Super Bowl and the Entertainment 'Event' Siren Song
Yet, one place exists here that's found an off-ramp in the marketing hellscape
Let’s tackle what just happened and what’s happening in three parts today:
I. The NFL Keeps Blazing a Trail
So in this time of media balkanization, we have a new champion, setting a new record of the most people ever drawn to watch one event at one time, breaking its own record of last year.
This isn’t supposed to happen as we all go to our corners and flee from anything smacking of monoculture, and yet, there it is — the NFL vacuuming up more of the nation’s attention every year.
So is there hope for us yet? Does this mean entertainment can be saved — if we can learn from the Visigoths of sport?
A few thoughts off the bat:
The requisite annoying caveats here are that, sure, it’s the biggest number ever, but the nation also has 140 million more people than it did in 1969 for the moon landing. They also recently changed the way sports viewership is measured, including out-of-home viewers, thereby inflating the number.
From one perspective, of course the biggest franchise in TV history is unscripted. It’s a lot simpler to make an event out of something that is actually an event — occurring in real-time and space, with the outcome uncertain.
Not every event, though, is destined to become a phenomenon. (See: Golden Globes, The). But the Super Bowl has sort of become a meta-event, sucking in all other cultural phenomena into its orbit. The bigger it gets, the more every star, every major company, every musical sensation has to be a part of it — making the collective orbit even bigger.
So where does all that leave us? The Super Bowl has become an interstellar force whose gravitational pull is so strong at this point, composed of, for starters, the immensely successful NFL season. The physics of it prevent anyone from imitating it.
The Super Bowl’s pull can even jujitsu the entire culture war. Try starting a fight about it: That just makes more people watch. The fandom is so unshakable that those who come after it looking to stir up trouble are themselves diminished.
I wish that happened everywhere all the time, but I can’t think of another single place where it does. The Oscars, of course, is the good counter-example of an event diminished with every shot taken at it, while its foes grow in stature from their success. Probably because the Academy is so timid and reactive it’s incapable of shrugging them off. (Think about how no one even really remarks on the dissonance between the Chiefs arrowhead logo and historic “tomahawk chop” appearing in proximity to the league’s “End Racism” end zone marking, or how much value the NFL has garnered from its relationship with Jay Z. And remember CTE?)
Though this new Oscar promo rolled out last night does give one hope:
Which is to say, whatever hunger there is in the ether for mega-events is largely absorbed by this one... until something breaks it up.
II. The Events Trap
So, if we want to get back to massive audiences, all we have to do is be the Super Bowl. Or do another Barbenheimer. Or a Game of Thrones finale. How hard is that?
Every time there’s one of these mega-events, pundits declare that the path to restoring the monoculture has been found. But of course, what these breakthrough, memed, mega-events have in common is that they are all Black Swans leaping out of nowhere, springing from the chasms of social media.
Not every movie release has to become an event on the order of the Super Bowl to make some money. This is what defined the last 15 years of moviemaking, at least, with everything transmogrifying into a cinematic universe, preferably with capes and CGI. Anyone But You, to name the latest example, created a sensation after merely becoming a medium-sized event. Poor Things has been doing business by becoming an event to the film intelligentsia, and spilling over to the adjacent film curious.
But on a smaller scale, the process is the same — be something unique and hope that lightning strikes. That is where our entertainment culture is today, and it’s a high bar. Because you can’t depend on an existing ecosystem of people who regularly go to the movies, or even people who regularly check out new TV shows. Every audience needs to be created from scratch out of the void.
And the problem is, not everyone clears that bar. There are plenty of movies and shows — even really good movies and shows these days — for which lightning doesn’t strike.
III. Can Entertainment Opt-out. Yes
The week before last, Netflix’s content boss, Bela Bajaria, declared in unmistakable terms that the dream of the service riding into save theatrical is dead and it’s not coming back. Not now, not ever.
First of all, when we compare Netflix movies that come and go without a trace to Barbenheimer, we’re comparing the best results of theatrical against the worst results of streaming.
Owen Gleiberman’s recent piece, which I referred to last week, talks about breakout Sundance darlings like last year’s Fair Play that came and went on Netflix attracting barely a ripple of “buzz” and that certainly never became an “event.”
That may well be, but the other side of that is — was a theatrical Fair Play really an inevitable box-office sensation? Maybe with a $30 million marketing push, but then you just bet $30 million on lightning striking Fair Play and more than doubled what you need for that film to break even.
We’ve all played the game of listing the Netflix films we’ve never heard of, but how about some of the A24 releases from way back last year? Still nourishing memories of Sharper? How about Problemista or Showing Up? You Hurt My Feelings is a lovely film from Nicole Holofcener, one of the most talented humanist indie directors of our time, starring perhaps the most gifted comic actress of our day, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. How many of you got sitters to go out and see that? Occupied City ringing bells for you? This all from just one year in the life of the vaunted, can’t-miss, indie machine of A24.
On the other hand, to take one example — Netflix’s May December was watched by just about everyone in indie-film-watching demos. Some loved it, some didn’t, but it provoked genuine conversation and debate.
And perhaps, despite all our jeers and doubts, Netflix has found an offramp from the chase for monoculture.
We’re all been comparing Netflix releases to theatrical release as though everything put out there is equally vying for the attention of the world. But the fact is, Netflix films aren’t playing that game. They exist in a closed ecosystem where success becomes an intramural competition.
Netflix has created a world where its own Top 10 has become a significant chart, and the film and shows atop it do make some kind of cultural dent and are seen by numbers of people that few movies in the theater claim.
And I know, I’ve said it myself — putting on the TV and having something running in the background does not produce the same destination event hole in one’s psyche as does hiring a sitter, buying tickets, lining up for popcorn and sharing a moment with a room full of people.
That said, it’s not nothing. A film or show that has climbed to the top of the Netflix charts doesn’t get there without being deliberately selected by a whole lot of people. Netflix can jam Suits or its latest reality hit in front of every subscriber (and a year from now, it’ll be WWE for all), but we still have the agency to click play. We’re not wholly under the algo’s thumb.
But we’re ignoring the real problem that the Netflix ecosystem speaks to. Theatrical films are now in this place where they have to create their own audience with each film by becoming an event, because there is too little built-in recurring filmgoing audience to rely on.
Well, Netflix has answered that, by becoming essentially, TV. As Reed Hastings said they would a decade plus ago. At the time, it seemed like unhinged techie triumphalist bravado, but circa 2024, he was exactly right. That is what they’ve become. Or a utility as Scott Galloway put it.
At the Netflix event of two weeks back, Boss Bajaria pointed out that Netflix isn’t programming for any one’s taste — they are programming for the entire household’s tastes. They aren’t trying to win over one demo, or even a bunch of demos. They are winning all the demos, and creating a world where hits are an internal matter.
It’s done that and become the basic default service that for the moment.
With new releases, everyone else is trying to get people to the party.
Netflix already has them there. It just has to keep them amused enough so they stay. That does require new products, surprising offerings and not just the pickings of their output deals.
Does the Eventizing Era Spell Our Doom?
As a religious zealot on the primacy of movie theaters as a cultural force, the above gives me no pleasure. If I ruled the world, every company would have to have a theatrical model.
But the current crisis(es) here are not Netflix’s fault or problem if the legacy companies turned away from their own business.
Netflix has figured out a way around the dire edges of the marketing-release-rinse-repeat cycle. The continually growing strength of the Super Bowl shows us how awesome the winds of hype are in this era, if you can harness them. And how powerful it can be if you don’t need to.
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