AND THEN THERE WERE FIVE

FROM TODAY’S ANKLER:

The good news is, after a hundred years of showbiz, Disney has repealed the Goldman Law.

For a century now, we’ve been governed by one immutable principle – that Nobody Knows Anything, eventually codified by William Goldman.

The Goldman Law does not refer just to the notion that we’re overseen by clueless venal con artists looking for a quick score and to cash out (although that’s often also the case). The principle invokes the essential nature of entertainment, which is perhaps the one product in the world where novelty is the only essential ingredient.

If you’re in the food business, innovation is a constant, but more or less, you know that five years from now, people will want their sandwiches to look like sandwiches and their tacos, still to be, with tweaks and refinements, tacos.

In the petroleum industry, people may want cleaner fuel, cheaper fuel, but basically you know they are going to want the stuff they put in the car to do the basic job of making it go.

In the tech world, innovation these days is mostly about finding better ways to sell us and connect us with things that we’ve wanted forever – like rides to places and cheaper sweaters.

In entertainment, we know people will look at screens. We can take a good bet that stories of humans connecting with other humans will play a big part in what they look at. Beyond that, about what they’ll be looking at in five, ten years, we know absolutely nothing. The only sure bet is it won’t be a bit like what they are watching today.

Stories are eternal, but modes of storytelling begin to go sour the minute they hit the shelf.  Fellowship of the Rings is not an iteration on TitanicTwister is not the update of Beverly Hills CopGame of Thrones is not the latest download of Friends.

Which is why for a century now, since there is no knowing what people will watch, we’ve had a basic formula of you make a bunch of stuff, spread yourself wide enough to hope some hits come out of the process, and the hits will pay for the flop.

For the monopoly-minded culture of today’s tech driven economy, however, that is a very unsatisfying answer. (It’s been an unsatisfying answer for other business-people who came to Hollywood before, which is why our ultimate failsafe has been other more glamorous, exciting incentives that make this a place where you just want to pour in your money.)

So for the first time in half a century, Hollywood is about to be minus one studio.

The hills are alive with takes. (I particular enjoy Rich Greenfield on why this actually good for Netflix: (Disney wastes a year in acquisition red tape + consolidation planning + Netflix can buy Century City).

For Rupert, less enthralled with the glamour then with empire building, the big-spending insanity of the movie business has never been a happy place. These days, as the film game is markedly less secure than its normal rickety state, he’s presumably having that much less fun. Passing along this business to his still-finding-their-way offspring at a time when film and TV’s As We Know It’s long term survival is in question has got to have a man reaching for his secret Master of the Universe blend Mogul-strength Tums Ultra.

And just as he’s mulling where all this leaves his legacy, IP Bob Iger comes along and offers him $50 billion, a giant premium on a company whose movie business struggles has made just over one billion this year.  A titan’s kids could open a lot of wildlife retreats, or fund a new eco-colony on Mars with $50 billion.  Legacy solved!

For IP Bob however – the presumption is that he’s doing this in preparation for the final conflict with Netflix.  IPB is, however, pathologically risk averse. His entire giant product-lines system is a jury rigged contraption to let him avoid the mess of movie making.

And he’s been amazingly successful at that, having entrusted the line to tribal chieftains who have delivered gravity-defying execution.

So why muddy up that lovely pipeline with a studio whose record isn’t bad, but isn’t the batting 1.000 Disney standard either?  You want their library for your service: what with the plummeting demand for old stuff. IPB could probably license the entire Fox collection for a handful of Matterhorn line Fast Passes.

Looking towards the coming Netflix showdown would suggest he needs to gather together as much stuff as he can and Fox has a basket of odd networks that could swim around in a basket with Disney’s networks.  How does FX fit in a service with Doc McStuffins?  Who knows? But Netflix has managed has swallow the world by somehow making Adam Sandler fans fit under the same roof as people who like glacially paced ambiguous Brit Marling dramas.

The basic conflict that IPB has given no guidance on remains unaddressed here: how will the networks feed into the new streaming service without just cannibalizing their cable audiences? Is he going to strip Doc McStuffins or American Horror Story from their networks to make them streaming goliath exclusives?  Or is he going to launch the service just with a bunch of old episodes of the same?  Giant questions TBD, and as Rich Greenfield points out, a lot of that decision time over the next year or three, as Neflix grows and grows, will be spent dealing with the myriad implications of this move.

Another possibility, perhaps more in keeping with modern corporate thinking: when you consider how contrary a “throwing everything into the barrel” perspective is to the six-films-a-year philosophy currently ruling Disney – maybe this is just about taking Fox off the board and clearing the field.  One-fifth, twenty percent, of your competition gone in a flash of lightning. The stuff that has a place you can keep, the rest need trouble you no more.

It’s a freak of nature, that Hollywood has been ruled by a sextopoly for a hundred years and providing continuing competition in the world’s most fluid field. No other industries have survived with a full half-dozen roughly equal competitors jointly dividing the baby for a century.

But now that’s over. The owners of Sony and Paramount in particular have got to be looking ahead at their slates for the big hit that drives up the asking price and lets them head for the hills while the heading is good.

What’s the world of just, say, three studios, look like. An Ankler friend had this insight:

The downside is that we move purely to an extreme tentpole world.  The only movies that make sense for these gigantic companies are the ones in which there is potential to make around nine figures for each at bat.  Netflix shows what happens when theatrical release is gone for the movies in the middle. Is the Disney of the future going to have the patience or bandwidth to nurture Shape of Water or Three Billboards, or take a risk on the ones that don’t make it – Birth of a NationPatti Cakes? Do all of these movies now go straight to their streaming service and the way of Okja?  Even larger budget fare like the movies Stacy made at Dreamworks are lost in this system.

The way of the tech world has been to consolidate all assets into as close to the top of the pyramid as you can winnow to. Their mythology of this is putting all the power in the hands of a benevolent Steve Jobs who will bestow on us all wonders the likes of which we never dared dream. In reality it ends up just as often looking like a hyped-up bro like Travis Kalanick dynamiting an industry just to get to watch the implosion. The path to tech’s happy place generally involves taking an atomic bomb to the middle tiers of any profession, leaving nothing but a few godlike Super-Execs and odd-job, freelancers at the bottom.

So combine the Disney Big IP vision with the tech dream of super-data telling the leaders exactly what the world needs, delivered via the new streaming service, and you have a very different kind of industry ahead, particularly if its in the hands of say, two or three companies instead of six plus.

And maybe that would be hard to argue with, if it worked. If the Executive Management Brilliance and Big Data could deliver a world where all we need is five or six movies a year that everyone sees, and we can all be happy with just that.  Because there’s nothing easier to predict that the public’s entertainment desires years in advance!

Decimating three-quarters of the industry to put all our eggs in one or two basket: what could possibly go wrong?

ALSO IN TODAY’S EDITION!

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  • KUDOS CRASHER: THE WALKING THREAD!
  • TIME TO POP THE CHAMPAGNE CORKS AT WARNERS!
  • MEET THE DISASTER ARTISTS’ 22 PRODUCERS!
  • GOLDEN GLOBES NOMS: SNUBS AND SCHLUBS!

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