Sunday, January 1, 2017

The State of the Revolution, 2017

As a tumultuous year comes to a close, we pause to look back at the changing tides, trends, and topics that shaped
...Aw, it's a New Year's blog post.  You know the drill.

I began the blog back in July '16 because I found I was explaining the same general concepts of the current film, streaming, disk and TV industry over and over in conversations, and thought if I'd just written them down in permanent form, it would be easier to just send other people a link.
I joke about the "revolution" of the Movie Activist, but when you come down to it, it is a revolution:  The problems we face at the moment, we face because we allowed them to happen, mostly because we didn't realize they were happening--Either under the ideas that the alternative was technologically "easier", or because we'd grown up thinking things had always been that way.  Those in authority who make the decisions that rule our usage of it would certainly LIKE us to think so, and want our willing acceptance of it, for their own convenience.  Things aren't, and they hadn't.  That's when it's a good thing to begin making change, and I don't mean quarters for the bus.
Looking back at many of the causes, and seeing whether any headway was made in establishing some good old-fashioned Thomas Paine-style Common Sense in the industry, I feel as if making the year-end appraisal is like the president standing before Congress to make the State of the Union address.  Although, like Gerald Ford, the temptation is to say "The State of the Union is not good," I can't honestly say it's bad either.  At the moment, the State of the Movie-Activist Revolution just, well, IS.  Many parts of the industry had the carpet dramatically yanked out from under them in 2016; the industry is now in a flux state of picking their dignity up and dusting it off called "Figuring Things Out", and the good thing about that is, sometimes, on a good day, you do.

Taking the major issues:

- Theatrical Films

Studios had a lot to learn from this year--Now, we get to find out whether they actually learned it.  
There have been other Summer Massacres before:  The terrible '01 slaughter where Planet of the Apes was considered the "big" picture for the season and Spielberg showed us what a real flop looked like with "A.I.", that dropping-like-flies '03 where studios first learned to fear the might of Pixar when we wouldn't go to see Terminator 3, and oh, ohh, that '13 where After Earth was playing in the same theater as the Lone Ranger...Will the traumas ever go away?  
But the movies in those years were each wrongheaded in their own unique way.  What we learned instead from the Summer of '16 was that many of '16's high-profile casualties had flopped for the same pandemic reason:  Franchises.  One movie does not become a "franchise" just because it became a hit, and having one hit is not carte blanche to make seven more over a five-year period before the second movie has even had a chance to prove the theory right or wrong.  The New F-Word became what studios thought movies had become, Brand Names; the brand was sold like a label on a tin can, and you weren't supposed to ask what was in the can, you were just happy it was on the label.
And studios, each hoping for the Big Icon that would make their own name to take on Warner's Batman and Disney's Mickey Mouse, found you couldn't make a franchise purse out of a Ninja Turtles' ear.  Attempts for Fox to hitch their wagon to the X-Men, Paramount to hope Star Trek was their last hope, and even Disney's hope that Tim Burton's Alice hadn't lost its freshness since '10, all paled before the light of day.  For studios, There's No Thinking Like Wishful Thinking.

Now, studios and industry analysts are noticeably disturbed by one glaring fact:  
The top five domestic box-office grossers of 2016 were, by year's end, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, Rogue One, Secret Life of Pets, and The Jungle Book.  ALL Disney and its subsidiaries, except for the one CGI comedy that got lucky in a bad summer.
Some analysts are now vocally concerned that Disney/Pixar/Marvel/Lucas movies have an "unspoken monopoly", in that they seem to be becoming the ONLY big-studio movies that audiences show any actual mainstream enthusiasm about going to see or trust with quality.  (Including disgruntled Warner Bat-fans, who are convinced it's a bribery conspiracy of paid critics and audiences.)
If so, it's really for quite a simple reason:  Every other studio wants to be Disney/Etc., and make movies and crossover franchise-strategies just like them.  Disney can't:  It can't imitate Disney/Pixar/Marvel, it IS Disney/Pixar/Marvel, so it just wants to be itself.  It lets its historically maverick independent family of sub-studios, namely Marvel Studios, Pixar, and Lucasfilm, be themselves, trusts the rebellious instinct of their magic hit prodigy children to know what they're doing, keeps hands off, and lets them do it.
Hey, y'know?:  "Be yourself"...That's catchy, as a policy slogan goes.  Got a nice ring to it, don'tcha think?  Kinda sounds all "Integrity" and "Sincerity"-like.

Unfortunately, the search for Brand Names, and recreating the Disney/Marvel Formula, led to the next big issue of '17:

- Side Stories

Y'know, I'd sort of hoped I'd be able to do a big column in November about Warner's "Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them".  From all indications of audience conventional-wisdom from summer through October, nobody seemed to be enthusiastically looking forward to this--Apart from the most utterly book-smitten core fans, few mainstream audiences looking at the trailer saw the point of "Potter Without Harry", it looked like a painfully off-the-subject studio-marketing cash grab, and seemed destined to be one of Warner's big high-profile stumbles of the fall.  
Um, for obvious reasons, I didn't get to do that column.  The wishful desire to have the Harry Potter franchise "back again" front-loaded a smash opening weekend, and justified Warner's and JK Rowling's delusions that they had another instant artificial do-it-yourself five to seven-book Epic in the making. As with studios, never underestimate Wishful Audience Thinking, either, from audiences who overlook smaller concerns, just for the nostalgic thrill of having their favorite "back again" after absence made the heart grow fonder.  (Admit it, some of you went to see the Ghostbusters remake and Independence Day: Resurgence knowing they probably weren't that good, didn't you?)
But like a old favorite movie series seemingly buried and resurrected at an evil Pet Sematary (Peter Jackson's Hobbit Trilogy springs to mind), there's "back", and then there's BACK.  If you want the bare corpse of the body--namely the franchise title, some favorite cast members, and all you think it stands for--back, studios are happy to negotiate that with the right agents, but it doesn't necessarily mean you'll get your moviegoing childhood of ten or twenty years ago back with it.

"Rogue One: a Star Wars Story" was a different issue:  It was made because studios became jealous of what Warner had been doing with Peter Jackson's pre-filmed Tolkien trilogies, in that enough shooting had been done ahead of time to deliver one sequel bang-on-time every November or December, by the clock.  Studios wanted a franchise to be as punctual as a weekly TV series, only by the year, so audiences would know what to expect from a date, not a movie:  If it's the same Christmas weekend that gave us "The Force Awakens", it's must be time for another Star Wars movie!  And even if Episode VIII is still another two or three years away, don't worry, we've got another story for you in the meantime--We call it "Filler".
Well, there was a problem with that complaint, too:  Rogue One turned out to be pretty darned good.  Some fans argued it was actually a better tribute to the '77 original than Force Awakens' teen-cosplay and cast-reunion pageant, and captured the gritty spirit of the Rebellion that Lucas's slick Prequel Trilogy ignored.  (I'm waiting another month to see the movie on vacation, so I'll reserve judgment for now, but from the looks of things, I'm inclined to agree.)
What both Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One did, what we might say was, Got Lucky.  The second one's always a bit harder.  The second Fantastic Beasts movie now has to set up even more convoluted off-book plots of its own making, and after an early Episode VIII, Lucasfilm plans to bring us a Han Solo spinoff from the makers of "21 Jump Street" and "The Lego Movie"...Why do I have the feeling the second Lucas side-story spinoff won't have quite the grittiness, integrity, or discipline that the first one had?  (Is it because directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are walking advertisements for Ritalin?)

As you can see, I don't have quite as glowing an opinion of "Side Stories" as the bright lights of a franchise name might dazzle us with:  I've seen of the bad side of Franchise-Filler; part of it came out in 2009, and was called "X-Men Origins: Wolverine".  Oh, dear lord, was that one wrong-headed bit of physical pain.
It demonstrated every object lesson in explaining why PART of a story cannot be the WHOLE story--We wouldn't ask for a Gone With the Wind spinoff focusing on Ashley Wilkes, and would we spin off a Wizard of Oz story focusing on just the Wicked Witch?...Well, maybe for a musical.
To be given too much of one aspect, just because the studio thought we were Paying Attention, just reminds us why some things are better taken as ingredients in a soup, and not force-fed to us for two hours straight.  Worse yet was the need to remind us that this was "The REST of the story!" to the story we'd already seen, thank you--And every single plot point, every reference, and every script-alluded-to backstory from 2003's "X2: X-Men United" had to now be neatly catalogued, homaged and categorized onscreen, so that all questions were answered and all plot concerns were brought full-circle. 

I confess I will never be able to look at Newt Scamander or Jyn Erso without thinking of the Depressing Anal-Retentive X-Movie Fox Made After Killing Off the More Expensive Cast.
Even Rogue One, as good as it was, was guilty of a bit of over-Wolverinizing, in attempting to explain everything, every single dear, blessed detailed thing, that ever took place before the opening Star Destroyer battle in the first '77 Star Wars.  But then, that's just a bit of over-defensiveness that you can expect with side-stories from here on in.  They want to feel just as classic as the Classic stories they're plot-homaging, too.
As I summed up the issue of filling space and anal-retentively over-explaining better-known plots:   "Shakespeare did not write a play about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern...Tom Stoppard wrote a play about how NOBODY CARED what happened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern."

- Blu-ray vs. Digital

At the moment, the Disk Wars are a bit of a Mexican standoff:  Physical Disk isn't losing as fast as the studios want everyone to believe it is, but the problem is, Digital isn't winning fast enough to be convincing about it.  The only industry they've successfully been able to convince are the brick-and-mortar mass retailers like Target, Best Buy and Wal-mart (who were already trying to reduce physical sales to promote their own flagging spinoff digital-streaming companies), that couldn't keep up with Amazon's online discounts, reduced their shelf-space for physical sales, and then cried to the industry that "You were right, disk sales are going down!"  Well, golly, I can't imagine how THAT happened.

The big smoking-gun controversy that brought the Wars to the forefront in 2016--briefly, before it was quickly passed off as "just another fanboy issue" and forgotten--was the "$800 Bookshelf", when Warner packaged the premium Extended edition of their core-Franchise Tolkien series as an inexplicably fan-soaking "prestige" item designed for convention fans, and tossed off the barer Basic editions in a cheap cardboard box.  
With Warner in charge of almost half the movie disk library in the country, and several of the top-selling marketing franchises, other studios are looking to Warner as "so goes" the state of Blu-ray sales in the US.  And what Warner believes is, the only people who would actually buy plastic things, off a store shelf, are people who would buy Plastic Things that looked nice on a shelf...Anyone else either wants The Hits on digital, or is some hobbyist who would be happy to buy a one-off at the MOD Archive.  If you can't blame the industry for not moving as fast as you want it to, blame the fans for being too weird and "stubborn" and not letting you.

Now, maybe it's that I was a Japanese anime fan in my college days--back in the pre-streaming days when a little rare fan-subtitled VHS tape you guarded with your life was all that stood between you seeing your favorite show and never seeing it at all in this country, period--that I appreciate the fact that it's sometimes good to have your physical movies RIGHT THERE, in front of you.  On tape, on DVD, or on Blu-ray, at least you'll know they're there.  
It's not, as Warner wants to convince us, about "space", or "taking them on the go" (where?), or "pre-ordering while still in theaters", it's about knowing where they'll be when you need them.  You can promise where they are, Warner, but I'd rather know, and seeing is believing, but handling is better.

If there's one message that Blu-ray fans need to organize themselves behind in '17, it's not to be written, dismissed, or fantasy-trivialized out of the equation, just because we're "burdening" studios with the need to manufacture physical disks:  
We're not weirdos.  We're not plate and thimble collectors with Star Trek chess sets from the Franklin Mint.  We're not San Diego ComiCon fanboys with Harley Quinn and Gollum figurines on our bedroom shelves.
We're movie fans who love all movies--not just pop-selected copies of Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap that our millennial kids can cult-quote--who want our movies physically on our shelves, in our homes, and in our hands for posterity, because we don't trust anyone else with them.
And that, studios, as the pretty guardian of love and justice often said, means YOU.

- Streaming

As noted, The Future Isn't Quite What It Used To Be for digital ownership.  Subscription streaming continued to make cable networks extinct, despite studios' best efforts to make subscription-streaming extinct.
Netflix fans in 2016 started becoming more and more aware that while there was more Daredevil and more Stranger Things, there was less and less of everything else.  Except for the fandom (and an industry) happy to binge away from their online cookie-jar and let "Netflix" be synonymous with "The New TV Network".  
Amazon Prime, OTOH, dealt with its increasing ghost-town lineup of programming by grasping the content-ownership bull by the horns, and being Amazon, well, selling it:  Prime's new lineup is now not in the movies they own, but in being a one-stop third-party clearinghouse dealer for new small optional-charge streaming content-specific splinter micro-channels for Showtime, Starz, TED, among others, much like the rise of a la carte premium cable channels in the 80's.

With the rise of core binge-cult shows on HuluPlus, viewers saw subscription-streaming more as a substitute for TV than a home-theater lobby.  Hulu began offering an ads-free service, for a millennial generation that is now offended by the idea of being shown advertisements with their TV entertainment, but the rise of Hulu has begun to have more of an influence on the industry.
Vudu VOD, in addition to being a streaming ownership/rental site, has now offered an additional monthly random selection of free-with-ads back-catalog movies, in the style of HuluPlus's catalog, with no subscription.  "Free is a big deal", Vudu's ad line tells us...Well, yes.  As a matter of fact, it is.
It represents a surprising transition in the industry's thinking about where exactly streaming's money is coming from at the moment, if it's not coming from sales, and less of it is coming from subscription.  It's coming back to where cable WAS, when it used to be cable, and back before we all started cutting it--A combination of subscriber money and sponsor money, for a combination of marketable random content, without losing too much of one to try and appeal too much to the other.
With the new introduction of FilmStruck, and Japanese-anime streaming channel Crunchyroll now being considered as a major player on the field, subscription-streaming hoped to replace cable, and it now seems to be getting its wish:  It's now in the process of BECOMING a second collection of cable channels, premium or ad-supported, offering random programming to a select niche of interests, only with that one unique aspect of not having to worry about running times.
In a way, maybe that's just what we wanted all along.  Not so complicated, is it?

As you can see, we've much to do over the next twelve months.  Helping several neurotic, hyper-defensive industries think straight is a full-time job.
But we all got into these messes over the last year because we weren't paying attention to our movies and TV, and if we want to complain about the mess, let's not forget to look into a mirror occasionally.  That way, we'll know what to say to everyone else, and where to start cleaning things up.

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