Sorting through the dizzying dispatches of recent weeks, here’s one obvious epiphany: Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook, having radically changed what we do and what we buy, now want to have a greater impact on what we see. Apple is allocating a $1 billion spend on original content, Facebook is busily acquiring programming, and Google has started its streaming TV service (hello Hulu). Meanwhile, Netflix and Amazon already are forging major changes in the Hollywood marketplace and no one knows what impact AT&T will have on Time Warner once that $85 billion transaction is completed (President Donald Trump is opposed to the deal, so given his impotence, it will probably happen).
The code word once again is disruption: With consumers increasingly severing cable connections, the amped-up competition between tech and traditional media companies is playing out like an exaggerated rerun of the old Hollywood wars between MGM, Columbia and Warner Bros. But the stakes are vastly higher this time. HBO spends $3 billion a year on product and Netflix will spend about $6 billion on content this year.
So should consumers be happy? Will the new players with their big spends create stronger programming? Facebook is aiming at younger viewers who supposedly will vent their reactions on the social media. YouTube seems to be aiming for the mega-mainstream; it’s developing a Karate Kid comedy and is doing a scripted series on dancing. Neither seems prepared to challenge Netflix’s expensive shows aimed at binge viewers.
What impact will the newcomers have on that semi-forgotten medium – cinema? I found myself thinking about this the other day as I sat in an empty theater watching an Amazon movie called The Only Living Boy In New York. It’s a very affecting, rather literary film that the critics hated and filmgoers ignored, but its failure seemed unnoticed — – which itself is a reflection on the new rules of the battlefield. For a Paramount or a Universal, the success or failure of a feature can be traumatizing but for the new players, it’s trivial. Universal agonized over the failure of The Mummy this summer; Netflix didn’t seem to notice that Brad Pitt’s ferocious satire, War Machine, vaporized in terms of public awareness.
But wait — this may be good news, not bad. Take Amazon as a case in point: Given its resources, Amazon could easily have gone into battle with Warner Bros on the superhero front but instead chose a polar opposite strategy. The company as a whole seems like a cultural mirage with a stock market capitalization now topping $500 billion. Its boss, Jeff Bezos, who is worth $80 billion, wants to launch rockets and change the way everyone worldwide buys and sells products, thus creating an amazing growth machine with an annualized return of 37.4% (Bezos owns 16.7% of the company).
Arguably, Amazon’s initial strategy in the movie business reflects its idiosyncratic scenario. None of its five summer releases would have made it to studio slates, but The Big Sick will likely gross $40 million, passing last summer’s Manchester By The Sea, also from Amazon. Two of its other counter-programming releases, Only Living Boy and Landline, also were quality films produced for well under the $20 million range but neither registered on the off-putting Rotten Tomatoes front. Unabashedly director-centric, this fall Amazon will unfurl five movies including Wonder Wheel from Woody Allen, Last Flag Flying from Richard Linklater (starring Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell), Brad’s Status from Mike White (with Ben Stiller) and Wonderstruck from Todd Haynes (with Julianne Moore). All seem like challenging, modestly budgeted films.
While Netflix’s “spends” have been significantly higher, it, too, will field an array of releases this fall that might have scared away the major studios: Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian movie First They Killed My Father; The Meyerwitz Stories (Dustin Hoffman and Stiller); Our Souls At Night (Jane Fonda and Robert Redford); and a tough cop drama, Bright, with Will Smith, among others.
A tentative conclusion: At least on the movie front, the New Players seem willing to broaden the spectrum of pop culture product, rather than diminishing it – to be sure, their strategies are still unfolding. Significantly, the managements of both Amazon and Netflix operate under the lid of tight secrecy about new product or tactics – no one wants to be quoted on anything.
“It’s still work in progress,” acknowledges one top executive, who won’t even say that for the record. But here’s the point: The output might be a lot more stimulating than a studio sequel. And that is at least one good omen in a universe that still defies analysis.