Die, Hollywood, die!

Paul Graham’s Y-Combinator request for startups that will kill Hollywood has opened up a can of exploding radioactive mega-worms – and this time, they’re angry. In the wake of the Internet industry’s fight against SOPA and PIPA, he posed the problem:

The main reason we want to fund such startups is not to protect the world from more SOPAs, but because SOPA brought it to our attention that Hollywood is dying. They must be dying if they’re resorting to such tactics. […] How do you kill the movie and TV industries? Or more precisely (since at this level, technological progress is probably predetermined) what is going to kill them? Mostly not what they like to believe is killing them, filesharing. What’s going to kill movies and TV is what’s already killing them: better ways to entertain people. So the best way to approach this problem is to ask yourself: what are people going to do for fun in 20 years instead of what they do now?

Cue pitchfork-wielding posts about how the studios are broken and we should be funding movies using the startup model.

In my opinion, these miss the mark in a fistful of ways.

Paul didn’t ask for new ways to make movies. He asked, what are people going to do for fun in 20 years? That’s a separate problem. Think about how storytelling has evolved through motion pictures: one-off shorts, full-length movies, talkies, serials, TV shows, video games, web shorts. Each of these advances was made possible by technology, but has art at its core. How can a connected medium like the Internet create new narrative experiences without disappearing into the mindless clicking of Zynga et al?

By the way, movies are awesome – and can’t be replaced by games. They’re ingrained as a deep part of our culture in a way that digital narratives have mostly managed when movie people get involved. (My favorite game of all time is The Secret of Monkey Island – a LucasFilm production.) Movies are also a collective experience in a way that digital culture can’t yet manage. Film nights – themed house parties where people watch a curated series of movies – are one of my favorite things in the world. The digital equivalent is probably LAN parties, where everyone has to bring their own computer and play a game together. Admittedly, that was fun when I was 15, but do you have the same conversations? Movies evolved from theater and literature – from pulpy paperbacks all the way through high art – whereas most games can still be tracked back to sports. They’re both important, but occupy different cultural niches.

Also, Raiders of the Lost Ark is five minutes shy of two hours long. Can you imagine sitting and watching someone play a game for that long? I’ve done it, and by the end of the first hour I’m usually half a Goomba jump away from going feral.

You can’t make a minimally viable movie. It’s tempting to treat a movie like a startup – and, of course, most movies are individual businesses with their own profit and loss sheets. But imagine what would happen if you tried to invent a whole plot and script based on the kinds of audience research and iterative demographic analytic analysis we all claim to practice on the web. You’d get the kind of forgettable paint-by-numbers movie that we’ve all seen a thousand times. No risks mean we never get to see anything new. (The same goes for startups, in my opinion.)

(Edit: the community over at Hacker News make an excellent point about this: that test screenings are commonplace, and that I contradict myself by saying that these methods lead to poor movies, which shows that it can be done. I guess I’m saying that movies can’t be made by lean methodologies alone.)

(A further edit: I don’t consider a low-budget movie to be a minimum viable product. This post by Anthony Panozza does a good job of explaining what the difference is, in my opinion.)

Distribution is the weakest link – and the real gatekeeper. Anyone can make a movie, especially now that cameras and professional editing suites have fallen into a price range that ordinary people can afford. The trick is getting a distributor to pick it up. Studios are legally barred from owning movie theaters; in other words, they haven’t owned the whole vertical chain since 1948. It’s distributors who ultimately control release dates and distribution, and who are blocking more innovative models from being established. These companies are the pink elephants on parade. What’ll we do?

The final reel

Movies aren’t going anywhere in the face of digital, just as novels weren’t killed by movies. The incredibly creative people who make them aren’t going away either, although decreasing technology costs mean there may be more of them. Instead, we need to look to the next new model for narrative entertainment: a kind of social experience that we can experience together, passively, holding each other’s hands and laughing at the jokes in unison. That’s the only thing that’ll really kill Hollywood.

18 responses to “Die, Hollywood, die!”

  1. > You can’t make a minimally viable movie.

    Yes, you can, and it turns out Hollywood does this frequently using minimally-viable steps: start with a treatment which is a short summary of the movie, write a script, draw storyboards, shoot test footage, and put together a trailer.

  2. Luxo Jr. was the Minimum Viable Movie that signaled Pixar’s ambitions to the world. I can remember the reaction of my graphics friends who were in attendance at SIGGRAPH the year it was shown there in the 1980s. Their reaction was similar to the reaction one has to an MVP website that feels like it will become a successful company.

  3. So create a different type of start up- Create not a studio, but a site/conduit for streaming movies created by independents. It would surely suck at first, but after a couple of Blair Witch-type movies (I hated it, but it seemed to be popular), you might gain momentum and attract some talent… There’s a move afoot to bypass book publishers, why not movie studios?

  4. not only can you fund a ‘minimally viable movie’, but you can make a feature-length animated film, release it for free, and make more money than you would have just delivering the content via the usual copyright-issue-laden distributor arrangements.


    FWIW, I think the way to crack the media empire is to target music first, then movies. There’s already enough of a foothold (and plenty of competition to go around) in the talent-production sphere to really have a breakthrough distributor that goes 100% IP-unrestricted, and really proves that the current model is broken.

  5. The difficulty of distribution is an artificially imposed one, we have the internet.
    My start up kills hollywood with free, crowd financed, open source content; and supports creators with pay a pay what you want micro-investment money model akin to how artists had patrons in the past, and upends sopa by shifting ownership of movies from individuals to their rightful owners: all mankind.

    The current movie money model:
    invest money, make movie, navigate distro, get money, fend off pirates
    My startup movie money model:
    get money, invest money, make movie, give away,

  6. I’d set up a joint github/kickstarter/stock market approach. Individuals could volunteer to do work on a project or to contribute funds for a project – whether the project is a simple audio reading of MacBeth or a full-scale interactive movie/ARG endeavor. Users could rate the contributions of volunteers, such that volunteers would earn a rating for the different types of contributions they make (e.g., writing, animations). If someone volunteered to work on a project that earned a profit they could earn a share.

    At the very least, this model should work really well during the planning, writing, and coding phases of a project. For example, it should work for completely audio works or completely animation projects. When a project gets to the point that it needs “actors” and a “set”, the project owner could choose (or set up a mechanism for others to collaboratively choose) the actors, set builders, set dressers, etc. from the volunteers through a combination of audio auditions and volunteers’ ratings. Likewise, project owners could choose which contributions to include – so a project owner starting the audio recording of MacBeth could have multiple actors do the role of Duncan and then choose which contribution to integrate. But anyone could access the contributions made by all the Duncan volunteers. Depending on the original project’s IP, then someone else could conceivably aggregate different volunteers’ contributions and do an altogether different audio recording of MacBeth.

    If a project gets large enough that it needs resources and contributions that can’t be done solely online, then they could seek funding volunteers, aka kickstarter – but with a more community feedback.

    As for IP concerns, the project owner would determine the IP of the entire project and this would be made available to potential volunteers, funders, and users. So, if there are two different sci-fi whodunits, one with an open IP project and one with a traditional IP, then there may be volunteers that would only work on one or the other, the same for funders, and the same for users.

    If studios want to get involved, they would do so in the same way anyone else would.

  7. I like your spin on the content creator stock market. The solution seems to allow copyleft vs. copyright to be voted on like everything else on a per-entity basis. Every object a business entity, is the mantra, of which shares can be bought, sold and used to compose project components, whole projects, project anthologies, or anthology collections: actors, treatments, scripts, films, directors, writers, books, musicians, songs, individual instrumental or
    vocal performances, art pieces, artists, etc. Investors can invest in any object as if it were its own stock
    with objects wrapped within complex entities recieving their due portion such that all revenue ends up in the hands of content creators and their investors.

  8. “In my opinion, these miss the mark in a fistful of ways.
    Paul didn’t ask for new ways to make movies. He asked, what are people going to do for fun in 20 years?”

    I agree 100 fold. That thread blew up with comments that weren’t addressing his remarks and I was confused as to how so many people we’re raising their pitchforks and shouting out ideas that were far from what pg was getting at.

  9. People DO watch other people play. In the computer science guild room of my university there is a TV. Its connected to couple of game consoles, and you can watch TV on it. Most of the time people rather watch others play than TV. Lot of TV shows just suck.

  10. As for the MVP, look at amazon does:

    As for a hour-long watching a friend play… I’ve been to Wii Parties, where friends were playing various games, and other people watched them. This, arguably, can be a better experience than movies, because you shouldn’t talk during movies, while nobody minds you talking during somebody else’s play.

    You should watch out when saying “it can’t be done” 🙂

  11. “just as novels weren’t killed by movies”
    Novels are not killed by movies because movies were more expensive and scarce. If you would have access to a unchopped (enough length with enough details) cast of a novel done by someone with a richer imagination than yours, done with tools that offer unlimited (technical) expression of everything a narrator could describe in a novel, would you still choose the novel? What advantage would hold a novel over a richer information content medium (like 6D for example) in order to survive? For one reason, novels weren’t killed by movies till now because, like I said, movies were (still) scarce – a subject prone to change. And for another reason, literature (and reading – aka “literature consumption”) still benefits from strong PR support (because of nostalgia or business interests I guess) that points out the (former) limitations of cinematography.

  12. > Movies are also a collective experience in a way that digital culture can’t yet manage

    “Collective experience” is the last phrase I would use to describe the modern moviegoing experience. True, movies used to be part of our cultural narrative, but that was 25+ years ago, back before multiplexes with 20+ screens made for smaller audiences (read, “less chance you’d see someone you knew”), and before loud, obnoxious pre-show ads made it impossible to talk to the few people around you. Add to this the insulting prices of concessions, and the only thing “communal” anymore is the shared feeling of having just stepped out of the same prison shower. 😛

  13. We also believe that distribution is the weakest link. At NuFlick we are testing the crowd option, crowd distribution in this case. So far it has been working pretty well, people support only movies they like. It’s important to notice that the movies are free to watch.

  14. I’ve experienced quite a few games that were considerably more intellectual than the vast, vast majority of movies out there. (I’d say all, but I haven’t seen all.)

  15. Big business relies on non-renewable resources. Say bye-bye in 100 years or less! And hello to a cleaner, healthier world, and hopefully media arts that predate the printing press when profits from duplication wasn’t as easily accomplished and there weren’t as many stupid gazillionaires running around trying to control the populace.

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