Future Tense: Are TV and Movie Studios Bound for Extinction?

Maximum PC Staff

Sixty-five million years ago, an object almost the size of Manhattan struck the Earth, punching a massive hole in the planet’s crust, close to the equator, right where the Yucatan is today.  The shock waves were so massive, they completely circled the globe, coming together again on the opposite side somewhere in India, cracking the mantle there as well, and triggering centuries of gigantic volcanic eruptions from a caldera the size of Australia.

The resulting volcanic winter shut off most of the sunlight reaching the planet’s surface, starving almost every plant of sustenance.  Most of the animals that fed on those plants died and most of the animals that fed on those animals died.  The plankton in the oceans died, the fish that fed on the plankton died, the fish that fed on those fish died.

It was the fifth great extinction and it was the end of the age of dinosaurs.  The great beasts of wonder and imagination could not survive the volcanic winters, could not survive the changes in the atmosphere, could not find enough to eat, could not adapt to the harsh new reality.

Meanwhile, those pathetic little egg-suckers, those tiny big-eyed nocturnal proto-mammalians found that they could still eke out survival in the newly darkened world and as the atmosphere slowly cleared, as the plants began to recolonize the scorched Earth, these voracious little mammals quickly colonized the daytime hours as well and eventually filled all of the empty ecological niches that the death of the dinosaurs had left behind.

Why is this important?

Well, aside from the fact that it’s a great metaphor, it’s also a life-lesson that should not be ignored.

Today, we have a different breed of dinosaurs on the planet. Studius Gigantosaurus .  Paramount, Universal, Fox, Sony, Columbia, Disney, and MGM.  And Networkus Idocius .  CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, etc.  These dinosaurs eat enormous amounts of green stuff, they produce incredible amounts of dung, and they dominate the landscape.

Unfortunately, for these dinosaurs, a massive object has struck the planet and they are walking around not recognizing yet just how much their ecology has changed.  This asteroid is the internet and it’s a lot larger than Manhattan.  This catastrophic force hasn’t just created an alternate form of distribution, it has created a whole new environment where wondrous new forms of content are inevitable.

YouTube is the obvious example.  The short video is a pernicious little egg-sucker, sucking eyeballs away from prime-time as fast as any pathetic meltdown of a sitcom star.

The short video can be funny, tragic, newsworthy, or just a piece of astonishing outrageousness. “I can’t believe I just saw that.”  A seven minute Rube-Goldberg style music video.  A 30-second clip of a ninja cat stalking the camera.  A traffic camera revealing a terrifying accident happening around a motorcyclist who misses death by inches.  A mashup of music and clips from Star Trek.  A baby laughing at ripped paper.  A shot-by-shot demonstration how Disney reuses animation from one film to the next.  Demo films of all kinds.  Instructional films.  Political statements.  Personal video blogs.  People reacting to a video of two girls and one cup.  And let’s not forget the classic Numa-Numa Guy and Chris Crocker’s plaintive cry of “Leave Britney Alone!”

All of this is possible because of the ubiquity of video cameras.  You don’t need a high-end HDTV camcorder.  Your DSLR can do HD.  Your point-and-shoot can do HD.  You can pick up a credit card-sized Flip HD-recorder for less than two benjamins.  Ohell, most smartphones even capture HD video now.  There is no escape.  If you are going to embarrass yourself in public, someone will certainly have a lens pointed in your direction.

Software has also kept up.  You don’t need Sony Vegas or Adobe Premiere Pro.  A single benjamin will get you Pinnacle Studio.  And you don’t even have to spend that much.  Microsoft’s Movie Maker is a freebie that you can download for Windows 7.

What all of this has made possible is an explosion of filmmaking by amateurs, hobbyists, and aspiring actors, directors, animators, their friends and anyone else they can con into joining the crew.  Some of the films have been beautiful examples of noir, others have been knock-down, rolling-on-the-floor, pee-in-your-pants hysterical.  Some have been dramatic, others have been surreal.  A few have been so professional, they have resulted in studio attention.  (And yes, an even greater number have been not-so wonderful.  Look up Sturgeon’s Law.)

One specific niche in this new ecology is the fan film.  Except to call them fan films is a terrible injustice.  The ones I’ve seen have been impressive.  One of the best is Troops , a mashup of Star Wars and Cops .  I’ve also seen wonderful recreations of Batman (both The Dark Knight and the sixties TV series.)  My personal favorite is Star Trek Phase II , formerly known as Star Trek New Voyages .  The production values on this recreation of the classic Kirk-Spock-McCoy series not only rival, but often surpass the original.

Okay, I’m not unbiased, but neither am I uninformed.  In the interests of disclosure, I have to state that I was on the set for the shooting of the original Star Trek series, and I’ve directed three hours of Star Trek Phase II , a near feature-length two-parter called Blood And Fire and most recently, a one-hour episode called Origins: The Protracted Man .

What startled and impressed me on the first day of shooting on Origins was the cameras we were using—or not using.

On Blood And Fire , which we shot in 2007, we used three Panasonic HBX-200 cameras.  My Sony Z1U was redundant.  On Origins , we shot the first two days with a Canon EOS 7D.  Yes!  A high-end DSLR.  It was a little spooky to look at the tripod and not see a heavy piece of equipment, but the output was staggeringly beautiful.  Unfortunately, we had to switch back to a Panasonic HPX-170, not because of any problem with the lustworthy little Canon, but because we developed a problem syncing the sound with all the other legacy equipment that had to be plugged in.

The point here is that professional-grade video is well on its way to total market penetration.  And what that means is that the line between amateur and professional video is now being straddled by a new breed of filmmaker—a new ecological niche. Therapsida invidius .

I’m not the only person who knows this.  Most of the professional writers, directors, and actors I know are well aware that there’s a whole new entertainment environment opening up, and they’re eager to get into it.  The 2007 contract negotiations of all three major entertainment guilds included rules and guidelines for internet productions.

I don’t expect the big studio dinosaurs to die.  The last time an asteroid smacked their world, it was television.  They staggered around and bellowed and grunted for a few years until they discovered they could adapt by becoming content-providers for television as well as movies.

The big studios have financial resources and distribution abilities beyond the reach of any independent filmmaker. And there will always be a market for big budget blockbuster events and even for medium and low-budget films as well.  The big broadcast and cable networks will also survive.

But the entertainment world is changing faster than the dinosaurs can comprehend, let alone keep up.  While Studius Gigantosaurus is still staggering around and grunting and dropping lawsuits here and there, something wonderful is happening beneath its feet. Internet filmmakers are the nocturnal mice in this environment.  They can go through a dozen generations of adaptation while the dinosaurs are still struggling to lay a single egg at the box-office.  The rate of evolution for the little guys is a thousand times faster.

The dinosaurs will likely stagger on, but the real future lies with the nocturnal mice who are rapidly creating a new entertainment ecology.  There are niches that they are going to grow into very quickly.  They’re going to challenge the dinosaurs.

And that’s part of why I mentioned Star Trek: Phase II .  It’s more than just a fan production.  It’s a demonstration that episodic drama on the internet is inevitable.  And when the dust from that settles, the future of entertainment will be changed forever.

What do you think?

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