, achieved a near instantaneous and global spread. In the process, the music industry has gone into a state of semi-ruin (at least for the major music corporations), and wildly contentious debate that see-saws between venomous finger-pointing and spurts of hopeful thinking. Virtually the only thing both sides agree on is that the industry currently sucks, and each blames the other for this condition.

Newspapers are in the same boat only more so. Since the late 1980s, newspaper readership has been in an ever-accelerating state of decline accentuated by a near complete inability to attract a younger demographic market. In turn, newspapers were slow to adapt to the digital revolution due to poor planning based on really bad advice. For years, senior executives at major newspapers were being told by hired consultants that the internet would never replace the “pleasure” of actually holding a newspaper in one’s own hands (I sat in on a few of these pep talks in the late 1980s). The consultants were all wrong. It took most newspapers more than twenty years to figure this out.

Hollywood combines all the weaknesses of both the recording industry and the newspaper business. The current mainstream movie industry is based on a high level of centralized corporate control. The business maintains a high production cost and a low sale price (either tickets at the theater or the average price of DVDs, etc.). In turn, this is all managed through an extremely narrow and largely closed system of both production and distribution.

The development of digital processes is innately designed to do the exact opposite. It resists, even frustrates, most traditional forms of centralized corporate control. Though tremendous efforts are currently underway to bring the internet under tighter legislative control, most of these approaches will ultimately fail in the application. They mostly increase the punitive issues (if and when a hacker is caught). They really cannot prevent or stop most hackers from actually hacking whatever they feel like hacking. Numerous arguments — both pro and con — can be made about every piece of legislation regarding digital piracy that is currently moving through US Congress. But the basic reality is that it just doesn’t matter. When faced by the inexorable nature of the internet, these bills all sound like a modernized version of the story of King Canute.

But while both Hollywood and Congress attempt to regulate and control the internet, they are also stuck having to use it for all the same reasons they want to repress it. Eventually, movies will be distributed to theaters by way of the internet. Inevitably, film will cease to exist and all aspects of the industry will be digital (that is pretty much the case already). In theory, the cost of production will drop. But not in Hollywood. So far the application of new technology in Hollywood has resulted in spiraling cost overruns. This is an institutional issue. Most of the folks at the major studios couldn’t make a simple ham sandwich for less than $100. The institutional structure of the contemporary commercial movie industry is designed to create high costs, not lower them. The current condition of runaway budgets and huge cost overruns in Hollywood is exactly what the system is set up to do. Ironically, the system is working really well.

The digital revolution is most ideal for indie filmmakers working on the cheap and wanting to stay largely outside of centralized corporate control. The mainstream industry control over the means of production (equipment, technical facilities, etc.) is pretty much shot to hell. Hollywood still has enormous financial control, but the rapid emergence of new financial models (e.g. Crowdfunding) is proving to be a potential boon to indie producers. The main power that Hollywood has left is in theatrical distribution. But the theater system is in the process of changing (and actually vanishing).

Within the next few years, most major Hollywood companies will no longer have any real basis for controlling the business. All they will have left will be lots of under-employed publicists, an army of lawyers (after all, if you’re going to take a fall you might as well file some lawsuits on the way down), and a sharp increase in pseudo-celebrities (mostly strange, zombie-like creatures crawling out of assorted “reality” shows). But the business, as it currently exists, will be over.

The movie business will also continue. As Hollywood falls, new niches will open up and new players will emerge within the altered business sphere (in many respects, this is what Francis Ford Coppola is talking about in a recent interview). As the digital universe evolves, the film industry will also change and evolve. It’s kind of like the extinction of the dinosaurs. As they stumbled into the dust, their exit opened up a vast new range of environmental niches for all of those tiny (and presumably tasty) mammals that were running around. The end of their age was the beginning of ours.

This is what’s happening now. The proof of this will be extremely obvious within just the next few years.