More than a few people have been posting about the shocking statements from Steven Speilberg and George Lucas prophesying the “implosion” of the film industry. Add to that the recent book by producer/executive extraordinaire Lynda Obst that describes how even industry heavy-hitters are having trouble getting movies made, then top it off with the box office reports on the latest mega-movies, and you can almost start to feel sorry for poor little Hollywood.
A few thoughts. First, this is not the first time the imminent death of Hollywood has been in the headlines. In 1952 the advent of television was similarly expected to be the doom of the big screen. It turned out instead to be a new way of selling movies. The same was true of videotape in the eighties and DVD in the nineties. Each of these was predicted to be the death knell of the movie industry and quickly became the new foundation of the industry instead.
Secondly, a genuine cataclysm that could destroy the industry as we know it is actually possible. For a lesson on what Spielberg might be talking about when he says “implosion” you can read in Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the making of HEAVEN’S Gate how United Artists died. The studio founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, was destroyed by a single movie in 1980.
So it could have happened before and didn’t, but something similar also did happen before and could again. The threat is real. Anyone familiar with the movies Sunset Boulevard and The Artist can see how failure to adapt to new technology and market forces can leave filmmakers in the dust. Those who failed to adapt to audio in film were left behind. The contemporary situation is not exactly analogous — the threat of Netflix to mega-plexes is not the same as the threat of talkies to silent pictures — but it’s similar enough to make you stop and think about those movie makers who refused to allow microphones on the set and were never heard from again.
Here’s some of what we know and don’t know. First, the “known unknowns.”
First, we can be sure that we DON’T know how movies will be produced and consumed in the future. No one can tell you with certainty what new technologies and market forces will emerge in the next few years to alter the way people make movies and watch them. In the mid-eighties, when I was an undergrad studying mass communication, we had a class where we studied all the emerging technologies. Each student in a class of about thirty took a technology and did an in-depth analysis of its potential to change the communications industry. We discussed technologies like CDs, flat-screen, and high-definition TV, all of which were just emerging at the time. And here’s what we didn’t discuss — what none of us in 1985 saw coming: the Internet, email, cell phones (much less mobile computer smart phones), low-cost high definition cameras, non-linear editing systems, and tablet computers. In other words, important stuff that completely changed the world. Google didn’t exist and Mark Zuckerberg was in diapers. I suspect we’re in a similar place now. We have no idea what technologies, companies and market forces will shape the industry next year, much less in the next decade.
We DO know that Hollywood has been faced with extinction before, but has adapted and actually grown as a result of forces that were expected to destroy it. I suspect that storytellers with nimble minds will find ways to adapt and thrive in the new realities.
Because another thing we DO know is that human beings are storytelling animals. Stories are not a luxury; they are a necessity of life. A society can no more live without stories than a person can live without sleep. So no matter what form the market and techno-landscape take, we’re still going need skilled storytellers and their stories.
We also know that different communication technologies communicate with the human mind in different ways and require different techniques. So as the technological landscape for storytelling shifts (say, perhaps in the direction of viewing on mobile devices instead of big screens or TVs) the storytellers who succeed will be those who master not just the new technologies, but find storytelling techniques that are uniquely suited to those technologies.
We know as well that new communication technologies are almost always dominated by the thinking and techniques of the preceding technologies. In the past it has taken up to a full generation before storytelling techniques caught up with technology, as in the case of film itself, sound, color, zoom lenses, CGI, and 3D (which we still haven’t figured out completely.) All of these took decades to master to the point where they no longer called attention to their technological specialness and simply served the story they were telling. In the interim, new technologies tend to serve as new vessels to carry the old wine of the old storytelling technologies. But those who see the new technologies as nothing more than ways to repackage and get new revenue streams from the old techniques tend to be the ones who invest their psychic energy and their money in massive flops. This is where the potential for “implosion” is very real.
Another thing we know well is that even as changes in storytelling technologies have mandated adjustments in storytelling techniques, certain basic concepts of how stories work have not changed significantly since the Greeks first wrote them down millennia ago. The medium that carries the story may metamorphose, but the target at which the story aims — the human soul — is still the same as it was in the days of Socrates.
What we know finally, is that those who will succeed as storytellers in the new paradigm, whatever it may be, will be those who can simultaneously embrace and master the new technologies and stay firmly grounded in the storytelling basics that are as powerful today as they always were.