Big Tech, the Independent Filmmaker, and an Oligopoly on Art
Jul 30, 2021
The year is 1997. The English Patient has just swept the Academy Awards, winning nine awards of the twelve it was nominated for, including Best Picture. Titanic is set to come out in November, becoming the most successful film of its time, being the first to gross over a billion dollars, before finally settling on nearly two billion. Stars are born in Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic), Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), and Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting). Blockbuster signs an exclusive contract with Warner Bros. to rent their films on the up-and-coming format of DVD. Netflix has just been founded, mailing out VHS tapes and DVDs across the country. Amazon is a fledgling book-seller, having just gone public, and is struggling to break into the music and video business. The world is reeling from the death of Tupac Shakur just a year prior and The Notorious B.I.G., who died that same year. Elton John is dominating the charts with his song “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”. Big studios dominate the movie business. Big labels dominate the music business. Less than twenty percent of American households even had access to the Internet.
A decade later, a lot has changed. The Departed has just swept the Academy Awards. No Country For Old Men, Juno, and There Will Be Blood are preparing to hit theaters. A star is born in Ellen Page. Blockbuster is struggling as Netflix is surging, having sent out their billionth DVD. Netflix has just released their streaming service for subscribers, but it’s proving ineffectual in comparison to their lucrative DVD business. Amazon is doing approximately twenty-five billion in sales, having now expanded into a vast array of products. Cable TV is still an entertainment staple. Access to content is still limited, but platforms like YouTube are on the rise, with Google having just acquired it for 1.65 billion dollars in stock. Beyonce, Jay-Z, The Plain White T’s are dominating the charts. John Mayer has just let the world know that he’s waiting for it to change. But 2007 shares plenty of commonalities with 1997. Theatrical distribution still gives a handful of studios the lion’s share of wealth in movies. And labels still hold an important role in the promotion, recording, and release of music. With nearly sixty percent of households having internet in the United States, the technological landscape is caught somewhere between being very reliant on the hardware of old and growing into the behemoth it is today.
There is some advantage to how technology functions today. It’s not overly expensive for content creators: directors, writers, musicians to create what it once would’ve taken millions of dollars for. If you want to watch a movie, at the tip of your fingers is too much entertainment to watch in multiple lifetimes. Certain VCs, however, saw the mass change happening and funded technologies for streaming, or writing code, or processing information, with the ultimate goal just being to get gobbled up by a larger company for piles of cash. Those companies that once were struggling to break into an industry are now at the forefront of it; if you have something of value, it’s in your best interests to sell to them because either they’ll pay you generously for it or suffocate you out of business until there’s nothing but liquidated remnants for them to pick up.
In fairness, these companies were ahead of their time and created innovative material that they scaled up in a smart and effective way. Netflix’s development of getting content rapidly to consumers at home and, more specifically, their early delve into the streaming service was a stroke of genius. Likewise, Amazon’s ability to deliver products in an ever-expansive way from practically anywhere changed the game of shopping. The downside is that, though it is easier than ever to create high quality content and give it out to the world, monetizing it is becoming harder than ever. Theaters aren’t what they once were, though they are making a comeback. If I make a movie, for example, it is extraordinarily difficult to find people to pay for it when they have a seemingly endless library of content, some of it bound to be somewhat similar, through the familiar services of Disney, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook or Apple. One of these companies can’t own the marketplace in its entirety; there are monopoly laws to prevent that. However, a few companies owning the vast majority of content and raising their prices to an optimal point that they collectively decide on is perfectly legal.
Given the oligopoly that’s forming, it’s only natural that big tech companies, the ones that got on in an early, sustainable way will continue to remain at the forefront of technology. Partially, this is a natural consequence of unfettered capitalism; Keynesian economics implies that this is a feature and not a bug of the system. But where is the room for the little guy? How does an independent filmmaker make money in this world where the primary goal is to be bought by the larger companies?
Therein lies a solution. As these companies compete with each other, anything worth something has them scrambling to purchase it. To pierce through the never-ending content, however, is the challenge. Either something is marketed well-enough that it gathers a crowd and following, which is partially necessary regardless of the product, though the marketing machine of big studios and major tech companies will most likely always do this better. Or, better yet, something gets made that is a step above all of the other content. We saw it with Parasite last year. A Korean film winning Best Picture and grossing hundreds of millions of dollars.
It’s all-too-easy to forget that movies are art. Not a business. And as artists or consumers, we have to believe that the truly worthwhile art will spread like wildfire. The movie that says something worth saying will garner attention. The song worth singing will stick in our heads. The innovative will continue to innovate, regardless of their seemingly long odds and difficult financial prospects. We live in a truly unique time. One in which big tech dominates the marketplace. But we’ve seen that nothing is too big to fail. The biggest of companies, like Blockbuster, have gone down. Empires have fallen. History is bound to repeat itself. It’s true that inequality is a feature of capitalism, but so is innovation. In the most innovative time in history, we take the good with the bad. And after everything, the material consequence and never-ending bureaucracy falls away, hopefully we’re left with the brightest stars. In the meantime, we’ll take a page out of John Mayer’s book and keep waiting on the world to change.