We’re living through a time that future media historians will call a major turning point in the digital era. The younger, techier companies that created the modern streaming market, like Netflix and Amazon, have used up their first mover advantage and the regrouped old guard are gearing up to crush them. (Apple are on the tech side, but did not use their first mover advantage, because they’re idiots, presumably.) The biggest conglomerates in the film industry – Disney, AT&T, Comcast, ViacomCBS – will stop licensing their films to streaming services owned by other companies in favour of exclusively streaming them on services they own: Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock and Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access) respectively. It’s gonna take a few years to make the shift, as deals that were signed before launching these services cannot be rescinded. But they’ll pretty much all be expired by the end of this decade and very few will be renewed, especially once HBO Max, Peacock and Paramount+ go international. That’ll leave any streaming service without a major studio archive increasingly reliant on their original releases as enticement to stay subscribed, which will always be a worse value proposition for a consumer than original releases plus loads of existing films. Amazon seem to be futureproofing Prime against this threat by buying MGM and securing a back catalogue of their own. Netflix and Apple seem to be doing sweet fuck all, but that could change any minute. It’s Silicon Valley vs Hollywood in a fight to the death over which shower of assholes in California get to shape the future of global media, and it terrifies me.
Streaming has only been around for the bones of a decade and it’s already transformed the industry so much, mostly for the worse. Suffocating overproduction, cinemas decimated, expanding power of corporations to censor art. The casualties of the first streaming war (June 2011 – March 2020) have already been severe, and that was before Disney, one of the most awful, nihilistic media companies in human history, got involved. What fresh horrors will come now the second streaming war (May 2020 – present) is afoot? I obviously can’t know what Bob Iger and his ilk are cooking up in their high rises, but I can try to think like them. I’ve looked at graphs of market trends and nodded slowly, I’ve brainstormed and wordclouded and powerpointed, I’ve put a photo of Martin Scorsese on a dart board and shot it with a revolver. I’ve danced with Minions in the pale moonlight, huffed the helium from Walt Disney’s cryopod and sought prophecy in the entrails of a still-living Boots the Monkey. I’ve read the fucking Economist. And lo, the Invisible Hand came forth from the great maelstrom of the market, laid a single finger on my forehead and answered my prayers. I have seen the future that Disney and all the other rogues will bring about in their ruthless, pointless pursuit of wealth. It has come to me as if in a vision, and, buddy, it is fucked up.
Under the status quo, movies are legally distributed through the following methods: exhibition in cinemas or on television networks, direct sales to customers via physical or digital home video, and streaming, where people pay a regular rate to maintain access to a platform that hosts a selection of films. The largest media conglomerates control the biggest shares in these markets, but that’s not enough. They want it all. So how do you grow your market share? Well, imagine you own a pizzeria in a small town and fifty percent of people buying a fresh hot pizza pie in your town come to you, while the other fifty go to a rival pizzeria on the far side of town. I can see three basic ways to get to one hundred. First, you can entice their customers to become yours by offering a better deal: a nicer pizza or a better price point or whatever. But that sounds like a lot of effort, and it’d probably come out of your pocket one way or another. Second, you can buy the other pizzeria, so even though the same customers are going to the same pizzerias as before, all the money flows to you. Third, you can burn the rival pizzeria to the ground.
Enticement was the primary weapon of the first streaming war, but the next will be fought with cash and fire, like a proper war deserves. Disney bought 20th Century Fox, Amazon bought MGM, Viacom and CBS merged back into one company again (still owned entirely by one family) and bought a nice juicy 49% stake in Miramax, along with exclusive worldwide distribution of its films. By decade’s end, we’re liable to see the last of the mini-major studios – Lionsgate, A24, Blumhouse, etc. – swallowed up by companies from Silicon Valley and Hollywood alike, half to acquire their assets and half just to stop anyone else acquiring them. Despite continued resistance from its CEO, it is not inconceivable that Sony will sell its film division to a competitor, or at least spin it off and leave it vulnerable to acquisition. Either way, the trend is toward more and more of the industry being owned by fewer and fewer companies. If one of those companies isn’t Netflix, it’s essentially doomed to failure since it doesn’t actually make any money and it’s the only streaming giant not attached to a larger company that can subsidise its continued existence. Its Hollywood competitors are depriving it of licensed films from their catalogues and planning to buy up any company Netflix might license films from instead, so it really doesn’t have any other path forward. But whether it manages a coup and buys out Sony or it collapses like WeWork and gets bought by one of its rivals, the strategy is consolidation. You can still buy the other guy’s pizzeria after you burn it down, and at a discount too!
But what about exhibition and direct sales? The Paramount Decrees, which originally forced studios to divest from cinemas, were torn up by the Trump administration, citing the reasoning I previously predicted would be used by Trump-appointed judges to rule against any anti-trust case taken over major studio attempts to acquire cinema chains:
“…though the Paramount Decrees arose from a court case in which the studios were forced to divest from theatres, that was only the remedy prescribed for that specific set of anticompetitive conditions. Studio ownership of theatres was not banned and the existence of streaming services as an alternative to cinemas might provide enough competition to theatres as a whole that Disney owning a chain of theatres isn’t ruled anticompetitive in a future antitrust case, likely overseen by Trump-appointed judges.”
It still seems likely to me that cinemas will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, but mostly in the sense the Javan rhinoceros won’t be extinct until the last one is dead. Small town multiplexes will continue to decline, their slates dominated entirely by major studio releases if they survive at all, while the last few arthouse cinemas barely cling to life in only the biggest cities. TV networks may continue showing films, though one suspects they will increasingly show only films made by their parent companies. When it comes to renting or buying films from digital storefronts, it’s hard to see why rights holders would want to keep offering them on storefronts they don’t own, so I’d expect them to start disappearing permanently. But it remains to be seen whether they’ll ever make us pay extra to rent certain films on their streaming services (I mean, beyond the early access thing that Disney started). The storefronts themselves will remain as long as they’re reasonably profitable for Apple and Google and whoever else. They’ll become one of the last places you can distribute indie films, especially as smaller boutique streamers die and/or get bought up by the corporate leviathan.
DVDs, on the other hand, I’m sure won’t last. Netflix already don’t do them. No Hollywood studios have announced plans to stop printing DVDs and Blu-rays at time of writing, despite what you may have heard. But it seems certain they will start to phase them out this decade. Or, at least, they will with DVDs. I see limited-run Blu-ray releases continuing as a bonus for films popular enough to make it worth the effort. There may still be boutique DVD and Blu-ray labels like Criterion and Arrow and Shout Factory catering to the enthusiast market, for a time, but with fewer releases as more of world film history is bought by a handful of companies who would like it very much if the only legal way to watch all the movies they own was their own streaming service. If you’re a major conglomerate and you can make twenty dollars selling someone a DVD one time vs ten dollars a month if they sign up to your streaming service, why would you give them the choice? And once the biggest studios pull out of the DVD market, it’s dead for everyone. Retailers are already deciding not to stock DVDs anymore. It won’t happen overnight, but provided the planet remains habitable, I suspect I will live the vast majority of my life in a world that takes streaming for granted as at least the primary way films are distributed, and possibly the only way.
The thought of it makes me nauseous. It’s easy to talk about in the abstract, but what would life as a citizen of this world be like? Unless you’re willing and able to pirate, the only way to watch a film is to pay money every month of your adult life to at least one of a handful of giant companies so you can use their streaming service. Tithing a fucking corporation to exercise our human right to leisure from the cradle to the grave. Our awareness of what films exist or are even possible will be curated entirely by these corporations: not just the films available on them, but the films emphasised, the films pushed by their algorithms or promoted as part of a brand-building strategy to sell more toys to children or whatever. Kids growing up in this world won’t even know what they’re missing. Fewer and fewer films exploring the niche and specific in favour of an overwhelming focus on movies made to be as blandly palatable as possible to the broadest potential audience. It’s not just all the existing films they’ll never even hear about because they aren’t on whatever three streaming services their parents can afford. Virtually every new film they will ever see will be released on streaming, shaped by the ever-narrower ideas of ever-fewer assholes in suits and beamed directly into their house, so they won’t even risk walking past a movie poster at the cinema and decide to ditch the new Marvel to see an indie with an actor they like in it. I know Bob Iger won’t be in charge of Disney forever, but it’s not like whoever succeeds him is gonna be some broad-minded connoisseur eager to finally give filmmakers the creative freedom they deserve, even it risks the bottom line. It’s just gonna be an endless procession of people who think movies should only exist if they make money, never daring anything, churning out the same shite over and over.
Maybe there’s a generation yet to come who could be raised on their parents’ DVDs and Blu-rays, but discs break and rights holders with their own streaming service have no incentive to produce more. Time is not on our side: the last time the film industry went through a technological shift this titanic – the advent of sound – we lost more than ninety percent of films made at that time, and you are sorely mistaken if you think we can trust rights holders to preserve the art they own or that digitisation means we’ll never lose anything ever again. The most popular films are very unlikely to disappear altogether, especially as long as digital piracy is able to exist, but that just means preservation will be driven even more by profit than it already is. Many have lamented the death of video rental stores and the opportunity they presented to stumble accidentally onto films we might otherwise never have seen, but now we’re staring down the barrel of a darker death still: the death of a personal film collection of any kind. Our best hope for access to films not already owned by these corporations would be for them to buy up the smaller studios they’re destroying. I’m kept awake at night by visions of people celebrating the day Disney buys Studio Ghibli because it means all their movies will be on Disney+ forever.
People who defend streaming love to talk about the greater accessibility it offers to poor people, disabled people and people in rural areas who generally find it more financially and logistically difficult to see a film in the cinema. Well, I’m poor, disabled and live in a tiny village, and I have to say, I do not find giving money to a bunch of corporations every month just to be able to watch a film without committing a crime quite as empowering as you might think on first glance. It’s easy to be dismissive of that “without committing a crime” bit because there’s not currently a huge effort to punish individual viewers for film piracy. But there’s always risk in forcing something into the black market. It means a lot more to a pleb like me if I pick up a virus trying to track down a film on some dodgy website and I have to pay out the nose to get it fixed. Where’s all my accessibility then? And who’s to say what an even more powerful and consolidated film industry might decide to do about individual pirates in the future? It isn’t freedom for people to be dependent on the benevolence of corporations to enjoy the art and culture that is rightfully the commonwealth of all mankind. It’s just a fun new twist on serfdom where you don’t even get somewhere to live out of it. Real accessibility would mean liberating art and culture from corporate control, not consolidating as much of it as possible on a handful of corporate platforms. Never mind that high-speed broadband is far from universal, or how rarely concerns about accessibility seem to translate into efforts to keep cinemas open for us poor, disabled, rural people to enjoy. We deserve a better vision of our lives than paying money to be trapped in our homes with a screen.
If this all sounds a bit dystopian, that’s because it is, and if it also sounds not that different from the status quo, well, ditto. It is dystopian to have so much of what makes human life worth living at the mercy of a handful of goons in California. Like, fewer people than it would take to fill a mid-sized double-decker bus. And since no government with the power to do anything about it seems even mildly interested in breaking up these monopolistic conglomerates, the only practical constraints on their ability to continue destroying and consuming smaller companies are each other and the awful possibility of running out of smaller companies to destroy and consume. It’ll happen slowly and out of sight enough most people won’t even notice. They already don’t notice. I don’t blame them. It’s hard to notice anything in the constant flood of information we’re all barely keeping afloat in.
Honestly, I’m not convinced we haven’t already crossed the boiling point on this particular frog. I hope not, but I don’t see anything likely to stop their momentum anytime soon. A better world is possible, but a world where people don’t even remember what they’ve lost is too. Take from that what you will, and buy lots of second-hand DVDs.