21st Century Hollywood: A Cheat Sheet

I doubt anyone would say that the twenty-first century has been Hollywood’s most glorious era artistically. It did not and arguably could not see the fundamental innovation of the era of D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. It was not the “golden age of movies” in which the MGM lion roared, or the scene of the kind of innovative, challenging work produced by the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s. Still, if the era could seem one of stagnation artistically, the business has certainly seen a great deal of change, in cases extending prior trends (the long-increasing competition from the small screen and import of the foreign box office, the rise of “high concept” in the 1970s, for example, or the resurgence of big-screen animation in the 1990s), in others reflecting more fundamental technological change (as the Internet’s development permitted sufficiently convenient streaming of kind to make this preferable to the purchase or rental of physical media — one thing about which Ray Kurzweil was right). Eight developments seem to stand out above all:

1. The rise of China. (The foreign markets have always been important — as anyone familiar with Hollywood’s sheer groveling before Nazi Germany in the ’30s recalls — but never has a single foreign market had so much dollars-and-cents significance.)

2. The ascent of TV rather than the feature film as the scene for such drama as we get in this day and age (in the new “golden age of television”).

3. The rise and fall of DVD — the latter, as yet another technology, the streaming of content, edged it out the way it had edged out the video cassette (e.g. Netflix went from mailing us discs to delivering content straight to our devices).

4. The collapse of the (movie) star system. (People went to the movies to see franchises, not stars.)

5. The intensification of franchising. This extended, of course, to
a. The haste we saw in the rebooting of recently exploited properties (a mere five years later after Spiderman 3 we had Spiderman’s origin story all over again in The Amazing Spider-man); and
b. The development of shared universes (like Marvel achieved, and like Warner tried to have with DC, and Disney tried to have with Star Wars).

6. The demise of the mid-budget movie, decline of standalone movies of all types, and for that matter, anything that did not lend itself to an internationally appealing, colossally merchandisable franchise. (Goodbye, romantic comedy. Goodbye adult drama, no matter how much the suck-ups in the entertainment press sneer at and straw man those who say those kinds of movies “don’t get made anymore.”)

7. The increasing dominance of the market by exactly two genres, precisely because they lend themselves so well to the creation of internationally appealing, colossally merchandisable franchises — action-adventure (in the main big-budget science fiction and fantasy CGI-fests, with a sprinkling of spy-fi), and big, usually musical comedy-oriented family animated features (to the point that they would account for at least eight of the top ten movies of the year).

8. The rise of Disney from not even being one of the “majors” to being king of Hollywood (precisely because no one was more shameless about playing by these rules).

Altogether it really does seem quite extraordinary — with the extent to which this was the case underscored by how little many of the participants understood it. (Certainly Ben Fritz gives the impression that Sony CEO Amy Pascal did not “get it” until very late, and Sony suffered for it.) Considering it all I find myself wondering what the next twenty years might bring — and find myself not coming up with much, precisely because in all of the above I get the sense that the history of the “movie as we know it” is drawing to a close.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.