The New New New Rules for a Newer Hollywood
Disruption, the Entertainment Industry, and Lessons For Everyone in Hollywood
(As you may have seen on Twitter, I’ve been busy prepping something big:
And that’s not even including my research into all things WGA/AMPTP! So, in lieu of a “Most Important Story of the Week” article today, I have this deep dive into the history of Hollywood and “disruption”, with strategic takeaways at the end. Enjoy!)
The business word of the 2010s was “disruption”. AirBNB disrupted the hotel industry. Uber and Lyft disrupted taxis. Amazon kept disrupting retail sales.
And streaming disrupted the entertainment industry.
From our current position, the disruption wrought by the 2010s—driven by digital technology, including the internet and smart phones—seems unprecedented. Has any decade ever had more disruption?
Not to be that “guy”, but…the entertainment industry has had way more turmoil and disruption in the past.
Heresy, I know! But I come from a good place. As a long time critic of media’s “negativity bias”, we really should focus more on the positive. Of course, I’ll do that in my own “EntStrategyGuy” way. My positivity will manifest in two ways:
1. Finding solutions for problems
2. Adding doses of realism to percolating negativity.1
That’s my mission today. Entertainment IS being disrupted. But is this era’s disruption any worse than the past? Not really. Maybe that won’t make you feel much better—you still have to deal with the disruption after all!—but at least you’ll know you’re experiencing the latest in a series of disruptions that have always disrupted Hollywood.
As the cliche goes, change is the only constant of life. And I want to analyze that change.
The inspiration for today’s article came over the holidays when I was looking up comps for Avatar: The Way of Water. In 2009, Avatar was China’s highest grossing film, and it made $250 million dollars. Just ten years later, Avengers: Endgame made over $620 million in China! Indeed, the top grossing movie in China of all time is The Battle of Lake Changjin, and it grossed $909 million in China alone. In the late 2000s, China box office revenue was simply part of the international box office; by the late 2010s, it rivaled U.S. domestic theatrical revenue!
That shift happened in basically the last fifteen years. And it got me thinking: fifteen years is a good time to measure disruption in an industry.
My plan today is to quickly run through the history of entertainment in fifteen year intervals, starting in 2023 and going back to 1948. At the end, I’ll have two strategic takeaways.
(By the way, that headline is sarcastic. I kinda hate articles with "the new rules" in the title, because invariably the rules last less than two years!)
2023 - Streaming is Taking Over
Before we go back, let's establish where we are: while streaming is taking market share, broadcast and cable television still has about 60% of TV usage, followed by cable television. And theatrical revenue is a $7-10 billion domestic industry, depending on whether we’re in a pandemic. In 2019, global theatrical revenues peaked over $40 billion. And 90% of Americans own a smartphone.
Now let’s go back in time...
2008 - The Peak of Traditional Entertainment: Broadcast, Cable, Home Entertainment and Theaters
If you were writing a narrative history of the entertainment industry, you could almost argue that the traditional entertainment model peaked in 2008. That’s basically the last year before streaming, internet video, and smart phones became “things”:
Netflix had just started streaming video.
Hulu had also launched, but again, who knew what Hulu was.
Facebook was growing, but had just had its IPO.
YouTube had some breakout viral videos, but few people used it regularly yet.
The smart phone debuted in 2007, but was a few years from mass adoption.
You know the other changes of the 2010s. Superhero movies fully took over the box office. Meanwhile, home entertainment revenues in this period fell off, replaced by streaming revenues (at first). Since 2008, DVD revenues are down 86%.
Looking back from 2023, disruption really does take some time. I mean, streaming only became one-third of TV usage in 2021, about a decade later. Yes, this is a rapid transition, but it isn’t flick-your-fingers-and-watch-revenue-disappear overnight.
Still, everyone reading this knows about this disruption. You probably lived through it. Let’s go back fifteen more years…
1993 - The First “End of Broadcast” TV
Now this is where things gets fun. Crazy as that sounds, arguably, the entertainment industry went through more disruption from 1993 to 2008 than it did from 2008 to 2023! Seriously, these following things didn’t really exist circa 1993:
The cable new wars between Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. (OJ Simpson’s car chase into the Monica Lewinsky scandal basically created that audience.)
HBO original TV shows weren’t a thing yet. Those came with The Sopranos/Sex and the City double-whammy at the end of the 1990s.2
Broadcast was still king, by a wide, wide margin. Cable TV barely had any original scripted programming, consisting mostly of reruns.
The DVR didn’t exist! TiVo invented that.
Reality TV wasn’t a thing! That came with Survivor in the 2000s.
Again, no China box office revenue at all.
Miramax was just inventing/perfecting the Oscar marketing campaign. And the “independent film world had just started blossoming.
The internet, as we know it, didn’t exist. (Some college professors sending emails barely counts.)
VHS tapes sold well, but DVDs would come in a few years, and then explode in popularity. Then digital sales came shortly after in the 2000s.
Music saw the introduction of mp3 file sharing/stealing, iTunes, and the iPod.
Video games went from kids toy to an adult past time. The Playstation, N64 and other fifth generation consoles were still a couple of years away. Then the early 2000s saw the rise of online gaming, a huge shift.
Meanwhile, not every movie was a remake or sequel or reboot. That would come in the 2000s.
What was bigger, going from "no internet to internet” or “internet to more internet/smartphones”? I’d argue the former. Plus, content really evolved over this fifteen year period. Meanwhile, cable had been growing throughout the 1980s, but it kept growing from 1993 to 2008, and cable networks became became the cash cow driving entertainment industry profits in the 2000s.
Here’s the thing, though, the 1978-to-1993 era might give the 1993-2008 period a run for its disruptive money.