That was the year that Netflix announced that it was spending $18 billion on content.
In the aftermath, Netflix lost subscribers for the first time and expects to lose millions more as its stock fell 35%. The dot com giant lost, but so did its rivals. Disney+ lost billions, HBO Max is cutting back programming, and so are most others, including the ‘N’ in the FAANG oligarchy.
Netflix has been humbled, and is shedding woke programming and exploring an ad-supported tier, but the push by Hollywood studios to build rival streaming platforms to those of Netflix and Amazon by investing heavily in original content gated by subscriptions has set a lot of money on fire without achieving platform independence. Everyone lost, but Big Tech still runs the show.
Streaming subscriptions are replacing movie theaters and television networks. And that also means that Silicon Valley is replacing Hollywood. Netflix, Amazon, and Apple demonstrated that they had the capital to dominate the entertainment industry. This isn’t good news for the culture.
While old Hollywood had a reputation for being liberal, many studio bosses and producers were actually fairly conservative and movies were the products of a tug-of-war with more liberal writers, actors and directors. Movies had to be able to play in theaters across the country and serve as broad an audience as possible. Movies of that era might be homogenized, but they were less likely to openly offend or antagonize audiences. Movie stars were expected to at least pretend to lead moral lives and keep industry decadence locked away behind closed doors.
The partnership between Eastern European Jewish immigrant studio bosses who had started out, like Samuel Goldwyn, as a glove salesman, William Fox, a garment industry foreman, the Warner brothers, the children of a shoe repairman, and the much more urbane British and American talent turned the film industry into a cultural touchstone and made its products part of our national identity.
Critics rightly pointed to the cultural impoverishment of making movie theaters into the hub of our culture, but they could not have imagined what was to come.
The fall of the studio system overturned the industry’s innate conservatism and while it ended many abuses and unleashed the talent, the end result was that movies became increasingly at odds with the values and morals of the American public. The decline of the networks likewise unleashed cable and then streaming programming that was oriented culturally leftward..
Rather than open up a range of programming targeting untapped segments of the public, Peak TV aimed for the same upscale urban multicultural audiences that the entire industry is aimed at. If the ideal wisdom of the marketplace existed, a world in which untold billions were spent to produce 559 scripted shows, should have produced a wave of conservative programming.
It did not.
The entertainment industry’s programming has been most conservative when control was consolidated by studios and networks. It is least conservative when it is driven by “talent”. Consolidated entertainment has at least tried to make programming for a broader country while industry disintegration has made programming more woke, more radical, and more hateful.
The Netflix revolution, in which endless amounts of investor cash were burned to lure talent, made for some of the some ‘woke’ programming imaginable. At the peak of Peak TV, Netflix had not only successfully mainstreamed radical sexual and gender identity, but was actively pushing sexual content involving children from Cuties to Big Mouth. Freed from a business model other than the dream of endless growth, Netflix burned billions of dollars and our culture.
Wokeness precedes broke-ness. But the story of Peak TV is also one of cultural brokenness.
Netflix pursued original programming by trying to make it as edgy as possible. In response, Hollywood studios revived old intellectual properties and tried to make them edgier with racial recasting, gender-swapping, sexual politics, and general social justice themes. The giant dumpster fire of Netflix was met with a social justice Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, and DC. Anything with a known brand or IP was brushed off and given a social justice makeover.
Ghostbusters was rebooted as all-female, Doogie Howser, M.D. was reborn as an Asian girl, The Wonder Years was reimagined with a black family, Magnum P.I. with a Latino star, Party of Five with illegal aliens, and these and countless other examples showed that underneath all the fake wokeness, the industry had run out of original ideas.
All Hollywood could do was try to make the old tired ones seem fresh and new with identity politics remakes.
And as Hollywood’s popular culture has become American culture, and for some the quasi-faith of fandom, the decay of the entertainment industry into wokeness has devastated society.
Hollywood has come to consist of the culture championed and consumed by boomers. Succeeding generations have reworked those “intellectual properties” to make them edgier and more political, but have produced few of their own franchises. Of the top ten media franchises dominant in America, only one, Harry Potter, was created by anyone born after 1964. And J.K. Rowling is not American and was predictably canceled for insufficient wokeness.
Hollywood is Joe Biden making TikTok videos. It’s an industry that was once creatively revolutionary, but now only puts on an appearance of aspiring to a political revolution. As long as the revolution doesn’t interfere with its tax credits and Chinese box office. Behind the wokeness is a brutal war between agents, producers, writers, directors, and the new dot com masters of the universe, over fortunes that are both astronomical and on the verge of vanishing.
The entertainment industry was slow to adapt to the internet because it is not inventive and is incapable of innovation. Even its response to Netflix consisted of old studios trying to build their own Netflix. Political radicalism makes dinosaurs seem like they are on the cutting edge. That’s why corporate broke-ness so often follows corporate wokeness. It’s not just that wokeness is bad for business, but it often disguises a much more broken business model underneath.
Hollywood is as tied down by guilds and painstaking rules as any medieval kingdom. All it really has anymore are the intellectual properties mined by greatest generation creators marketing to baby boomers (and in some cases, boomers reworking the pop culture of past generations) that have been passed down to newer generations and laboriously reworked to be more woke.
The internet killed Hollywood, as it did so many other industries, and streaming has become its slow death, accelerated by the boom and bust economics of an unstable country and world.
Cinema made a national propaganda machine possible. The Nazis and Communists both seized on it for that very reason and regime figures like Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein were brilliant, revolutionary, and quite evil.
But it was American movies that conquered the world because they fused creative talent with American values. Hollywood is still the only national industry with the production capacity and know-how for a true worldwide reach, but its cultural impact is swiftly becoming negligible as it churns out reworked versions of the same thing.
As Hollywood dies, America and the world will be poorer for it, not for the billion-dollar woke digital cartoon factory that it has become, but for a time when a centralized entertainment industry did not have to be a mass propaganda machine feigning popular support for a regime.
That is exactly what it is now.
Hollywood’s biggest production of the pandemic year was the 2020 Democratic convention which abandoned working-class and riot-scarred Milwaukee for an entertainment industry stream. Stars in a streaming convention propping up a senile reactionary who had outsourced his future to radicals while sidelining the party’s old working-class constituency proved to be the perfect metaphor and epitaph for both the Democrats and for Hollywood.