IT DEPENDS: The New Normal in Hollywood

Entertainment Attorney Christopher Schiller analyzes what the current and future Hollywood trends to discover the "new normal" in Hollywood.
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Entertainment Attorney Christopher Schiller analyzes what the current and future Hollywood trends to discover the "new normal" in Hollywood.

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Entertainment Attorney Christopher Schiller analyzes what the current and future Hollywood trends to discover the "new normal" in Hollywood.

In a slight break from the style of articles I usually present here, this one is almost exclusively more about the business than the legal aspects of our industry. Inspired by a Facebook query post from one of indie film's leading lights now at Amazon, Ted Hope recently, I have decided to take a little look into my own version of a crystal ball to see what the current and future Hollywood trends look like. It will involve both current observations and predictions of the near future. So it goes without saying, my observations are based on personal perspective and all predictions are mere guesses so accuracy is not guaranteed or even expected. Shall we?

Except for the headstones at Forest Lawn nothing is carved in stone in Hollywood

Everything changes. Even the U.S. film industry’s locus being in California was a change from its nascent start on the East Coast in the days of Edison’s Black Maria and Guy-Blaché’s Solax Studios. The movies have weathered many changes, some tumultuously (the advent of “talkies”), some vociferously, kicking and screaming (the battle against “home video”), some with hardly a whimper (ah, example anyone?). The one constant is change. It’s one of the reasons why I always say there are no industry standards, just current common practices.

Still, it is easy to fall into the illusion of complacency in expectation. It’s hard to feel the wave about to crest as you slowly rise with the seemingly still waters all around you. If recent memory seems to serve as an indicator as how things are, why should you expect change? Well, you should at least look out for change if you don’t want to drown.

Starting from the big picture. No, bigger than that one. No bigger.

Ask a dozen professionals to define what the film industry is and you’ll likely get 20 different answers, most incompatible with the rest. Stepping way, way back, there is a way to broadly define what it is we are all after in terms that nearly everyone can agree with.

The “is” of the industry:

  1. ) Make creative works, (form, format, and type vary).
  2. ) Somehow get them to an appropriate audience, (identifying audiences, marketing and distribution challenges, and changes along the way).
  3. ) Make enough money to be “successful” (individually defined, it is a business after all).

These tenets seem to cover anyone’s real endeavors in this industry. Of course, the particulars can (and do) vary wildly. But no matter how the marketplace or technology changes things, this path is at the root of all our efforts.

Setting the new soundstage

We’ve already visited inklings of how things have been changing from the old-school thinking. As I’ve said before in these columns, there’s more than one “Hollywood.” There are many paths already established to get your own version of entertainment to its intended audience and recognizing that you may differ from other product in their marketplaces is the first step to succeeding in whatever “Hollywood” is best for your works. And as I’ve posed recently here, the medium is (or can be) the message. It is rapidly becoming a reality that satisfying entertainment can come in many forms, each bringing a particular flavor to the mix of the smorgasbord of how audiences currently consume their pleasures.

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Old-School approaches no longer lead down the best paths for everyone (as if they ever did). New markets are popping up every day finding audiences willing to try new experiences and creative souls willing to venture into new methods of telling stories. If you try one of these approaches you will likely be up against resistance when looking for assistance in getting your message to its new audience. After all, tried and true is comfortable and known. New doesn’t always mean successful or sustaining. But paying attention to the potentials and being willing to take calculated risks is part of the game of success today.

From “Knowing” to “Doing”

It’s one thing to know that markets exist, it’s another to know how to cater to them. The one element I keep realizing in all my research in how the industry is changing is that “complacency is death.” If you don’t keep an ear to the ground to know when the stampede starts heading away from you, you’ll quite quickly be left in the dust.

Reliance on old-school thinking (e.g. genre tropes play to ready-made audiences) without checking to see if they’re still valid is a dangerous game of blind man’s bluff. Underperformance or out and out misses can be signs of a blip, or a shift in tastes or temperaments. Are the current low box-office returns for the last few low-budget comedies a sign of impending doom or just the specific misses of those individual movies in a now, more discerning but still reliable audience?

It has never been a good idea to just market to a genre with generic riffs of things that have worked before. It is of course the easiest thing to do. But it can backfire. Especially when there is an air of potential change about. Marketing to the specifics of the individual property may take more effort, but, it has many benefits including the ability to ride out a change in genre tastes. If a singular movie appeals to an unexpected sector of the masses, it doesn’t matter. That’s how those “surprise hits” happen. The marketing spreadsheets didn’t anticipate outside of its boxes. But if you market an outlier as the specific film it is, then you may just reach those surprising sectors, too.

Don’t need to re-invent the wheel, but, you may need to help push the cart

It’s not that you need a machete to hack out a path for yourself (usually) but you don’t have to travel the well-trodden paths if they don’t lead where you need to go. Again, an appeal to research and giving your individual work the particular consideration for what it brings to the table will start outlining its best path on the map. Then you can look to projects that may have already gone through the places you want to get to.

Study those groundbreaking “new” solutions. Why did they work? Who did they work for? Can they be replicated? Is someone already set up to assist your project down that path, or do you have to do the leg work yourself? These are all relevant questions when you find yourself in promoting a final product that can’t go down the established blockbuster, wide thoroughfare road to success (and to be honest, even those films aren’t sure things). But if someone has tried the waters you’re willing to swim in, they may be available to give you lessons or even take you out in a boat some of the way to bring that end goal a little closer.

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You may end up facing challenges that no one has encountered lately. Going it alone is possible with proper preparation, planning and financing (or realization of sweat equity involved). Again, research and prepare a plan of attack. There are many solo routes that rely on the filmmakers’ chutzpah as much as other films rely on distribution dollars. There have been successful filmmaker campaigns that have used inventive techniques: Road shows, dog and pony presentations, event programming, specialty market attention (e.g. church groups), to find and entertain their audiences. And remember, what counts as success is one of those individual calculations that need to be made for each production.

You’re likely not alone, even way out in left field

While doing that all important research, you may be blessed with finding like minds – specialty slates, specialty distributors (examples: old school, academic and library only – new school, VR-based content) that can help with the unusual thinking and planning and may be willing to take the chances on untried techniques for the right projects with merit. If it’s kitsch there may be a niche it can fill. And they’ll likely be a great asset in setting expectations according to your actual values.

Caution: Regardless of the path you take, when the streams you travel get narrowed through only a few channels, things can change quickly. When few hold the cards, it’s easier for the rules of the game to change suddenly. Consider the SVOD markets. Right now Netflix and Amazon are big players and have decided to play major league ball in the films they make, buy or champion. But if either of those two players change their corporate strategies, those paths could radically alter in a flash, leaving filmmakers dependent on only those outlets stranded with product high and dry.

But if there are lots and lots of players, choosing teams can be a crap-shoot in knowing whether you’ve been picked by a winning team or an also-ran. Still, when alternatives exist, one can fall and the others take up the slack. Theoretically.

To reiterate, research is key to potential success – Do you NEED theatrical? What does it get you? Is that important to the your end game? Do you NEED an Oscar run or to play the mainstream “tag your it” game of defining the worth of your film? Do you NEED domestic distribution? Or can the rest of the world fill your coffers just fine and dandy? There are an untold number of NEED questions you can and should answer for your particular project. And once you line up your legitimate list of NEEDs, then you need to research the best path for your film to get there.

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Overcoming non-existent (or at least no longer existent) barriers

Old think is rampant. I should have phrased that “non-think” but that might be insulting (though truer to the mark.) Drafts from boiler-plate forms whose contents haven’t been thought about specifically for your film may not serve all your particular needs. For example, nearly every transfer of rights contracts contain “All Rights” clauses. All Rights deals may not be appropriate especially if the old-school paths don’t lead where your film needs to go. The old guard still act like they’re in control, even when they’re not. They may be scared of chaos or anarchy, but, really are most scared of change where they are no longer top dogs. If they haven’t thought about it at least try to get them to think about their needs in relation to your specific project in their offer.

Beyond complacent non-think is the just as deadly “wrong-think” in a lot of business offices. Inaccurate rumors often persist long past being proven false in the mainstream, old opinions based on wrong or misunderstood impressions lodge in craws. (Since no one knows where a human craw is actually located, they’re hard to eradicate.) These entrenched fallacies get in the way of getting worthwhile projects readily through the processes. Again, it takes work to change people’s minds about things they really haven’t put enough thought into. It can be done, or those people can hopefully be avoided or dealt with accordingly when necessary.

Find the people who are willing to question the assumptions. People who aren’t afraid to think for themselves. Mavericks with skills to create your specific path. It takes more effort on their part, but, if you can find those souls who are willing to take on the challenges your project presents because they can see the potential rewards, you’ve found an advocate and partner willing to ride the ride right along side you.

And finally, don’t be short sighted about your project’s potential longevity. The long tail still exists. Defined as the old school understood it, the long tail is the sum of the long chain of markets that are opened up one after another during the years subsequent to a theatrical run. Every time we see the Star Wars movies playing on cable, the profits of that franchise are being added to the coffers. Anniversary editions, re-releases, retrospectives all add to the traditional long tail of a film. But don’t let the old idea wag the dog. You may need a new breed for your lovable mutt.

The new (potential) Industry models

Tying all these ideas and observations together there seems to be patterns that we need to pay attention to that just might resolve into new industry models worth pursuing.

Many paths will lead many places. There is no one, single solution for filmmakers. And that’s a good thing. As more and more new opportunities mature, more industry people will consider them legitimate paths to follow and your project can be one of those they take down those new roads. We need to be diligent to break through the old-think and pursue new ideas dependent on the unique content and audience targets the project needs.

Flexibility in allowable delivery formats will lead to more expressions of new ideas. Multi-platform or non-traditional choices, dependent on what’s best for each project, will open up possibilities never dreamed of just a few years ago. The more the industry quickly accepts and embraces those new ways to reach audiences the better we’ll be able to get fresh ideas and content to audiences ready to receive them. Don’t believe me? I predict we’re not that far away from the first big hit narrative exploration in Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR). We’ve already seen the equivalent of the Lumiere brothers’ workers leaving the factory version of such content. How long until we blow past Fred Ott’s Sneeze and find success in a full VR/AR story, well told and well received?

Flexible marketing schema is a must. There can be no more one-size-fits-all models. This will mean that marketing houses have to be more creative and pay more attention to options less trodden. And there will be failures aplenty through the growing pains in this sector. But there are new audiences out there. They will be found. And it will be realized (what some already fathom) that just because there are new audiences doesn’t mean the old audiences are disappearing. It is not, as some marketers steadfastly argue, a zero sum game. Just because a person watches films on Netflix doesn’t mean they no longer go to the cinema. (In fact the reverse is often the case, they go more often.) it does mean that the best format to present the material at hand needs to be researched and followed through on to make sure the intended audience is presented the entertainment in the medium they’d prefer.

No single, still fruitful path will be abandoned. Just as some artists still insist to shoot their works on film stock or choose black and white imagery for expression, there will still be some films where the old, tried and true paths will bare fruit. Tentpole blockbusters are nearly proven bets and if the film fits that mold, the things that worked in the past “should” still work at least to a degree. (But always keep a finger on the pulse for rumbles of change coming.)

There will always be those in power mandating the way things “are.” But alternatives always exist (and always have). Pick a decade and look at the title credits of the movies created then. You’ll see plenty of company names that do not exist today, though they ruled the box office back then. The only constant is change, and the fact that those in power never think it’ll happen to them.

As always, it depends. Be ready.

More articles by Christopher Schiller

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