Back in the early 2000s, Hollywood—the real, geographic Hollywood, not the mythopoetic one where dreams dance in thrall to commerce—was a needle-strewn, no-man’s-land. You braved its tetanus-inducing streets only for the martini at Musso & Frank Grill, where the industry’s aging drunks and writers (often one and the same) would retreat to memorialize Hollywood’s midcentury glory days.
These days, though, those streets teem—and Musso & Frank’s with them. Hipsters enamored with imbibing where Welles and Bogart drank flock to Instagram that very martini. Boutique hotels with chic rooftop bars sprout from the skyline like mushrooms. And over it all towers Netflix’s new Gensler-designed headquarters, a monolithic reminder of who exactly is responsible for so dramatically reversing Tinseltown’s fortunes in less than a generation.
Once feared as Hollywood’s executioners, Netflix, Amazon, and all those who seek to dethrone them, have instead inaugurated a gold rush. Thanks to them, the machine is humming in a way not seen since the end of the studio system in the ’50s: Production is returning to L.A., armies of would-be scribes hunch over MacBooks at third-wave coffee shops all over town, and even midlevel TV stars have their pick of offers from all the green-lit shows.
There’s something oddly familiar about it all. As I look around, I can’t help but wonder: Is today’s “disrupted” industry all that different from the legendary studio system of yore? They may not have their own back lots (yet), but have the new digital overlords simply reformatted Hollywood into an earlier incarnation of itself?
When I first started breaking into the industry, just before the 2007–2008 writers’ strike, things looked pretty bleak: The one-hour network drama was under assault from reality TV, film attendance was declining, and DVD sales were destined to disappear. Back in the dark days after said strike, experts warned how the structural shifts in the media landscape would threaten the industry further. The Digital Age was to be the death of mass culture. What horrors would this Brave New iWorld reveal? Would we even watch TV, let alone movies, when we could just refresh our Facebook feeds all day?
Yet, once the digital barbarians finally stormed the studio gates—i.e., when Netflix premiered House of Cards in February 2013—it quickly became clear that audiences actually prefer well-written, handsomely produced shows over homemade YouTube videos. The emerging New Hollywood titans quickly embraced that fundamental truth, and a flood of high-budget “content” ensued. Even as old-guard networks and studios carped that we were reaching “peak TV,” Netflix and friends opened their pocketbooks wider—Netflix spent $6 billion on content this year alone. When FX president John Landgraf coined that expression, in 2015, there were 421 scripted original programs on the air (almost double the number from five years earlier). As 2017 wraps up, that number could top 500.
So, if there is a “peak” to TV, we’re still climbing it. Apple, the latest big spender to plunge into the content pool, recently poached two of Sony’s top TV executives and announced billion-dollar ambitions to make its own shows. Google and Facebook are not far behind. To retain a competitive edge in this landscape, Netflix has said it plans to move the bulk of its series production back to L.A., the better to entice top talent: “Come work for us and you won’t have to spend months in Toronto away from your family!” But the summer’s biggest bombshell came in August: Disney announced that it would start not one but two of its own streaming services for ESPN’s sports content and Disney’s rich library of Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar hits. When an 800-pound gorilla of a conglomerate like Disney decides streaming is the future—well, the future is now.
Yes, the boom times in the industry are not equally felt. Feature films have faced a precipitous drop-off at the box office this summer, posting their worst overall ticket sales in 25 years. Many inside the town assume that the theatrical experience is a cultural niche destined to go the way of live theater or the opera house. Screenwriting anything other than a Marvel Comics Universe movie is now functionally a hobby. But then again, even indie-film purists have streaming to thank for their continued existence: Netflix led this year’s Sundance Film Festival in acquisitions, spending nearly $40 million for 10 titles. Still, you won’t hear that many filmmakers freaking out about the end of film. They’re all too busy pitching TV shows.
Point is, from a storyteller’s point of view, the post-Netflix world is way more fun, especially if you want to make anything other than CGI chop-suey. Everyone knows the major studios long ago stopped producing the types of foundational films that schools teach in Cinema 101. As Glen Mazzarra, who ran The Walking Dead and A&E’s Damien puts it, “Twenty years ago, before the advent of cable and premium cable, film was where writers wanted to be and TV was considered hackneyed—that’s been completely turned upside down.” Indeed, even the biggest auteurs will happily direct a TV pilot while they wait to get their next labor of love off the ground. Case in point: The quintessential art-house darling Wong Kar Wai is now directing a series for Amazon. To a degree, what we on the audience end have traditionally viewed as the domain of cinema (strong plots with interesting characters) has merged into the television universe.
On the surface it may look like everything has changed. Fiber-optic cables have replaced film reels—we now carry the silver screen in our pockets. But for all the technological advances and hyperbole about disrupting the industry, Netflix et al. essentially function the way the old studios did before antitrust laws forced them to sell off their theater chains in 1948. Now, just like then, these new studios control both the means of production and distribution. What is your Netflix account if not a portable movie theater where everything they’ve ever made is on the marquee? There are even sequels built into the system now: They’re just called Season 2.
As a result, the industry has shifted back to an emphasis on scribal output. During Hollywood’s golden age, the studio lots were filled with row upon row of “Schmucks with Underwoods,” as Jack Warner (of the famous Bros.) called his script jockeys. The logic was that by chaining playwrights, novelists, whoever to typewriters like 10,000 monkeys, eventually you’d get the next Gone With the Wind. Not coincidentally, membership in the Writers Guild has exploded recently, increasing by 1,000 in just two or three years. Showrunners are beginning to see a shift back to “overall deals,” a form of “golden handcuffs” in which producers buy exclusive rights to a writer’s output for a specified amount of time for a huge chunk of money—an echo of the old studio’s habit of putting writers under contract. Despite their totalitarian ways, the old studio bosses understood the value of writers. Irving Thalberg famously quipped, “If it isn’t for the writing, we’ve got nothing. Writers are the most important people in Hollywood—and we must never let them know it.” The difference between then and now, however, is that the writers most certainly know it.
Today, the new Hollywood kings compete to keep show creators happy. Showrunners have the kind of creative latitude not seen since auteur theory empowered the new-wave ’70s directors like Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg. HBO kicked off the trend of giving great writers like David Chase and David Simon wide berth to make the series they wanted; Netflix just doubled down on the strategy. In fact, Netflix greenlights its series whole hog, without the traditional pilot process, and it gives wide creative license to its creators—the better to lure writers away from the competition. And the fruits have been good: Arguably one of streaming’s biggest hits, Stranger Things, came from letting two relatively unknown writer/filmmakers have carte blanche to pen the retro ’80s-nostalgic series of their dreams. It just so happens that those retro ’80s-nostalgic dreams were shared by most of the country. The auteur director of the ’70s has been replaced by the auteur showrunner at the top of Hollywood’s creative hierarchy.
After all, a director can get you two finely tuned hours of content. But if you want 10 hours that people can binge on, you need a room full of writers and a showrunner to keep them honest. “It used to be: What’s the property and what’s the material and we’ll figure out how to make it,” Mazzarra says. “But now there’s more pressure on who’s the showrunner, and that’s why I think it’s the writer’s medium.” And as streaming opens up new story formats, whether six-hour limited series or ten-hour seasons, the writing team becomes ever more crucial. In a world where Netflix-and-chill is the pastime of choice, the power has shifted fundamentally to the writer/creator. Now we live in a Hollywood where a 30-year-old Margaret Atwood novel (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) can help a young upstart like Hulu conquer the Emmys. George R.R. Martin has replaced George Lucas as the lodestar for Hollywood’s next generation of dreamers.
Of course, everyone knows we’ll reach the real “peak TV” inevitably; gravity eventually reigns supreme. After all, there are only 24 hours in any given day with which to binge on Netflix or its rivals. And even at $9.99 a month a pop, all those different streaming services begin to add up for the consumer. At what point will the total you have to pay for all these great streaming shows surpass the average American cable bill (about $103 in 2016)? It’s no secret that Netflix spends a pretty penny to stay at the top of this writer-driven world. The first season of The Crown dropped jaws with its reported $130 million cost, and according to Altered Carbon star Joel Kinnaman, that new Netflix sci-fi opus will cost even more. Eventually, the brand will either have to raise prices and risk consumer wrath or be more economical in what series they put into production. More likely, the answer will be both.
It opens a Pandora’s box of questions: When does cost-consciousness suddenly rear its unavoidable head? What new logistical media genius will come along and pull the purse strings tight? Or when will our attention be lured from our old screens to whatever titillating new stories emerge from video games and virtual reality? Today’s disruptors become tomorrow’s disrupted, and sooner than they think.
Fortunately, Hollywood’s pretty good at ignoring the inevitable and enjoying the party while it lasts. In the meantime, writers will enjoy their newfound prominence in the Hollywood firmament as audiences enjoy the ancillary benefits. Polish your pitches and dream big. If you think you’ve written the next Breaking Bad, why not fantasize that Steven Spielberg will direct your pilot? He’s probably available these days, right? Too many good shows to choose from? Too many places to pitch your series? At the end of the day, these are high-class problems. After all, Hollywood constantly cycles through much-rumored deaths and surprising rebirths. The song that remains the same is how much we all love a good story.
A Los Angeles native, writer/filmmaker John Lopez has covered the arts and entertainment for Grantland, Vanity Fair online, and Bloomberg Businessweek. An alum of the Sundance Episodic Lab, he most recently finished writing on Veena Sud’s upcoming Netflix crime drama Seven Seconds.