With theater attendance at a two-decade low and profits dwindling, the kind of disruption that hit music, publishing, and other industries is already reshaping the entertainment business. From A.I. Aaron Sorkin to C.G.I. actors to algorithmic editing, Nick Bilton investigates what lies ahead.
I. The Raindrop Moment
A few months ago, the vision of Hollywood’s economic future came into terrifyingly full and rare clarity. I was standing on the set of a relatively small production, in Burbank, just north of Los Angeles, talking to a screenwriter about how inefficient the film-and-TV business appeared to have become. Before us, after all, stood some 200 members of the crew, who were milling about in various capacities, checking on lighting or setting up tents, but mainly futzing with their smartphones, passing time, or nibbling on snacks from the craft-service tents. When I commented to the screenwriter that such a scene might give a Silicon Valley venture capitalist a stroke on account of the apparent unused labor and excessive cost involved in staging such a production—which itself was statistically uncertain of success—he merely laughed and rolled his eyes. “You have no idea,” he told me.
After a brief pause, he relayed a recent anecdote, from the set of a network show, that was even more terrifying: The production was shooting a scene in the foyer of a law firm, which the lead rushed into from the rain to utter some line that this screenwriter had composed. After an early take, the director yelled “Cut,” and this screenwriter, as is customary, ambled off to the side with the actor to offer a comment on his delivery. As they stood there chatting, the screenwriter noticed that a tiny droplet of rain remained on the actor’s shoulder. Politely, as they spoke, he brushed it off. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an employee from the production’s wardrobe department rushed over to berate him. “That is not your job,” she scolded. “That is my job.”
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The screenwriter was stunned. But he had also worked in Hollywood long enough to understand what she was really saying: quite literally, wiping rain off an actor’s wardrobe was her job—a job that was well paid and protected by a union. And as with the other couple of hundred people on set, only she could perform it.
This raindrop moment, and the countless similar incidents that I’ve observed on sets or heard about from people I’ve met in the industry, may seem harmless and ridiculous enough on its face. But it reinforces an eventuality that seems both increasingly obvious and uncomfortable—one that might occur to you every time you stream Fringe or watch a former ingénue try to re-invent herself as a social-media icon or athleisure-wear founder: Hollywood, as we once knew it, is over.
In the mid-90s, the first time I downloaded an MP3, I realized that the music industry was in grave trouble. People who were my age (I wasn’t old enough to legally drink yet) didn’t want to spend $20 on a whole compact disc when all we coveted was a single song on the album. Moreover, we wanted our music immediately: we preferred to download it (illegally) from Napster or eventually (legally) from iTunes without the hassle of finding the nearest Sam Goody. It turned out that this proclivity for efficiency—customizing your music and facilitating the point of sale—was far from a generational instinct. It explains why the music industry is roughly half the size it was one decade ago.
These preferences weren’t confined to music, either. I also felt the raindrop moment firsthand when I began working at The New York Times, in the early 2000s. Back then, the newspaper’s Web site was treated like a vagrant, banished to a separate building blocks away from the paper’s newsroom on West 43rd Street. Up-and-coming blogs—Gizmodo, Instapundit, and Daily Kos, which were setting the stage for bigger and more advanced entities, such as Business Insider and BuzzFeed—were simultaneously springing up across the country. Yet they were largely ignored by the Times as well as by editors and publishers at other news outlets. More often than not, tech-related advances—including e-readers and free online blogging platforms, such as WordPress and Tumblr—were laughed at as drivel by the entire industry, just as Napster had been years earlier.
Of course, the same logic that had decimated music would undermine print publishing: readers didn’t want to travel to a newsstand to buy a whole newspaper when they were interested only in one story or two. And, in so many cases, they really didn’t care all that much whose byline was at the top of the piece. Subsequently, newspaper advertising revenues fell from $67 billion in 2000 to $19.9 billion in 2014. Meanwhile, the same pummeling occurred in the book-publishing world. Many consumers didn’t want hardcover books for $25 when digital versions were available for $9.99. An algorithm generally provided better suggestions than an actual in-store clerk. And consumers never had to leave home to get the book they wanted. Amazon, knowing this, eviscerated the business. While print sales have finally leveled out (largely through a reliance on science fiction and fantasy), the industry has seen sales fall precipitously over the past decade.
“IN MY MIND, HOLLYWOOD IS DYING,” MIKE MORITZ TOLD ME.
Hollywood, these days, seems remarkably poised for a similar disruption. Its audiences increasingly prefer on-demand content, its labor is costly, and margins are shrinking. Yet when I ask people in Hollywood if they fear such a fate, their response is generally one of defiance. Film executives are smart and nimble, but many also assert that what they do is so specialized that it can’t be compared to the sea changes in other disrupted media. “We’re different,” one producer recently told me. “No one can do what we do.”