A video skimmed by on YouTube the other day; it claimed “everything is ‘content’ now.” Art? No. Movie? No. ‘Content?’ Absolutely.
We live in brave new times of online; of streaming, of subscription services and ‘anything on demand’ for the right monthly fee. It doesn’t matter if a show won fifteen Emmy’s or a movie won twelve Oscars and makes the top-ten Movies of All Time.
To the current rights holder, it’s just a frame with a dollar sign in it. An opportunity to up-sell and cross-sell more ‘content,’ more services.
‘Content’ has become another word for ‘product.’
Art as Commodity
‘Content’ equals product equals commodity. A hundred years of back catalogues are now consolidated under a handful of large corporations. Vast ‘asset’ libraries are traded as commodities by corporations looking to re-package them in new and hopefully attractive ways to consumers. Note ‘consumers’ not ‘people’ or even ‘customers.’
Much like the art market itself, the value of the art is measured in dollars, not in the contribution of the art to human experience.
Am I being naive?
From the very beginning of movies, companies and financiers looked at the movie as an investment vehicle with the aim of generating profit. Keep cranking out the movies people want; keep making a profit. Hence the entertainment ‘industry.’ It’s no coincidence that movie studios got bigger to take advantage of economies of scale and the production-line approach.
Charlie Chaplin became one of the great capitalists of the industry, studying what his audience wanted and tweaking his scripts to maximise mass-market appeal. Only later in life when he was rich enough did he risk an artistic endeavour such as The Great Dictator.
United Artists moved far from it’s industry-rebel roots in order to compete with the major studios. Long term financing meant it was eventually bought out and the UA brand values quietly dropped.
Broadcast TV (public services aside) tailored its schedules to maximise the appeal to advertisers. With more hours of airtime to fill, we got more quiz shows, soaps, and sit-coms. And endless re-runs of just about all of them.
Then came cable TV. Then satellite.
Daytime TV schedules are all about filling enough airtime to unite advertisers with niche audiences.
Now we have Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Disney and a host of second, third and fourth division providers crowding the online space. Alongside a small selection of hit-or-miss (mostly ‘miss’) original commissions, these corporations are throwing money at commercial rights to all kinds of IP – Intellectual Property being yet another name for ‘content.’
It almost doesn’t matter what that IP covers, as long as the projected dollar value of subscriptions (with cross-sell and up-sell) is greater than the purchase price. Frequently it isn’t, but that’s another story.
All these players look for flagship ‘content’ to attract subscribers to their platforms. While the remainder of their catalogues consist of second-string re-runs and lowest-common denominator shows. But that doesn’t matter, as long as there is enough ‘content’ to justify a subscription. Often there isn’t, which is yet another story. Suffice to say, not all these platforms will survive.
There is a LOT of money going into platforms and ‘content’ right now. The players seek to establish viable, long-term subscriber bases to generate profit and recoup their investments. Again, not all of them will.
Nothing ever ends
And the downside of investing vast sums in all these back catalogues and IP is that they can never end.
The Lord of the Rings is three adult books plus a children’s book. The Hobbit became three movies. Amazon paid a fortune for some of the rights to Middle Earth and committed to seven seasons of Rings of Power. We all know how the first season went. There’s a Lord of the Rings TV adaptation in the works, more projects based on the Silmarilion, an animated movie and more spinoffs based on Middle Earth Lore. Because: dollar amounts with seven or eight zeroes on the end.
Disney bought Lucasfilm and made five or six (I lost count) variable quality movies so far, plus a continuous stream of TV shows. Because: dollar amounts with seven or eight zeroes on the end.
Paramount has multiple live-action Star Trek plus animated TV shows on a conveyor belt. Because: dollar amounts with seven or eight zeroes on the end.
Warners is rebooting and remaking the entirety of Harry Potter for TV over multiple seasons. They have other spin-off ideas. Because: dollar amounts with seven or eight zeroes on the end.
You get the idea.
Oh, and Netflix is throwing fuzzy-felt against the wall hoping something will stick.
It is also a certainty that some of these players will run out of money before they can generate a profit on their outlay. But that’s fine because you can always license or sell on the IP. It’s all just ‘content’ now.
Never mind the quality
So what about the art? We’re not saying there is no artistic intent behind all this ‘content.’ Some of these movies and shows are fantastic. Just not as many as there should be. Some only exist for the merchandising potential. Some only exist to promote the merchandise which is more valuable than the ‘content.’ We’re looking at you, Disney and Mattel.
When the commercial pressure is on, three things happen:
- a project with cheap IP that fails is quietly cancelled
- a project with a space-programme-scale budget fails, it is rebooted endlessly until it makes its money back
- an expensive project that succeeds is renewed, extended, spun-off, copied and re-run. Until it becomes a pale, hollowed-out, self-parodic shell of the thing we all loved at the beginning.
Because the art doesn’t matter. Perhaps it never did?
Everything is ‘content’ now.