​Can tech save entertainment — from itself?

News & Politics

Not many people think of Larry Ellison, the irascible scion of tech giant Oracle, as a media mogul — much less a Hollywood heavyweight. But with his son David’s rise to head Paramount on the heels of a deal merging his Skydance Media production studio with Paramount, the elder Ellison now counts his second major family foray into the belly of the corporate cinema beast.

His first, by way of daughter Megan’s once white-hot Annapurna Pictures, drew him in deeper than, no doubt, he’d planned. After an extraordinary spate of acclaimed hits — including some, like “Zero Dark Thirty,” that put the company into an intimate, if temporary, relationship with deep state image shapers — Annapurna began bleeding cash on underwhelming films. In 2018, with the numbers in the tank and top brass racing for the lifeboats, Larry stepped in to right the ship.

Since then, the whole film and television industry has been turned upside down. A bitterly ironic casualty of the revolutionary policies so many celebs and execs fanatically support, or supported, Hollywood still hasn’t recovered from the corporatist consolidation, COVID-era lockdowns, BLM-era wokeficiation, and #MeToo-era virtue-signaling that pushed so many Americans away from the comforting and escapist entertainment fare generations had grown up on.

But what Hollywood wants to blame for its woes is technology: tech that scared the unions into mounting the strike from hell and tech that forced the industry out into the deep waters of streaming, where outsiders like Netflix and Amazon dominate but nobody really knows how to make money. It’s tech that turned teens into small-screen consumers with the cultural memory of a goldfish, squandering years of prime entertainment obsession on TikTok instead of the greatest films and shows in history — the pattern seemingly set by Spotify, where net listens overwhelmingly belong to an elite group of all-time most popular acts.

Worst of all, tech has put Hollywood in the deeply unwelcome and foreign terrain of unpopularity, both internal and external. Inside the tent, writers hate the push to automate development and scripting in accordance with the new “content creation” ethos; producers hate the conglomerates’ penchant for simply canceling completed films that the computers say are a greater cost liability released than written off as a loss; creative executives feel set up for failure, pressured to spend until something hits or until they lose their job on their first flop. Then there’s the identity politics: Insiders know woke flicks and girlboss slop struggle, yet whichever way they turn for alternatives, some aggrieved group will drag them on socials.

And outside the industry, consumers are skeptical, fatigued, and hungry for soulful, normie fare that Hollywood seems to have lost the ability to deliver. Theaters are now increasingly screening old classics, and some maverick outfits with a conservative or Christian bent are landing a hit or two here and there, but the public at large, which still relies on visual narratives more than books or computers to make sense of their place in the unfolding world, needs more.

All told, the entertainment industry appears to be ripe for “disruption” of the type that tech has become so stereotypically good at producing … except for the fact that tech has already done this, and the situation seems to be more at an impasse than ever. Some insist that AI has already solved this problem, pointing to recent leaps in prompt-and-automate computer animation, which allegedly will become cinema-quality within a handful of years. But if OpenAI’s business model is any indication, all the best advancements will be sold or licensed to the same managerialist behemoths whose mergers and acquisitions have made them too big to win at human scale.

The push toward gigantism is afflicting even more nimble companies that should know better. A24, which found success with smaller, cooler, more recognizably human films, recently seized on the chance to scale up with a big influx of cash and a seemingly bolder business plan — pivot more resources into more popular “genre” fare, inject its special sauce of edgy aesthetics and artful chops, and profit. Alas, its first big swing — an ambitious TV series spinning the Friday the 13th intellectual property into a sprawling origin story linking the franchise’s milestone films into a single tale — is on the brink of disaster, over budget, under-scripted, and the blame game in full swing.

What’s a tech-monied movie mogul to do? It’s comforting to some to think this moment shows that, culturally, only digital “tech” can save us from televisual “media,” and comforting to others to think the reverse. But for ordinary Americans, and extraordinary artists, the truth is that oversized companies of either type are the problem — at least until some of them can prove they understand that the humane genius for soulful art grows from the soil up, not from the top down in a lab. If techies and their heirs can see that, they’ll soon sweep legacy Hollywood aside. If they don’t? The future of video art will belong to the people.

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