You Should Be Worried About Cinema Becoming Content, and Here's Why

'The Irishman'Credit: Netflix
I want jobs for me and my friends and more things to watch, but I'm afraid of the cost. 

The pandemic has really done a number on the industry. While we saw trends moving this way already, it seems like Hollywood has jumped a decade into the future.

Cinema is pretty much gone, and content is king. This may sound hyperbolic, but as I see titles like West Side Story falter, as I read that audiences are scanning movie length and making choices based on it, and as I see Netflix's Top Ten crushing online, with no one questioning the box office—I think content is here to stay. 

So how do we live in a world where we don't lose cinema too? 

And I'm not just talking about tentpoles and superhero movies, I'm talking about sitting in a theater watching Martin Scorsese's challenging Silence, and arguing in the lobby over the existence of a higher power with your friends while picking stale popcorn from your teeth. I'm talking about swinging around pillars in the parking garage and shaking your thing after going to the premiere of Hustlers. I'm talking about being at a loss for words after watching Swiss Army Man

Cinema is something so much more than content. But we're going to lose it if we're not careful. 

Check out this video from Eyebrow Cinema and let's talk after the jump. 

How Worried Am I About Cinema Becoming Content? Pretty Worried! 

I don't love being alarmist, and I know I've extolled the virtues of the digital era we're in now, but I can't help but worry that Hollywood has gone past the point of no return.

And I don't blame the artists. For a long time, we've been an industry that loves money, but we also love art. There's been a balance of movies that are made to rake in the bucks, and movies that they used to call "prestige pictures."

That balance has shifted in the last decade more toward tentpoles, and more toward movies with less dialogue, bigger international windows, more action, and driven by things like the ability to sell to a streamer or make a sequel. While those things opened the town up to make more movies, especially directly for streamers, they began to prioritize things that didn't leave elbow room for cinema.

That's not to say we're not getting fun movies. We are, and at times, we're getting good ones. But that can all change pretty fast. We've seen it change decades in just the last two years. 

The early days of streamer movies felt like the indies in the 90s, with these places taking big swings at marquee directors or favoring the movies that couldn't find releases. Now that they've built themselves into powerhouses, they're making more tentpoles, more things with faces that pop on thumbnails.

This should feel good. It's opened the door for me and so many of my friends to get work. Not just writing and directing, but as ADs, grips, and all the other fun jobs behind the scenes. 

But it's also made me see that movies that used to be treated like cinema now have numbers behind them and are treated like content.  They're titles there to fill space and build catalogs. Meanwhile, with the DVD and Blu-ray market dying, and the ability to "own" movies through places like Vudu, which really only extend digital long-term rentals, we're seeing titles disappear.

If it's not popping up on Criterion or bought through physical media and still playable at home, there are hundreds if not thousands of movies you can't even find anywhere. Last week I wanted to rent Sleuth (1972) and couldn't find it. I guess it's out of print. 

You would think that these digital servers would open up the doors for more movies to be available, but that's not happening. With places like Disney buying Fox, and not having a place for their more adult movies on the app, where do they go? What gets lost to time with all these studios, as titles that may not seem inherently clickable don't have a place to rest? 

And on top of all this, what happens when the people greenlighting movies are not the people who want to get a few artsy movies, but the conglomerates like AT&T, Comcast, and other shareholder-driven places which could tell you not to challenge authority, buck systems, or even rewrite and re-edit stories to make sure their brands and holdings look good? That can say you need to take out things to play in repressive countries or not push any envelopes because they don't want to get banned in the Bible Belt?

We're at the tip of the iceberg, but we can steer past it if we all see what's coming and figure out what to do about it. 

These are my worries. And I don't have answers. But we have to find them soon, before it's too late. 

Let's share some ideas in the comments.      

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11 Comments

The key difference is this.

Before streaming, the movie/tv library itself was the key asset for a studio. When there's limited shelf space (only so many movie screens at a multiplex, only so many DVD/VHS boxes at a video rental store, only so many hours in a day of linear programming on a limited number of tv channels), the value is in the actual thing being produced (movies, tv shows) that audiences are willing to pay for.

For streamers, the algorithm has become the key asset when shelf space is technically infinite. Movies/series or "content" are the fuel for that algorithm. Because it's the algorithm now that is the key relationship between the streamer and the subscriber.

In the past, the goal was to get an audience member to buy a movie ticket to watch that one movie in the theater, or to rent that one movie at Blockbuster. Or to watch a TV show that has commercials.

Now, the goal is to keep us subscribed monthly.

That fundamentally changes the relationship between the audience and the story they're watching. And it fundamentally changes movies/tv from being a "product" that we buy, to being the "fuel" for a streamer's algorithm. The "product" is now the subscription service, and not the movie ticket.

As a result, movies/series have become devalued - from being a product (end in itself) to being a cost of sales (a means to an end). This frankly goes for other media as well, including music and books.

December 30, 2021 at 12:24AM, Edited December 30, 12:27AM

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What a lot of people seem to forget is that we, the filmmakers, ARE the industry. The industry is nothing without us. The market will bend to whatever we do.

But, honestly...

Awesome, original, "cinema" movies will never die if you, the individual, never stop watching/creating/seeking out awesome, original, "cinema" movies. Simple as that. Why the fuck should anyone care what anyone else thinks when it comes to this?

December 30, 2021 at 1:00AM

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bp
845

I definitely see your point, but I disagree a bit here. You're right, the industry is nothing without us, but unfortunately, the industry is also driven by demand which comes from the audience. If the audience stops caring for "film" and just wants more melodramatic content, there's less and less chances for filmmakers to make the films we are talking about here.

Film is a weird art medium because it is one of the most expensive. If no one is willing to invest in us (and most filmmakers who aren't established can't fund a movie themself), there's just less opportunities to make the projects that matter. I think "cinema" will live on for those who crave it (both filmmakers and cinephiles who love to watch), but the future of it is bleak and much much smaller than it is today.

December 30, 2021 at 6:58AM

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I think it's a weird balance because If we continue to make cool movies that we want to see in the world, then the cool movies will never die. And even though an audience is important, I think it's WAY more important to express yourself through your art for personal gratification. The industry should only be driven by the filmmakers desire to make cool stuff.

The industry is built on people who don't make movies convincing us that our art works as a market and we, the filmmakers, need to be worried about making people money.

While I think you're completely correct, because your points reflect how the industry is today. The idea I wanted to point towards is that some people need a complete mindset reset of why we make "cinema". My hope is that more people look at their art through the lens of the punk rock ethos. As crazy as that sounds haha!!

December 30, 2021 at 11:11AM

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bp
845

I love that! And I hope you're right. I hope we get to a place where more and more people can take the punk rock ethos of doing something because they need to express themself and they have a passion to tell a particular story. It's what I strive to do in any piece of art I make. But man is it demoralizing to lose out to people looking to capitalize off in the moment content over the people who have something real and meaningful to say...

January 3, 2022 at 1:55PM

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While I like the sentiment, I have to (somewhat) disagree. If television and Marvel Studios have proven anything, we can very easily be turned into cogs in a corporate machine. And if we step out of line, they've made us extremely easy to replace. There's a line around the block of people who are desperate to work in the film industry (look at the people who made the EIGHT crappy Bruce Willis movies last year) who would jump at the chance to make big movies.

Original ideas will never go away, but we are definitely in an era where audiences prioritize comfort over everything. Films aren't an escape, they're a hiding place. And there are few things LESS comforting than new and unfamiliar things.

February 18, 2022 at 8:16AM

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James Couche
Independent Filmmaker
175

Swiss Army Man? Hmm. As much as I love cinema, as a new dad who's baby was born in 2020 I feel like I somehow lucked out with a bunch of content to watch at home this past year, it's actually been kind of awesome that I've been able to see new releases. I think it's important to note that we are still in uncertain and scary times with covid. Can we really judge the state of cinema at a time were an audience is risking their life to watch a movie? I don't really think so. I think it will bounce back but it is taking longer than most of us expected. The plus side is that people are still consuming, the viewing experience changed but what's being viewed hasn't really, there are still audiences out there and the need for talented storytellers and filmmakers is stronger than ever.

December 30, 2021 at 2:45PM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1854

it is going to be content, and already is morphing into that. That's what the general public wants despite what we want

December 30, 2021 at 3:50PM

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Sorry to hear your editorial. Storytelling has always been about content. So stop pushing your agenda, dude.

December 30, 2021 at 10:54PM

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Rik Zak
Director/writer
104

The problem with content is that it erases the individual. In our pursuit for content we become cannibalistic and will take anything to remake it into what we perceive to be our own view or our own image but that’s farce. To take something so blatantly, copy it, recreate it, and redistribute it is a hollow process. Content creators are just selecting from a list of things they feel they need to have in order to have an oeuvre without the time and energy put in or the suffering to understand what something truly means. One might say well it took me a long time to complete this or do that and I’m not arguing that fact, what I am arguing is the authenticity of what’s created. How can hundreds of people on YouTube or elsewhere have similar looking videos and content and claim to be authentic? When you search anything look at the results and analyze how different those results really are. Sure everything looks pretty or falls into a category that says this is something, but what it all truly lacks is a personal authenticity that’s reflective of a human being and not someone who simple copied and pasted what came before them. We’re all guilty of it, that’s how we learn but that’s also why movies today all look the same, are shot the same etc. People haven’t found themselves and companies are content accepting what works. Tell me why no one is copying Guillermo del Toro style? Because he is authentic and his art is a reflection of that and it’s not easy to copy authenticity. I don’t think people truly understand themselves and seek to cover up for that fact by fitting in remaking art and that’s the rub, how can you make art of any kind unless you truly know yourself?

The argument against content is the argument of the dissolution of self. How can everyone be given the same experience? They can’t. You have to find your experience not be given it. The world has to stop selling experiences. Experiences are the unique ways we view something subjectively and that’s what art is subjective. If everyone is gifted the same experience in life are they truly experiences? Did they learn anything about themselves? No. There is no individuality anymore and it’s eating away at our society and at our art. I once asked myself where are all the Kathy Bates and Steve Buscemi’s? The people who stand out amongst the sea of look a-likes. I don’t know if they exist anymore or perhaps they’ve evolved and so should my expectations. But that sentiment is not me reaching into the wonder years and yearning for what was. We can’t find ourselves and embrace ourselves if we’re constantly clamoring to have what someone else has, save for rights, dignity, clothing, food, and shelter but that’s beside the point.

We’ve become so lost that any attack, comment, or conversation has become an attack on the self because we can’t distinguish ourselves from each other. Rationality has died and in its place is emotion that serves to entrench us further. It’s like American flags, they’re everywhere. Did a nation of so called strong patriots just suddenly forget themselves, forget what country they live in? If you have to keep shouting at the top of your lungs how strong or unique you are then you absolutely are not. The reverence for an American flag has dissolved so badly that it’s power as a symbol now means nothing. If the symbol meant something those who hung it wouldn’t have to tell you what it means. Content is the dissolution of the self and the dissolution of art. Without art, ideas are not challenged and everything become stagnant. I apologize if this comes off as any sort of rant. It is not.

December 31, 2021 at 10:27AM

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Blah, blah, blah. One thing you can count on, things will never stay the same. This hand rubbing will happen everytime something new comes around. This same argument was made back when sound was added to motion pictures, color, television arrived, video cassette, DVD, etc.

January 4, 2022 at 1:23PM

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Historically, very few films get enough prints and advertising to get seen. Many art house films, especially by women and people of color get terrible rollouts - screening on 4 screens in NY and LA. Streaming allows people to see these films. That being said, there's nothing like seeing movies as a communal experience. I believe there is room for both.

February 21, 2022 at 8:31AM

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Tema
Producer/Production Designer
81