Hollywood Babylon? Try Jericho, and the Walls Are Falling

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

Over the summer actor Kevin Spacey, riding high on the Emmy campaign for his Netflix series "House of Cards," made waves with a keynote speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival about the future of the medium.

A lot was said at the time about Spacey's condemnation of the traditional TV model: specifically the pilot process and distribution model that embraces old broadcast scheduling in defiance of the new reality of streaming on demand.

For my money that wasn't the most interesting part. The section of the speech where Spacey spoke of the convergence of film, television and the web was what I found the most prophetic. This can be found around the 34 minute mark of the video:

"When I'm working in front of a camera, that camera doesn't know if it's a film camera or a TV camera or a streaming camera. It's just a camera. So I predict that in the next decade or two any differentiation between these platforms will fall away."

Spacey pegs the timeline as decades, but if we're sticking the the "D" part of the alphabet, we're closer to days than decades.

The shift is already here both in terms of the way that audiences watch cinematic endeavors and in how those projects get made.

The real crisis for the film and television industry is a matter of signal to noise: how does anything stand out in a marketplace that has evolved from a Main Street USA--three stores, all selling similar wares--to a Moroccan bazaar?
All of which can be seen in microcosm on YouTube.

Welcome to the Jungle

"It is very much a jungle, and it's very lowest common denominator in the way that stuff gets attention."

That's how two-time Sundance winner Ondi Timoner describes YouTube. Timoner's 2009 documentary "We Live In Public" told the story of the rise and fall of Internet video pioneer Josh Harris. The project from which the film takes its name, Harris' "Quiet: We Live in Public," presaged YouTube as we know it today: a personality driven, 24-hour carnival that encompasses every human endeavor that can be put on video.

"It's not like I envy the YouTube authorities, Google, for the position they're in for how to make sense of the chaos. They've unleashed a monster," said Timoner who uses YouTube as a partial distribution platform for her web series "A Total Disruption." The series focuses on innovation, and while chunks of the series live on YouTube, she is doing what she can to bring the audience to her own site.

It is a strategy espoused by a former Harris employee who pops up in Timoner's doc: entrepreneur Jason Calacanis. Calacanis criticized YouTube heavily over the summer, sparking talk of a "creator revolt" by new media observers. Calacanis was one of the content creators who took Google's money during a big push to organize YouTube into something that looks more like television and less like, well, the internet.

That quest--to reform the chaos into something that a non-specialist can understand at a glance--comes from the same place that the tech press' desire for an Apple television set comes from. There's a palpable sense that someone needs to come along and create an interface that will connect creators and audiences seamlessly.

That's not going to happen easily. The sheer amount of content on YouTube, up to 100 hours of video are loaded onto that site alone every minute, makes navigating that site difficult. Now magnify that with the convergence which Kevin Spacey predicts. The chaos of short-form video isn't the only force at work online. Vimeo, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, VHX and countless other platforms distribute feature length and serialized material alongside the short stuff.

Spacey's point about the camera is apt, and it applies to the distribution as well. The platform doesn't care about length. As time goes on it's not only the equipment and distributors who are becoming format agnostic, it's the creators as well. Take, for example, writer Margaret Dunlap.

"You look at something like 'Orange is the New Black' or the other Netflix shows and they may technically be web video, but I don't think anyone watching would argue that it isn't also clearly a television show," said Dunlap, "just one that happens to be on a channel only available through the internet."

Dunlap's work has appeared on both television ("The Middleman", "Eureka") and the web (the Emmy-winning "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries").

"Historically, the big differentiators between the formats have come from the outside. Technical hurdles defined what kind of video you could feasibly distribute through the internet. Video quality could only be so high, or so long before they became pretty much unwatchable, and that taught people what to expect when they went looking for 'web video.' Similarly, the business model, had defined what people expect when they watch 'television.' (An episode is either 20-some or 40-some minutes, commercials breaks, certain number of episodes in a season, etc.)"

Changing the Business of "The Business"

As the definitions blur, the behind the scenes maneuvering has gotten more intense. Major TV and film studios are investing tens of millions of dollars into the Multi-Channel Networks that form the nexus of YouTube's channel structure. Some of those networks, in turn, are snapping up their own video distribution platforms, as
did with

As a long term survival strategy Major YouTube are stars keeping one foot on the platform and another on their own site. This is the what YouTube star Freddie Wong has done with the series "Video Game High School" and his production company's site Rocket Jump. Like Timoner's work at A Total Disruption the idea here is to turn audience members into connected fans and active supporters. Wong's two Kickstarter campaigns for "VGHS" are evidence of how this strategy can be converted into serious cash.

However, while entrepreneurial skills are valuable in this ever-changing segment of the entertainment industry, having your own destination platform isn't a requirement. Netflix is as much a rival of YouTube as it is of HBO. Hulu, the online video site owned by a consortium of television networks, backs original content that would be just as at home on YouTube. Creators who don't want to go their own way are eyeing Netflix and Hulu as potentially more lucrative partners than YouTube.

Meanwhile, from the audience perspective, all three are becoming indistinguishable from television and movies on demand. This is thanks to the myriad of game consoles, set-top boxes, and tablets that pump these and other video feeds directly onto TV screens.

"In a way, getting TV through streaming-only sources is like being back in the days of the big three networks," said Dunlap, "it's just that instead of being NBC, CBS, and ABC, the three channels on my television are Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube."

Nevertheless, Dunlap isn't as confident as I am that convergence is inevitable.

"I don't know that we're going to stop making the distinction at all, at least not soon."

There's real substance in that point of view. To reason by analogy: there's notable differences between console video games, games played on cell phones and a tabletop game like Jenga. All remain viable options when it comes time to play, and the company that makes Jenga--Hasbro--makes both kinds of video games. (Taking an even wider view, they also make blockbuster movies: "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" bear the "Hasbro Studios" logo.)

The essential questions for any game maker revolve around issues of play, much in the same way that the core issues for any filmmaker are an alchemy of dramatic aptitude, cinematic ability, and marketing prowess. The internet, as a cultural force, has flattened out the horizon and shattered our experience of time. The problems faced by indie filmmakers, YouTubers, and studio executives are now cut from the same cloth.

Odds are that long-form feature, short feature, and serialized work will all survive long after the post-Millennial generation has reached retirement age. Recent statements by Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos show that the streaming juggernaut sees itself as a player in the first run feature films much as it is in original television. Marvel's giant production slate of films and television tie-in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." have redefined what serialized content looks like. The final season of "Breaking Bad" managed to have more cinematic oomph than most studio films.

Scale will still matter--it is hard to imagine watching "Gravity" on an iPad in six months and still being moved by the film's beauty--but the core skills of cinematic storytelling are only becoming more valuable as audiences grow savvier with every passing year.

The clock ticks on. All distribution becomes internet distribution. Films that are delivered to theaters are increasingly done so over the internet. Before we know it the special consideration we give to "the internet" will dissolve completely. In the meantime there are opportunities to play in the gaps created by the paradigm shift, but these are temporary oases at best. Illusions at worst.

Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.