The string of stressors converging on traditional Hollywood’s bulging fault lines of change may culminate this year in the entertainment-industry equivalent of The Big One, a shattering shift that transforms the town.
I don’t mean an actual earthquake (though the experts keep saying that’s possible any day, too), but a series of long-developing trends that may come together this year to leave Hollywood, the mindset, a permanently different place by 2019.
At the same time, it’s important to say that, if you like watching good stories told with moving pictures, this should be another banner year filled with lots of great shows on many platforms. It’s just that many of those platforms are anything but traditional, and their approaches, mindsets, expectations and decision makers are different in most cases from what the entertainment industry has known for decades.
These wrenching and substantial shifts likely will affect thousands of jobs, opening opportunities for some and foreclosing careers for others. Among those stresses wrenching Hollywood fault lines:
More consolidation. Scale rules in an era when big-money tech companies are muscling into a cozy little men’s club (and it’s been mostly men). That’s why even Disney, the biggest and most successful traditional studio, decided it had to buy big chunks of Fox for $52.4 billion. It knew it needed more programming heft to be competitive in the streaming-video future just ahead.
AT&T, one of the new players, is still waiting to hear from the courts whether it can complete its $85 billion deal for Time Warner. Like Disney, AT&T wants to fill its pipes – mobile, DirecTV and broadband – with lots of affordable, attractive content.
If both those deals go through, Hollywood will lose its second-biggest studio, Fox, while Time Warner’s 25,000 workers will be become a small, not very central part of a telecom giant that already has 200,000 employees.
More consolidation seems inevitable as other big companies position for the future. Comcast and Verizon, among others, sniffed at Fox before Disney closed the deal. Now, companies such as Viacom/CBS, Lionsgate-Starz and MGM seem likely deal targets, with their strong TV distribution networks, deep libraries and hit shows. Will Amazon, Apple, Facebook or others pick up one of these to fill out their video offerings?
Competition for projects is getting stiffer. From more expensive sports rights to pricey prestige programs that can attract a loyal audience, making shows costs a lot more these days.
Amazon Studios, spurred by Jeff Bezos’ demand that the company find the next “Game of Thrones,” will spend $200 million on an episodic series set in the ur-GoT universe of “The Lord of the Rings.”
Netflix is spending a reported $15 million per episode on “The Crown.” And the Big Red N plans to release 80(!) movies this year, part of the $7 billion to $8 billion it said it will spend on programming.
Netflix’s programming gambit appears to be paying off so far, by the way. Its subscriber numbers are showing extremely healthy quarterly gains. And Nielsen reported, based on new streaming-video viewing data, that 11 million people watched Netflix’s Will Smith-starring “Bright” over the holidays. If all those viewers showed up in a theater (admittedly a very big assumption), that would translate to an opening weekend gross of around $90 million, roughly what it cost Netflix to make the film. No surprise then that Netflix is already working on a sequel.
Meanwhile, the 2017 domestic theatrical box office brought in $11.2 billion, down more than 2 percent despite rising average ticket prices. And consider this: one movie, the latest Star Wars film, grossed $531 million domestically after its release Dec. 15. Combined with “Beauty and the Beast,” the two Disney movies comprised more than 9 percent of the entire year’s box office take from the Hollywood studios.
Competition for talent is getting stiffer too. ABC’s biggest producer, Shonda Rhimes, is heading to Netflix, and “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman is headed to Amazon. The latest rumors suggest that Ryan Murphy may leave Fox for one of the digital giants because some of his biggest executive allies at Fox might lose their jobs in the Disney deal. Expect more defections as tech giants look to secure production pipelines with big talent deals.
Hulu and Amazon are rebuilding, but Facebook, Google and Apple are jumping in. Hulu’s CEO left to run Sony TV, and Amazon Studios lost a string of executives, some hired away by Apple, and others forced out after revelations of bad behavior. It will take some time for both companies to get their mojo back.
But as they do so, Apple is stacking up an impressive executive team and several big programming announcements, even though it still hasn’t said how anyone will get to see the results. Expect that to clear up this year, as will the company’s plans for a more significant production operation, possibly in the historic Culver Studios lot in Culver City, next to Amazon Studios’ new digs there.
Facebook is ending the pay-to-play deals it had with about 300 publishers and celebrities creating video content for the Newsfeed, and is shifting resources to live programming. It’s still unclear whether Facebook is getting any traction with these projects or its $3 billion Oculus investment, but it surely will find more ways to keep its 2 billion users on its site longer, watching highly targeted programs and ads.
Similarly, Google’s YouTube Red service hasn’t had a breakout hit, and there’s probably a reason the company hasn’t released subscriber numbers. But Google TV looks like a user-friendly winner, and YouTube remains the go-to video destination for millions of viewers daily, despite missteps with Ad-pocalypse, creepy kids programming and more.
The reign of Bad Men Who Do Bad Things is ending, probably. As Jessica Chastain said at the Palm Springs Film Festival this week: “Major change is coming.” She’s largely right, as creeps such as Harvey Weinstein depart the scene. The #MeToo reckoning will undoubtedly continue in Hollywood through at least 2018, reshaping who makes and gets deals.
The worst part about that the long-overdue reckoning has been collateral damage to otherwise uninvolved people working on suddenly stalled or dead projects. At least some companies and creators will be left stumbling or even shuttered/unemployable (as seems likely for the Weinstein brothers and The Weinstein Company).
In some artful cases (Ridley Scott’s quick Christopher Plummer reshoot replacing Kevin Spacey in “All the Money in the World,” Netflix’s eliding Spacey from the last season of “House of Cards”), endangered projects have found workarounds that keep people working.
But what about folks who worked on Louis CK’s now-mothballed movie? Will it/should it see distribution now that CK has bought it back? Is Pamela Adlon’s excellent “Better Things” better without her pal CK’s writing? Will Vice lose its way after the suspensions of its president and chief digital officer? Career craters like those will reshape parts of the Hollywood landscape this year.
The Year of the Woman? Can female executives, producers, screenwriters, and creators take advantage of new opportunities presenting themselves during this #MeToo reckoning?
Could, for instance, Fox Film chairman and CEO Stacey Snider become the next head of Amazon Studios? Snider was only elevated to her current job last summer (she had been sharing the gig with Jim Gianopulos), but likely would be redundant if the Disney deal goes through. Hiring Snider, a highly regarded studio manager, could fix a lot of problems for Amazon, long criticized for its dearth of female executives. Moves like that would say a lot about where Hollywood is headed.
Politics as Distraction. In 2016, the NFL blamed its declining ratings on all the attention viewers were giving the presidential race. Continued down ratings in 2017, especially on Sunday night and Monday night, suggest the league’s problems may be deeper than that. Regardless, those ratings and that of other stalwarts in traditional media almost certainly won’t improve in the middle of another titanic year for politics driven by attention on the mid-term national elections. Watching Twitter for the latest unpresidential tweets might be far more entertaining than anything Fox News or MSNBC can serve up.
The Games People Play, and Watch. While NFL ratings are slowly eroding, more and more people are choosing to watch other people play video games. E-sports is also now fueling an array of off-line financial opportunities, such as lifestyle products and live events. As sponsorship dollars follow the eyeballs, leagues are getting more and more professional. And if those fans are watching League of Legends, DOTA or the new Overwatch league, they aren’t watching traditional TV. And Amazon’s Twitch.TV is perfectly positioned to take advantage as it continues to experiment with non-gaming content of many kinds.
So what’s going to be left of Hollywood after 2018’s many tremors? A lot less of the old school almost certainly. Yes, there will still be networks, and cable TV, and studios. But it’s going to look a lot different in 12 months. Traditional Hollywood likely will be showing every bit of its 110 years, a lot more wizened and less vital, even as more great shows of all kinds present themselves to delighted audiences.
Disney almost certainly will remain first among media companies, and Time Warner and NBCUniversal will have their corporate parents to cushion the competitive blows coming. But this could be a tough year for many in Hollywood. Plan your life accordingly.