Both Hollywood and Streaming Giants Are Killing Film—and Culture | Opinion

Once the bastion of creativity, artistic expression and story-telling, Hollywood has become little more than the money-spinner of a handful of risk-averse studios in decline. Streaming services are no better; although they initially delivered diversified content, they're now run by Big Tech execs who understand data, not art. After the latest Hollywood blockbuster fest, it's time to prioritize creativity and original storytelling once again.

Legendary director Martin Scorsese once remarked that, "Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our lifetime, we need to keep them alive." He's right. We do need to keep them alive and we can't rely on Hollywood, Amazon, Apple or Netflix to do that for us. We will have to make sure that we actively seek out the independent stories and voices that we need to hear, now more than ever.

It's no secret that COVID-19 hit Hollywood hard. The theatrical revenue in the U.S. fell from $42.3 billion in 2019 to just $12 billion in 2020. The pandemic also encouraged the streaming boom.

It also encouraged shorter release windows, simultaneous streaming debuts and a general erosion of theater viewing. Hollywood was already very risk averse, avoiding mid-budget films made for grownups, and opting instead to go with big-budget would-be mega-blockbusters.

Today's studio execs are businesspeople, not creatives. They live and die by mitigating risk and typically aren't willing to back anything with a question mark. It may spell career suicide—not only if it loses money, but even if it simply fails to make enough money. Only projects with the broadest possible market appeal get the green light. That results in lots of films that are dominated by superficial action sequences and surface-level characters and storytelling.

Many beloved classics, like All the President's Men, As Good as it Gets, Back to the Future, Pulp Fiction, Psycho and The Shawshank Redemption would never have been made had they landed on the desk of a current-day Hollywood exec. Of course, you'll never have to wait very long for another Marvel installment.

Today, original, independent filmmakers are caught between risk-averse Hollywood, and formulaic streaming services driven by Big Tech execs.

Netflix Hollywood campus
General view of the Netflix Hollywood campus. AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

Independent filmmaking has exploded since it became so accessible. Would-be filmmakers are able to shoot movies using their smartphones and these low-budget movies, like Tangerine, are celebrated at places like the Sundance Festival.

Moviemakers outside the United States are also enjoying much greater government support, receiving film grants to facilitate making movies. International filmmakers are flexing their creativity and expanding their cultural footprint on the global stage. Squid Game is a case in point, as is Parasite and Spirited Away.

As entertainment and media have become a growth industry and companies like Amazon, Facebook and Apple have begun to saturate their traditional markets—shopping, social media and tech gadgets—they've migrated to the high-growth entertainment industry.

Netflix, for example, added more than 36 million new subscribers in 2020 to pass 200 million subscribers worldwide. Amazon's buyout of MGM is just the most recent example of the takeover that is now fully underway. A Big Tech monopoly of the entertainment industry is bad news for all of us—from creators to performers to consumers.

It's a worrying development because the corporate consolidation of the arts in the United States will fundamentally erode the quality of cultural output available to us. Big Tech execs seldom have any artistic experience. These are not the people who should be deciding what stories we get to hear. Big Tech has infiltrated the film industry and they're applying formulaic algorithms to figure out what content gets acquired, and promoted to us.

When we see something is ranked as No. 1, we assume it's good and we're more likely to watch it. In so doing, we're entrenching its position, which in turn suggests that more content of the same kind should be acquired, and subsequently promoted to us, and so the cycle goes. It leaves little to no room for stories that don't fit those algorithms. And quality suffers. As Barry Diller, once the chair and CEO of two Hollywood studios, has remarked, "These streaming services have been making something that they call 'movies.' They ain't movies. They are some weird algorithmic process that has created things that last 100 minutes or so."

What does all this mean for the future of storytelling? It means that we have to be co-creators if we want to make sure that we keep hearing the length and breadth of stories that human experience generates. We need to know that Hollywood is no longer the center of the film universe, and that the stories worth watching don't begin and end on the top 10 lists of popular streaming services. We need to remember that we are all different and that is why storytelling must be different. We need to seek out the stories that challenge us, inspire us, move us, or teach us—and we need to celebrate diversity in storytelling.

Paul Jun is the founder of Filmocracy, an independent streaming film start-up.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.