Film Fund-amentals: The Pain of Evolution

In any period of evolutionary change, there are those who adapt and those who don’t. As the working environment changes, the old lifeforms thrash about in a desperate effort to cling to the traditional ways while previously minor players adapt to the new model and begin to systematically expand and dominate.

Unless it involves media. Then only the old fossils really know what is what. Well, that seems to be what film and TV producer Gavin Polone is telling us. A few weeks ago he wrote a blog piece entitled Why TV Networks Don’t Need to Worry About Netflix and Hulu’s Original Programming. It’s worth a read. He makes some good points. Never have I seen a man so anxious to align himself with the dinosaurs while the killer asteroid is streaking across the sky.

Polone is correct in arguing that some of the key executives within the established entertainment industry may actually know what they’re doing. In any business, a few rational and intelligent people will make it to the top. In many regards, the system is designed to prevent that, but a few capable folks do manage to sneak through. So not every suit in Hollywood is a duplicitous self-serving narcissistic idiot (but they have to act like one if they want to fit in with the rest of the club).

Likewise, not every master of the digital realm is particularly well-versed in the demands of media entertainment. Some even resemble Polone’s backhanded description of what he sees as the geek brigade (“…they are all comfortable with each other’s ugly clothes and sexlessness.”). Odd thing, in every photograph I have located of Polone, he looks like he just spent a long night eating Pop Tarts while surfing the Net. So I’m not quite sure where he’s going with his sartorial critique.

However, Polone is extremely accurate in his comment about the current methodology being used by such large companies as Netflix and Hulu. He notes that “…they don’t appear to be developing much on their own, just buying stuff from big-name producers.” That is correct. Basically the large Internet providers are focused on doing original programs that are designed to replicate TV programming. It’s not so much a bad idea as a dumb one. But who cares? Netflix and Hulu are not the future. They’re merely transitional stages in a process of evolutionary change.

It has happened before and it is happening again. By the 1930s, radio had become the dominant form of narrative programming in American popular culture. As TV began its commercial development, it basically copied radio. When Fred Allen quipped that TV was just radio with pictures, he was right. Heck, even many of the early successful shows on TV — like Dragnet and Gunsmoke — were adapted from their original radio versions.

Then everything began to change (as Marshall McLuhan noted). First, TV devoured radio programming (and radio began copying the pace and structure of TV). Then it moved increasing into a different model of programming and presentation. It was a different medium. Despite the limitations imposed by its commercially-dominated structure (I think a lot of advertisers secretly preferred the simpler days of radio), TV created an extremely different environment in American popular culture. I am not a big subscriber to the McLuhan school of thought, but he was basically right on some of his major points.

It’s the same deal (but even more so) with the emerging digital form. As happened before, the old model attempts to stitch itself onto the new form. Polone and many other Hollywood figures assume that the Net will simply function as an ancillary market for film and TV. At the moment, this is pretty much the main commercial structure in use. It is understandable that they would mistakenly think that the Internet is simply TV without the rabbit ears.

But the reality will be a tad closer to what someone once said in a lecture about the possibility of alien visitation: It will be something we can’t understand from someplace that we don’t know. Polone is right in arguing that the seasoned TV executives and producers know more about producing TV than any digital geek. But the digital future is really not going to be about TV. It isn’t really even going to be about movies. It’s going to be about something that, at best, may resemble a strange hybrid of film, television, social networks and elements yet to be conceived.

And the folks in their ugly clothes and sexless forms are the ones who will be, for better or worse, stumbling their way into this form. The best that Polone can do is hack his way through Zombieland 2 (but it will be in 3D because Polone is a really hip and groovy guy). Contrary to his assumption, Polone is not part of tomorrow. He is barely a part of today (and by the way, I seem to recall that Polone’s most successful movie was Zombieland, which was actually somewhat “borrowed” from the infinitely superior British film Shaun of the Dead).

The future of the new digital form will be determined by the people working in that media. Their lack of experience in the old models (both traditional film and TV) will be a problem at first. Then it will become a major plus. It is a new form and it will result in a variety of new business models. These are the people who will be learning and creating the new rules. Their lack of experience in the old model may even help them in the development of new models. After all, they will not be burdened with the clutter of dead knowledge. This is all part of an evolutionary change.

Meanwhile, Polone may want to examine his clothes closet. He ain’t exactly a modern day Beau Brummell.