Breaking Up Big Media


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What’s more appealing to unabashed cinephiles than a quasi-political call to action? I know, how original of me. Truth be told, this is the last kind of thing that someone like myself, or LowRes, would care to expound. In an age where there are umpteen homogenous, late-night talk shows bludgeoning us with their political pontification, any break from that is like swallowing the world’s most appetizing dose of valium. With that said, that very homogenous culture in the entertainment industry is a direct result of rampant unethical corporatism that has suffocated consumers for years. As this malignant cancer festers, unchecked, the industry continues to commit one egregious, cinematic malpractice after another. A notable recent example would be Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox (assets), which makes the super titan all the more powerful as one of the few gatekeepers in entertainment of the visual medium. This has fostered a culture of aristocracy in the entertainment community, one arguably more exclusionary than ever before. Unless you’re a sucker for assembly-line, beat-by-beat diversions starring Beyoncé and her unborn fetuses, you should care about this. Cinema is in critical condition, and the solution is simple: Big Media must be broken up.

Before we get into how we can make this happen, let’s reflect a little on history. As the art of cinema boomed upon the sound-era, studios were churning out countless films, debatably more frequently than today. Even Joe Bob Briggs doesn't think there's nearly enough movies today. What this contemporary boom allowed for was the possibility for big studio players to cash-in on the wonders of a relatively unexplored medium. Sure, the big guys were around back then, too: Disney, Universal, MGM, Warner Bros and probably a few more. The difference, however, was that the market was so vast and exploratory that even smaller players could fare well in the business. RKO Pictures could be cited as a successful example (until its demise in 1959). As open as the market may have been, audiences gradually grew weary of the glamour and upscale nature of the studio system. This sentiment became more widespread during the Vietnam years, and resulted in a messianic collapse of studio cinema. What birthed from that was The American New Wave in film, and unleashed to the masses of adolescent audiences was a slew of low-budget gems from independent studios and filmmakers alike (and, yeah, plenty of crap to oar through). While some may not favor the stylistic tendencies of films of that era, it undoubtedly blew open the market for small-time investors, producers and filmmakers to tell their stories and make a few bucks. Without the subconscious spirit of rebellion of that era, we might not have seen the likes of a Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, or even a Spielberg (though he’s never been as good as he was since). As time separates that era further from today, history is repeating itself, but with more dire circumstances.

For transparency’s sake, I’ll quickly dish my thoughts on current events: I couldn’t be more disenchanted with the endless left v. right paradigm that’s consuming too much of our energy. Honestly, I think we could all benefit from a few more fart jokes every now and then. It is true, though, that big corporate media is now owned and operated under the supervision of a few massively-powerful entities. Whether it’s Disney’s endless acquisitions of film and TV studios, Google’s inhalation of YouTube or Time Warner scissoring legs with AT&T, the trends of the last ten to fifteen years have brought us here. There are so many studios, yet so few. So many means of exposure exist today, yet there are so few people to be exposed (and not in the naked sense). The problem facing this generation of artists, writers, filmmakers and other creators is that because of this massive corporate overreach, there’s been a gradual dissolution of independent studios that has reduced the number close to nil. Sometimes, all a filmmaker needs is a producer who has a few bucks and wants to make a few more. In 1978, John Carpenter worked with producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad, who never panned out to be household names, but their shoestring financial investment in the film was all it needed to become the mega-hit franchise it is today (with new life breathed into it as of 2018). Point being, that independent spirit in filmmaking is, at least, in a dormant coma if not dead. The big studio system has a stranglehold on us that, if we don’t reject and combat, will live on forever.

Today, the yearly slate of films has become predominantly-bolstered with frequently-revisited intellectual properties. Some are good, and some are awful, but the worst kinds of these movies are the “good ones”—the “good ones” that do EXACTLY what we predict them to, and make the cut of being marginally-entertaining while offering nothing new in the same breath. We consumers have become savvy to the focus group-based, attention deficit disorder-obliging formula calculated by big studio execs who have never taken a photo with a disposable camera, let alone try to make a film. The worst part is that we’ve largely accepted all these pre-determined products with open arms. Audiences have flocked to see nineteen Marvel Cinematic Universe films though they’ve been told to their faces the heroes will survive every single film until maybe the very last one. Why was Black Panther so unrewarding, you ask? Because we were guaranteed to see him two months later in Infinity War and we also know he’s got a sequel lined up. Perhaps this would be more forgivable if a more diverse array of films was being circulated, but that’s far from the case.

With bombastic, $200-Million blockbusters more frequently-released than a $5-Million indie these days, the market has changed drastically. It doesn’t matter if the next Jurassic World claims to bring back John Hammond only to have the dusty, dried-up corpse of Richard Attenborough jitter around the set via puppeteers (which would be impressive), these titles are dominating due to brand recognition and the serotonin-bleeding faux nostalgia studios try to sell to their consumers. Increased production of these kinds of films has typically bullied the indies, or even slightly smaller films out of circulation. With those massive profits, studios like NBC Universal can easily swallow up once-smaller competitors like the USA Network (once distinguished, but now just a platform for endless SVU reruns). Not to mention, such overwhelming control of broadcast and publication means that whatever YOU are watching, reading, or listening to has been APPROVED by THEM. That begs one question among many: who are they to decide what I can and can’t see?!

There’s a fancy word for this kind of business, and Dictionary.com says it’s phonetically-pronounced as “ol-i-gop-uh-lee”. The levers in media are being pulled by only a few gatekeepers, and that’s some shit news to swallow, but it’s not all bad these days.

There are inklings of smaller independent studios making a ravenous return. Among the most popular of those would be A24, who has been cranking out one critically-acclaimed piece of indie film after another. Also, with the advent (and utter boom) of streaming services, new platforms have emerged for new talent in all forms of broadcasting. These platforms, however, are not without their own faults, as they seem to occasionally fall into similar patterns of nepotism. Perhaps out of their hubris, A24 is delighted to upheave thoughtful, independent cinema as long as you’re a tenured “member” such as James Franco (The Disaster Artist) or Jonah Hill (Mid 90s)—not the epitome of “independent”, if you ask me. This isn’t to knock their work—I loved The Disaster Artist, but it speaks truth to the problem in the business. Similar occurrences have plagued YouTube as well, with corporately-sponsored content smoking out much of the user-generated content that gave the website its identity. Truthfully, there IS some new life being breathed into independent cinema and entertainment, but not without passing through the checks and balances of the gatekeepers, it seems. That leaves us with the proposed ultimatum: break up the big media titans.

In terms of the creative standpoint on things, the benefits would be infinite. On the practical end, for the simple consumer, the benefits would still be tangible. To have six major entities control nearly ALL of what the common man can see, watch, hear or listen to is a dangerous amount of power for so few to have. Breaking them apart and deregulating the industry as a whole would make it easier for consumers to get what they want, and for creators and independent producers to distribute their media. For reference, 90% of broadcast media was controlled by fifty major companies instead of six in 1983. Think of how vastly different our entertainment landscape could be if that was achievable once more. Perhaps indie features would boom as they did decades ago. Maybe consumers would have more leeway on what information they had access to.

This would be a long shot, but if we could wipe clean the ass of entertainment of the rancid, creviced remnants of shows like Young Sheldon¸ the effort is worth it.

// The Cinematologist [10-12-2018]

Jacob A. Millerfilm, essays, media