Echoes of the fall of the studio system in journalism

Most people today think of movie studios as largely interchangeable. Who cares if the opening credits of a movie bring up the Warner Bros or Paramount or Twentieth Century Fox title card? It's a meaningless signal as to what you're going to see next. And what does it even mean, to show their logo before the movie? Ask most moviegoers and the best they can offer is that perhaps the studio put up the money (which isn't far from the truth), but most won't really have any idea.

It wasn't always this way. In the heyday of the studio system, the late 1920's through the early 1960's, if Twentieth Century Fox or MGM came up before a movie, it told you a lot about the theme, subject, tone, and style of the movie to follow. Since talent (directors, screenwriters, actors, etc.) worked for studios back then, you could often anticipate who would star in the movie, what genre it would be about, who might direct and shoot the movie, if I simply told you which studio was behind a movie. What's more, studios owned the theater chains themselves so they could guarantee distribution of their films.

As if it wasn't enough to control not just the means of production (talent) and distribution, studios faced little competition at the time from foreign movies or other forms of entertainment. The vast power they wielded wasn't all bad; the studios put out some amazing movies. They also produced a lot of dreck.

When I read about the problems facing professional journalism today, I hear echoes of the changes that led to the fall of the studio system. In 1948, in United States vs. Paramount Pictures, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled that the major U.S. movie studios had to sell off their ownership in movie theater chains. This was a boon to other studios and independent artists who didn't own their own theaters. No longer were the major studios the gatekeepers to what could get shown.

The internet, of course, had the same effect on distribution of content in journalism. No longer do major metro newspapers own de facto monopolies on what people can consume as part of their journalistic diet. In the 1960's, foreign cinema finally made inroads in the U.S. and grabbed mindshare, covering topics and themes that American studios shied away from either by choice or because of reflexive adherence to The Hays Code, which had already been outlawed in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson in 1952.

[By the way, if you've never read The Hays Code, it's worth scanning. Strands of its rigid morality still weave themselves through much of Hollywood's output today.]

Just as major studios allowed foreign movies and independent studios to take the lead on diversity in subject matter, blogs and new media sites have arisen to cover all sorts of subjects that newspapers have either never had the bandwidth or desire to cover. For any odd subject matter, I just assume there's a subreddit for it.

It's not just subject matter but form and style where old media is chasing the new. It wasn't the major newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post who leapt first into publishing blogs and listicles online as regular features. Long before old media started having their reporters on Twitter and other social media, independent bloggers were ensuring their voices could be heard on all networks online. This is hard to remember now because most of the old guard have made the leap by  now, but I remember when you couldn't find the vast majority of old media journalists on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or anywhere else.

Another common lament of journalists today is the rise in competition for mindshare. People have too many options on their phone competing with the news, and more often than not, this generation chooses Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, et al over the news.

The studios faced just as significant a competitor in the rise of television, which started to gain traction in the 1950's and 1960's (when color television was invented and went mainstream). Suddenly, people had a much broader choice of entertainment form factor. No longer was the 90 to 120 minute narrative film the primary video form factor.

It's not just about the overall package or the choice of newspaper but what's inside it that has been pushed into a bigger pool of competitionWhen I was in elementary school, my only source of much information (movie listings, comic strips, automobile reviews, stock prices) came from the Chicago Tribune. Today, specialty websites have given newspapers massive competition along every subject vertical. During WWII, many Americans got news of American troops in newsreels played before movies. Monopolies make for strange bedfellows. After television rose to prominence, newsreels and the video news function in general moved to television.

Today, I don't get movie showtimes, restaurant reviews, or stock quotes from my local newspaper. In fact, I get almost nothing from local newspapers. I'm still a big Chicago sports fan, and for many years, though I was living in other cities, I still turned to the Chicago Tribune for local sports coverage. Then the website was overrun with ads of all types and then a metered paywall and finally it became near unusable. It turns out their local coverage wasn't all that unique anyhow. Now I rely on niche blogs like Bleacher Nation to keep up with my Cubs.

The package of content in a newspaper was always somewhat arbitrary and non-personalized. What if you didn't like automobiles or business news or reviews of obscure history tomes? Too bad, you were paying for it as part of your daily newspaper (many of the subject choices in the bundle were advertising-driven, of course, as grim world and local news is not a desirable subject matter for advertisers).

This is both good—users can pick and choose their media diet!—and bad—users can pick and choose their media diet! It turns out that when people can choose what to read each day rather than have it assigned to them as one lump, they tend to lean away from a steady diet of grim world news. In fact, they want “serious news” in a much much lower proportion of their diet than traditional newspaper dole it out. Any parent knows if they let their kids choose what to eat, they'll over-index on sugar, under-index on vegetables. Buzzfeed does some really great long-form journalism, but compare their front page to that of The New York Times and you'll find a substantial difference in subject matter weighting.

Movie studios are facing a similar economic conundrum on this front. The movie studio equivalent of “serious news” is the mid-tier adult drama, many of which appeal to an increasingly narrow population of cinephiles. These types of movies tend not to travel well internationally so they can't capitalize on foreign box office revenue to help recoup their budgets. They're too expensive to make relative to their revenue; soon we may see directors of such serious fare starring in short infomercials, urging donations to protect what is in essence an endangered species.

This is exactly the brutal reality of lots of the types of serious long-term global reporting that institutions like The New York Times have long championed. I'm a huge fan of many mid-tier adult dramas, and I believe in the importance of the types of long-term reporting to society, but I'm also a fan of the free market, and both have benefitted from cross-subsidization and de-facto monopolies that have fallen away. Lamentation is not a business strategy.

You know what does travel well internationally? Superhero movies. You know what types of articles travel well through today's social networks, attracting viewers by tapping into some primal wiring in our brain? Clickbait, like listicles and photo galleries of celebrities coming out of clubs and restaurants and gyms. I'm painting with broad sweeps of my arms, but only because the broad trends are unmistakeable.

Another similarity between the fall of the studio system and the changes sweeping across journalism is the rise in power of the talent. Recall that studios once locked up talent to multi-movie, multi-year contracts. Imagine if Tom Cruise could only make movies for Warner Bros, only for their directors, only in movies by their screenwriters. That was once how Hollywood worked, and often the star didn't even have a choice of whether to take a role; it was assigned to them.

In time, some movie stars sued to get out of their onerous contracts, and today we accept that most movie talent are free agents that can pick and choose their projects. Sure, some studios still offer offices and money to producers for first look deals, but most significant talent aren't locked up. Journalism has seen the rise of power for journalists with their own following as well, with Bill Simmons and Grantland being the most prominent example (it's under the auspices of ESPN, but occasionally he gets banned from Twitter for a few days, but that doesn't detract from his stunning rise in power from the blogger Sports Guy for AOL to Bill Simmons; it's no coincidence more people refer to him by his real name now than his Sports Guy moniker).

Not every talent has the brand to pursue this strategy, but the economics for such stars are almost always better if they test themselves in free agency. Here's another though experiment: imagine I tell you you're going to see a Sony Pictures movie. Or read an ESPN article. What comes to mind? Anything distinctive or specific?

Now imagine I tell you you're going to see a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Or read a Bill Simmons article. What you anticipate is likely far more specific and vivid. Some movie studios have that distinctiveness, Pixar is always held up as the poster child for a studio whose brand still has weight as an artistic signal, but examples like that or The New Yorker, media enterprises with a distinctive house style, are the exception. It's no surprise. The role an ESPN assumes in supporting Grantland or that Dreamworks occupies with a Steven Spielberg movie is more financial than anything else.

It's not just previously established stars who have been empowered. Anyone with an internet connection can publish and distribute now, adding even more competition for old media. The cost of writing is much lower, of course, than to make a movie, but in short form video entertainment in particular, with YouTube or Vine, the need for studio support for talent has lessened.

Great movies were produced in both the heyday of the studio system and today, just as great journalism was done in the age of the local newspaper monopoly and today. I'm neither overly nostalgic for the past nor universally enthusiastic about all modern progress, and I don't get caught up in debates about the merits of the past versus the future. However, from a business perspective, nostalgia is a dangerous emotion. There are at least two ways to rage against the dying of the light, and only one of them is productive.