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Impressions of “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies,” by Ben Fritz

North Korea, access journalism, and the DVD are quite the combination.

Following Sony pictures airing the comedy “The Interview,” in which hapless American journalists assassinating North Korea’s dictator, the communist regime responded by weaponizing investigatory journalism. Hackers obtained access to the internal emails from Sony Pictures, and these were released on the internet. As North Korea hoped and expected, Sony needed secrecy to provide the impression of a well-run company. For years semi-professional journalists on YouTube have used the emails to dissect and explain the cinematic choices coming from Sony. These citizen journalists have focused primarily on the fan experience, such as these investigations into the production of Men in Black International:

Ben Fritz The Big Picture is the work of a professional journalist also using the North Korea hack of Sony. But he appears to have combined this information with access journalism. Big Picture is obviously composed of different chapters, each essentially a feature article, The chapters are intentionally flattering to their subjects, which can read as incoherent (the same individuals are described as heroic leaders and neurotic failures in different chapters) if the method of composition is not understood.

Behind the chapters lay a story of the collapse of the Hollywood “mid-budget” movie, the sort of film more expensive than an Indie movie, much cheaper than an action blockbuster, and of the production value of “Rain Man,” “Shakespeare in Love,” or “A Beautiful Mind.” The collapse of this is blamed on the DVD, streaming services, and the perfection of the “superhero” movie.

The DVD, a thinner, cheaper, and higher quality replacement to the VHS tape allowed studios to sell entire TV seasons for an affordable price, as well as sell older films for lower prices which would not have been profitable in the VHS era. The short-term effect of this was clearly positive, with increased revenue from both TV series and older films. The cumulative effect was to alter the market for TV series, as narrative-driven shows (effectively, long movies) could be watched and enjoyed in the context of a complex plot and deepening character development, unlike older shows (Seinfeld, Star Trek) which could largely be watched out of order. Likewise, by producing sources of film revenue not related to new films, the DVD could mask secular declines in the viability of the mid-tier film business. (Disney)

Streaming services increased the attack by further accelerating the convenience of watching TV shows as if they were long movies (through “binge” watching), combined with a targetted decapitation of studio talent. Sony’s focus on mid-budget movies proved particularly painful, because of the competition from these new shows combined with Netflix outbidding them for their core stars, the aging celebrities Adam Sandler and Will Smith.

To this is a fundamental transformation of the box office into a focus on superheroes. The Disney purchase of Marvel and its cinematic universe seems to have been effective beyond all expectations. More so than the purchase of Pixar and LucasFilm (which simply transformed the ownership of profitable studios), Disney with Marvel has centered branding away from a studio or a star to a cinematic universe. Thus, Ed Norton could be replaced by Mark Ruffalo as The Incredible Hulk, signifying a dramatic shift in bargaining power from stars to studios.

Fritz does not speak about the intersection of these themes much, but it makes me think the emergence of streaming service created long-format television shows are nearly a perfect recipe for the destruction of mid-market movie studios. On the other hand, attempts by mid-budget studios to repurpose Cinematic Universe stars for their own purposes – such as Sony’s disappointing “Men in Black International” featuring Thor Ragnarok stars

In terms of books, the best comparisons to The Big Picture would be Bob Iger’s memoir of his time at Disney, The Ride of a Lifetime, and Reed Tucker’s popular history of the comic book industry, Slugfest. Big Picture amplifies the themes in these books while providing multiple behind-the-scenes perspectives that those books leave out. While I initially thought Fritz was just using Iger’s book as a source, he included detailed notes that placed Iger in a less flattering light, implying he once again had inside access for his writing. Likewise, my greatest gripe in Slugfest is how distant the narrative there was from the economics of the business – that certainly is not the case with The Big Picture!

But even better is a free YouTube channel. “Midnight’s Edge” has run for years a series of stories based on the Sony leak, but without Ben Fritz’s pivot to access journalism. The result is less comprehensive, focusing primarily on Sony, but more in-depth and vivid.

As I wrote these impressions, the news broke that Discovery will buy Warner Brothers, HBO, and the rest of the old Time-Warmer from AT&T. While AT&T/Warner Brothers have paid much more for content for its HBO streaming service, Discovery has acquired 2/3rds of the subscribers at a much lower price by focusing on reality (“factual”, or “unscripted”) television – which was not even mentioned in The Big Picture. With the rise of streaming services, it appears that reality/factual/unscripted entertainment will have a material effect on Hollywood. But this is not discussed or even imagined in Fritz’ book

Or, you can just read the original sources. Wikileaks Sony Hack archive is still online, with everything from Amy Pascal’s trouble with her iPad to an Excel file of Adam Sandler’s opening weekends is all there.

I read *The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies* in the Audible edition.

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