With the debate surrounding piracy rumbling on, the Hollywood studios are continuing to try and find a way to combat the issue that doesn’t involve their monopoly on distribution being wrested from them through instant sharing services such as Netflix. It’s a typically stubborn response from the hallowed halls of Los Angeles, serving to damage both the business and film goers all in the name of delaying the inevitable. However, this steadfast refusal to adhere to the Darwinian laws of evolution and natural selection is not without precedent, and Hollywood would do well to take a look back at its past and act on the lessons it took them so long to learn the first time around.
With the internet threatening to alter the fundamental act of distribution that has laid dormant since the advent of home video, it requires a glance all the way back to the late 1960s to find a time when Hollywood’s tried and tested means of dominating the film business was so similarly threatened. The cultural upheavals of the ’60s, with the Civil Rights movement, psychedelia and flower power were akin to the enormity of the technical changes brought about by the internet in the last ten years, and both asked much of the movie establishment.
The parallels are plentiful. After a long period of undisturbed dominance, American film studios suddenly found their business ailing with no apparent remedy to the cause. Whilst this has yet to happen again in earnest, there’s only so long that the industry can drag its heels over what is a very simple problem before dissent and disgruntledness set in. The case was identical in the ’60s – despite the huge changes in the substrata of American life, studio executives and producers were still baffled as to why their lavish, staid big-budget productions, such as Cleopatra, were failing to do the business they once did. It took several years of the answer staring them in the face to realise that having men, some of whom had held their positions since the Great Depression, decide which films would fare well with a generation and a movement they neither could not and would not try to fathom was not the way to go.
The analogy extends to the resolution as well as the issue. When the studios eventually reached the conclusion that they no longer knew what people wanted, they handed control over to people who did: the generation of directors who became known as the New Hollywood movement, featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. What followed was quite possibly the most creatively explosive and fertile period of Hollywood’s storied history, with everything from the avant-garde and existential (Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show) to the archetypes for the big summer blockbusters we get today (Star Wars and Indiana Jones). The possibilities presented by the internet are similarly promising – when we do get a completely comprehensive online streaming service, the sheer wealth of choice will inevitably force Hollywood to think more carefully about simply churning out another cookie-cutter explosion orgy, and audiences will be able to vote with their mice about what kind of films they’d like to see more of.
The “internet question” will eventually get answered, however reluctantly, but the one that perplexes is quite how the studios reaffirmed their grip on the industry and put themselves into the position to drag their heels all over again.
Whilst some of the names, such as Spielberg and Scorsese, still hold considerable clout in the business, others, such as Coppola (a man once described by one producer as possessing a filmmaking gift more valuable than the formula for Coca-Cola) have all but disappeared, taking with them the independence and freedom briefly afforded to filmmakers. A combination of hubris, indulgent pet projects, and high profile flops (most notably Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, widely considered to have brought the curtain down on the New Hollywood era) handed the initiative back to the studios, which they’ve held ever since.
With it looking increasingly likely that this internet game may just be sticking around, this change could well prove more seismic and, crucially, more permanent for the industry than the New Hollywood age. Whether they like it or not, sooner or later the studios are going to have to relinquish unmitigated control to their net-based nemesis – and this time, they might not get it back.