The New (Entertainment) World

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"Nobody knows anything." That's the line lifted from William Goldman's 1983 Hollywood memoir adventures in the screen trade that has famously come to describe the entertainment industry. It's become a cliché, but it's a cliché, of course, because its true. And if it was true then and it was imagine how true it is now, as the entertainment industry does the herky jerky into a wildly uncertain future. I thought I'd outline some of the terrifying thoughts that are going through the heads of show biz bigwigs as they go back to work in the new year.

2009 was a giant year at the box office, but what a truly weird year it was. Sure, most of the big sequels and comic book movies made money no surprise there. But so did movies that came out of the blue, like The Blind Side and The Hangover.

There are surprise hits every year, but even a Quentin Tarantino movie made money, for God's sake. How crazy is that?

Meanwhile, movies that banked on big stars wildly underperformed -- Land of the Lost, Duplicity, State of Play, Pelham 1-2-3 -- I could go on, but let's not.

And then there's James Cameron's Avatar, which just passed the billion-dollar mark. An amazing number, but Avatar isn't exactly a business model. Hollywood can't live on a ginormous hit once a decade. And if the studios chase the success of Avatar, they're libel to throw a lot of bad money after good. They have strong motivation to want these kinds of movies to succeed. After all, effects spectacles set in virtual worlds make those troublesome writers and expensive A-list actors virtually obsolete.

Figuring out what will bring audiences into theaters has always been a challenge, but now on top of that the business behind the movies is getting a whole lot more complicated as well.

The outside financing that the studios have become addicted to has slowed down to trickle. Meanwhile, the studios and the theater chains are girding their loins for a battle over release windows. The studios are threatening to release movies in the theaters and on DVD, on cable and video on demand pretty much at the same time. And if that happens, of course, the theaters are going to suffer. I promise you, they will not go quietly into that good night.

Unlike steady box office receipts, network TV ratings continue to decline. Like the movie studios, the TV networks continue to have a hard time figuring out what people want to watch. But in the age of DVRs and TV anywhere and iPhones, they also have to predict how and where people want to watch stuff and how to make them pay when they do. Freed somewhat by the imminent collapse of their business model, the networks have been experimenting. Leno in prime-time was the highest profile of these experiments, and it has proved to be disastrous.

A lot of TV's digital experiments like Hulu and possible changes in movie release windows are being motivated by the impending arrival of the digital convergence; that is, one-stop shopping for all our movies, TV and music. If there's one-stop, there's one bill, and whoever has the direct relationship with the end consumer controls the entertainment world.

So who will it be? The people who make the product? The people who own the pipes? Or the people who make the technology we get at Best Buy? Maybe it will be Best Buy, or Apple?

Of course, what is merely entertainment for us pays the rent for a lot of other people. And while the entertainment business morphs into what it will be next, people with workaday jobs are suffering. As usual, there's no need to hold a fundraiser for the people at the top. For instance, a lot of those big name agents who got fired in the William Morris/Endeavor merger? Many of them have signed consulting deals with you guessed it the new company, WME Entertainment.

Which just goes to show you, the more things change, the more they'll stay the same. It seems that more than one cliché fits the bill in Hollywood.

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's Business Brief or subscribe to the podcast at For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman