Last year was a bloodbath for media of all stripes. Netflix crashed, the advertising market cratered, Disney fired a CEOBob and replaced him with a CEOBob, and meanwhile, the domestic box office for films remained dormant. Outside of a handful of huge hits like Top Gun: Maverick, the movie business is struggling to get people to see original movies that aren’t just the latest installation of familiar franchises.
But one mistake that media people, like me, can often make is that we mistake current trends for permanent trends. So I thought what we’d do today is run through several predictions and provocations that I’m hearing from my friends and sources in the media and entertainment space, throw all of them at a smart media analyst, and see what they have to say about the prevailing wisdom. Today’s smart media analyst is return guest Rich Greenfield from Lightshed.
In the following excerpt, Derek asks Rich Greenfield to weigh in on the movie theater viability of prestige cinema and the quality of Disney+’s recent offerings.
Derek Thompson: OK, so Rich, here’s what I have in store for you today. I have 10 sentences, 10 I’ll call them predictions or provocations that I’m going to throw at you. I want you to tell me whether you think that statement about the future of media and tech is true or false. To be clear, if you think it’s false, I want you to tell me in very clear terms that it is false, false, false, because I don’t necessarily believe in all of these statements. They’re more just morsels that I’m getting from putting my ear to the ground or reading stuff and trying to figure out what the conventional wisdom of the media and entertainment space might be today. So let’s get ready.
I’m going to start with this. We are nearing award season, and there is an emerging theme in the media right now that the prestige blockbuster is nearly dead as a genre. You have prestige films, and then you have blockbusters. They used to be the same. You used to have things like Forrest Gump and Titanic, but now they have mostly decoupled. You look at the last few award winners for Best Picture: CODA, Nomadland. The favorites for this year—The Fabelmans and Tár—small box office, all of them. So true or false, Rich, the day has finally arrived when prestige films are no longer viable in theaters because streaming has so forever altered the face of cinema.
Rich Greenfield: I think it’s true, but I think it was already true. I think it’s been true for the last four or five years. The pandemic, obviously, I think has accelerated a lot of this transition, especially when you layer on streaming on top of the pandemic. But I think consumer behavior was already shifting away from movie theaters for all but “event films.” When you think about the films that you’re talking about, I think about a few years ago, I forget the name of the movie from Fox Searchlight, it was the fish film, right?
Thompson: The Shape of Water?
Greenfield: OK, seven people saw that film, right?
Thompson: Yeah. You, me, and five other people. Yeah.
Greenfield: Right, or Three Billboards [Outside] ... I forget what state or city it was, but like—
Thompson: Missouri, yeah.
Greenfield: Right. This has been an ongoing issue for years, and it’s I think why interest in award shows has waned as well. I think it’s a direct result. People are not seeing the movies that are winning these awards. Maybe Top Gun changes that at the Oscars. I doubt it, but we’ll see. But I think there’s been an ongoing issue where big movies that people actually see are not the ones winning awards, which is funny because when you think about what happens in TV, I think some of the biggest TV shows actually do win awards. When you think about Emmys and even Golden Globes, I do think that there is maybe not perfect correlation, but more of a correlation between those two.
Thompson: That’s such a great point. If you are a Golden Globe Awards viewer, and you look at the movies that are most nominated and you compare them to the television shows that are most nominated, you’re comparing Banshees of Inisherin, I think, as the most nominated movie. I saw it. I saw it at home on a couch that I can see from the basement that I’m podcasting with you. But then you compare it to Abbott Elementary or House of the Dragon, these are really, really popular shows that are being nominated on television for Golden Globes. You’re right, it’s an interesting division that we’re seeing between prestige in television versus film.
Greenfield: Squid Game, one of the actresses won at the Emmys this year, and that was by far the most watched series over the course of the year. Even the nominees are far more connected than what you see in the movie business.
Thompson: I have another true or false statement to throw at you. We’ve got to get through all 10 of these. True or false? We’re moving on to Disney. Disney’s number one problem in the last few years is that its movies just haven’t been good enough.
Greenfield: Well, I think that’s false. The movies have been good. I think the problem is they are less good than they were. The challenge for Disney is because they wanted to go into streaming, they ramped up dramatically everything they were doing. So instead of making one Marvel film a year, you’re making multiple Marvel films a year. Not to mention on top of that, you’re making multiple Marvel TV series a year, and you’re trying to do the same thing with Lucasfilm.
There’s a real challenge of trying to do quality and quantity at the same time at the same level. Disney’s been a company that has only historically focused on quality, far more than quantity, and now it’s trying to do both. I think it’s finding it very difficult. I do think the quality is less than it’s been, and I think that’s showing in the success and visibility. I think a lot of these Marvel and Lucasfilm TV shows haven’t really broken out the way something like Wednesday broke out on Netflix. I can’t remember a true breakout, breakout hit on Disney+, really, since The Mandalorian.
This excerpt was edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Rich Greenfield
Producer: Devon Manze