The Great Production Disconnect

The divide between creatives and their audience

Global content demand is soaring, and global revenues are rising, so why do many experienced Hollywood creatives fear the future? 

The exchange of artistic works for enough value to earn a living is at the very heart of the Media & Entertainment industry. Creatives generate content. Audiences pay. Populations grow. Demographics evolve. Technology advances.

For the casual observer, Hollywood as an industry may seem to be ticking along nicely. 

According to industry analysts, revenues from paying audiences are breaking historic records on an annual basis. So too are the number of consumers seeking access to entertainment content. Advertisers are also spending more than ever before. As a global industry, Media & Entertainment is raking in the money. According to PWC, consumer spending on access to content will reach US$1.7 trillion this year. A rising trend in advertising spend is expected to reach US$1 trillion within the next few years.

There is plenty of news and information flowing to the market that would make anyone feel as if everything is generally right with the industry. To illustrate this, just look at the cleanup efforts underway on the streets of Cannes this past weekend.

The Cannes Film Festival and Marché du Film have wrapped up after two weeks of glamour in the South of France where Francis Ford Coppola has premiered his US$120 million indie, Megalopolis. The project, self-financed and 40 years in the making, from one of the most recognised film-makers on Earth, has yet to be fully embraced by US Studio distribution executives. Coppola is widely reported to have parted with his beloved California vineyards to finance the picture. The effort it takes for the legendary Coppola to sell a sci-fi epic to media executives who have made so much money from him will, inevitably, be spun as a function of the film’s marketability. But Coppola’s Megalopolis serves equally well as an analogy on the actual state of the industry he serves.

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A crowd applauding, eager for more.

Creatively Disrupting Hollywood

For the Hollywood Studios, disruption is bad; very bad. But for everyone else in the Media & Entertainment industry, it is long overdue and badly needed.  Particularly for the two most important groups:  Audiences and Investors.

The marketing acumen and established keystones of the Hollywood studios are as sturdy as ever, offering familiar fare and glamour across the world’s screens. Yet behind the scenes, there is an atmosphere of complete disarray, with post-strike-action doldrums and a general sense of doom within the content production sector globally. 

This generalised anxiety within the industry is a tell-tale sign of opportunity to professional investors, and begs two very important questions: Why? And, what to do about it?

Why just might be the easy question.

It’s All in the Delivery

The greatest performance of all time has no value at all if no audience ever sees it.

For a multi-trillion-dollar industry, that simple fact underscores the critical importance of content distribution as the commercial engine around which all other aspects of the business revolve. 

In this industry, the prevailing business model does not provide for a direct connection between the paying audience and creators of the content they consume. Over considerable time, Hollywood’s fabled studios have evolved away from artistic creation and into management, outsourcing production as a service and concentrating on control over product delivery. Like centralised retail grocers, studios have amassed vast warehouses of product for paying consumers, leaving producers with no material access to the consumer market.

It takes little time in such circumstances for consumers and producers alike to suffer, despite what seems like full grocery shelves growing stale by the day.

Notwithstanding the insistence from studio bosses that all is right in the world, the state of the industry is a dire one. So much so that leading publications have recently lamented a version of Hollywood they describe as dying, literally. 

This May’s issue of Harper’s led with an article from Daniel Bessner entitled, The Life and Death of Hollywood

Pulling the Plug

The corporate consolidation of Hollywood’s largest studios has resulted in the vast majority of commercial entertainment content being distributed in the most lucrative media markets by only a handful of publicly listed media conglomerates: Comcast, Disney, Paramount Global, Sony and Warner Bros. Discovery.

Paradoxically, the distribution and delivery of entertainment content has become more concentrated in the hands of so few companies just as technology has begun to open digital distribution channels to anyone with an internet connection. The commercial opportunities for true competition mean that the days of near monopoly by the Media Majors are numbered.

Over decades, the production and distribution arms of these Media Majors have secured the intellectual property rights to film and television titles that comprise some of the most valuable balance sheet assets available. Large content libraries have underpinned the corporate valuation for many of these companies, and now comprise the foundation for corporate strategy in the age of streaming.

This article discusses the value of intellectual property.

Intangible Matter

The Insanely Lucrative Ownership of Intangible Matter

This year alone, media executives and corporate shareholders will feast on the leftovers of more than US$2.5 trillion in annual revenues from a product literally willed into existence.

This modern studio system places the Media Majors in a powerful position vis-à-vis producers seeking to bring the creative work of writers, performers and production crew to a paying audience. Independent producers with sufficient capital support from investors can, and do, produce entertainment content regularly. Tax credits and production rebates from various locales offer some alternative commercial paper to attract lenders to many of these Indie productions. However, without the distribution and marketing power of the Media Majors, few Indie productions are seen by a large enough paying audience to generate a return on the capital invested.  

Le Marche du Film, which takes place along-side the Festival in Cannes, is where the distribution and acquisition executives meet the Indie producers with content to sell. While exciting and glamourous, the Cannes Film Festival is a brutal two weeks of make or break for many creatives. Thousands of storytellers descend on Cannes annually to congregate on the sidewalks of la Rue d’Antibes with the hope of meetings with distribution and acquisition execs in hotel rooms along la Croissette. 

The execs with actual authority from the Media Majors to “green light” a new feature film or television series are increasingly few and far between. 

In fact, the number of productions globally has fallen dramatically with little or no rebound following the end of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike actions. ProdPro reported only 313 scripted productions commencing principal photography worldwide in Q1 2024, comprised of 148 TV series and 165 feature films. According to FilmLA, Q1 2024 production in Los Angeles is 20.5% below the five year average.

“Since the strike settled, top entertainment companies have been notably absent from filming in L.A.”, writes Anthony De Leon for the Los Angeles Times

According to that report, Warner Bros. is shooting only one film in California this year. Same with Sony, out of its six films expected to be produced this year. Universal Pictures is shooting 11 films this year. None of them are expected to be shot in California. Disney expects to produce 22 live-action films this year, “roughly three of which are based in California.”

Barbarians at the Gate

It is expected that some of the highest-paid CEOs on the planet would know that an increasing number of media entrepreneurs are seeking to compete with the Media Majors. Technology has nearly eliminated the barriers to entry for digital distribution of entertainment content to growing consumer audiences demanding more of it. Add to this the fact that younger, more diverse demographics are increasingly abandoning the traditional media channels made so profitably by the Baby Boomer generation.

Old, fat and slow, the Media Majors may be no match for a new generation of content producers who are now able to distribute content directly. Advertisers are also, increasingly, targeting those younger audiences that no longer watch broadcast television and feel no need to pay for Disney+ or Netflix.

The days of the studio empire may be ending. The Roman Empire, too, was victim to its own success. As was that of the great Ghengis Khan and even of the British. Empires that fail to evolve inevitably collapse under their own weight as younger, more adaptable competitors inherit the world around them.

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The Fairytale land of media moguls

The Ether Empire: Investing in Merchants of the Tale

The world’s largest investors understand that a global industry generating multi-trillions of dollars a year with the power to shape our hearts and minds is an investment opportunity like no other.

In some respects, it seems that leadership at the Media Majors know that their days are numbered. But they are not done yet. Between now and the time it takes for entrepreneurs to build sustainable bridges between content creators and audiences, the Media Majors seem determined to squeeze every penny out of the production side of the equation and shovel money into dividends, bonuses and golden parachutes before the studio gravy-train crashes.

Those Media Majors are under increasing pressure to distribute profits to corporate shareholders just as global demographics shift away from their core business models. Instead of investing in content production that serves the demands of younger, more tech-enabled audiences, the Media Majors are delivering distributable profits to a growing population of Baby Boomers deeply concerned for their pensions (the irony would make a great film, don’t you think?). 

The notion that Hollywood could parallel the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is not new. Finding it prominently rendered to print within a well-circulated publication is. That notion rings true for many on the creative side of the industry. Megalopolis may be interpreted as a prophetic retelling. And, while Francis Ford Coppola may describe his latest film as a Socratic examination on the future of American society, it may equally serve to describe something much closer to his heart.

The disconnect between artists and their audience has proven highly lucrative to the Media Majors. Perhaps too lucrative, and for too long. Their decline and fall, however, offers the more entrepreneurial within those two separated peoples a chance for re-connection. 

The Status Quo Post

Each of the Media Majors have legacies within film and television production with long-standing mottos such as “ars gratia artis”, an even older Latin phrase meaning the beauty of art is reason enough for pursuing it, or “art for art’s own sake”. 

For today’s creatives, this artistic calling remains a core principle behind a career choice to pursue content production as writers, directors, musicians, actors and producers. A magnificent army of highly-skilled technicians, carpenters and process managers has arisen over the past century as production crews that transform stories into experiences for audiences everywhere. These experiences, in the form of content, are the product now sold to Hollywood as the traditional symbiotic commercial partner to the artistic side of the industry. Content production has built media hubs around the world into key centres of economic development centred around the notion that Hollywood is more than a physical location in Los Angeles County, California.

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Creatives Can Beat the Studios

Creatives Can Beat the Studios at Their Own Game: And Should

But will they?  The only obstacle to equity in the Media & Entertainment industry is a mindset carefully cultivated by decades of corporate control that is today a mere illusion.

Wherever they are found, these professional creatives and production crews tend to be organised as a cottage industry of solo entrepreneurs and SMEs that is entirely dependent upon the disproportionate bargaining power of publicly listed media conglomerates organised as a cohesive media-industrial complex that effectively stands between content creators and consumer audiences. 

The end of that hegemony results from others offering something better. Technology provides the process. Production crews provide the product. Audiences and Advertisers are ready to pay. Investors are looking for leaders.

Only one question remains unanswered: What to do about it?

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