21st Century Cinema and the "Internet of Us"
Updated: May 20, 2020
I have been writing an essay about the future of cinema on and off for the past few months. However, the COVID-19 Pandemic has cast some of my thoughts in a different light. There is much talk in the film industry about the future of the theatrical experience. Much of this conversation is focused on whether or not this moment represents a knock out blow on the part of streaming against the traditional theatrical experience. Contrary to some, barring further existential threats, I find it almost laughably obvious that the theatrical experience shall continue in some form or another. However rather than argue for this, I would like to discuss more evergreen topics about the future of our theatrical experiences. More specifically, I am interested in how filmmakers shall interact with the increasingly prevalent mediums of social media, and how these can potentially be used to circumvent traditional marketing, and more importantly, to create an entirely new media environment.
What I am describing here may never become typical or entirely replace our existing modes of cinema. Rather, it may be instantiated by a mere handful of exemplary individuals. What I am describing might also be more aspirational than attainable, but it strikes me as near certain that we shall be grappling with these questions in some form for years to come.
Limitations of our Present Cinema
I am fascinated by the idea of art as the connective tissue of society - a “Internet of Us.” Art is association. The first cave paintings somehow connect lines of black charcoal with the hunt of a wild beast. Even abstract works of the modern era are not free of associations; they can easily be described as representations of emotional states. They connect abstractions of form and color with abstractions of the mind.
The representational quality of art must be one of its most important features, it is the ability to select and/or construct a singular and reproducible experience from the chaos of life. This is an essential appeal of cinema. We are given a lens by which to view a world and experiences different than our own. Countless individuals over the generations have been inspired to pursue the most challenging and specialized professions on account of what they had first seen as impressionable children. For many people, their first introduction to classical music may be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey or in Amadeus. How many paleontologists are there today whose first exposure to the discipline was Jurassic Park?
Understandably, filmmakers often focus solely on the craft of their stories. They may give little consideration to the importance of the actual content their product presents to the audience. This is a mistake on the part of the filmmaker. The vast majority of the audience does not care about impressive cinematography or hidden metaphors. The audience is first and foremost desires to inhabit the world that is presented to them. This is not to say that the craft is unimportant, on the contrary. It is only that the audience is unaware of these features in the same manner that one does not see the individual brush strokes of a painter unless standing very close to the painting.
This brings us to our present state and the real questions of our era. How will cinema change over the next century? The language and grammar of cinema feels quite solid and well established. It is difficult to imagine large scale changes to the very syntax of film itself. The pillars of cinema: the succession of shots edited together, the compression of time, the protagonist and antagonist, the three act structure, and so on, all seem quite comfortable and justifiable even in the light of innovation and generational changes. In this sense, film itself is a dead end. Even allowing for experimentation every now and then, it is still almost impossible to imagine anyone coming along and completely altering these fundamental paradigms.
It may be the case that the grammar of film shall remain largely the same, however, this does not mean our experience of film shall be the same. A great portion of a film going experience is reliant on the context of the viewing experience. It is here that much of the discussion begins and ends with questions about streaming platforms and theatrical exhibition. But this only addresses the physical context of film, it does nothing to describe the interpersonal context, it does nothing to describe the relationship of the artist to the audience.
I am certain that I am not alone in researching the history surrounding a film after I am done watching it. The first thing one does, of course, is go to the trivia section of the IMDB page to learn about the production. Maybe there are a few interesting anecdotes from the director. Maybe next you read a review or two and get frustrated with the lack of depth in the analysis. In half an hour, you have read just about all there is to read. Of course there are exceptions to this. Many times the films you fall in love with are the very ones you are able to learn more about. But in order to do so you have to dig. You might have to purchase a director's book and read his or her musings. You can often find interviews of actors and directors that are illuminating. But these are often shallow press junkets and one is often left with the feeling that could say more in different circumstances. It is precisely this form of discussion surrounding a film that is outmoded. So often, we are left with the desire to know more but find no means to facilitate the discussion.
At this point, one might object and point out that I am a filmmaker. Of course I would be interested in learning more about films, and there is no reason to suspect that it is common for people uninterested in the process of filmmaking to be interested in this kind of content. That is true for the present era, but this is also where there is the greatest room for change. We will see that film makers need not limit their discussions to filmmaking itself. They can just as well discuss the things the audience is interested in – the worlds and the stories that inform their films.
The Advantage of New Mediums
Youtube has largely replaced television for the younger generations. One can learn about anything on Youtube, in far greater depth, with far greater honesty, and from people with the best credentials in their fields. What must not fail to be stressed is the overwhelming and constant desire for new content. Better, deeper, more frequent, and more varied, constantly. Professors of various disciplines have personally uploaded hour long lectures of university level content, most of it available for free. There is no pipe or wire in your house that you will not learn how to replace if you are patient and willing to sort through the endless content available on the platform. As Youtube has become a staple time killer, the specific search function has decreased in importance relative to the ability of Youtube to predict what content you will be interested in and present it to you freely with minimal decisions required on your part. Via its algorithms, your viewing history, and your channel subscriptions, a profile is constructed of your niche interests. This predictive ability shall only improve over time.
On the inverse side, the YouTube content creator struggles under the immense pressure to meet the constant demand for new content. In most cases, these are mere individuals or small groups of friends. They do not have agents, distributors, large budgets, or corporations behind them. Yet their audience ranges in the millions. Through advertising partnerships, sponsorship, and merchandising these creators represent an entirely new media industry.
Nerdwriter1 is a Youtube channel with two point seven million subscribers as of this writing. Collectively his videos have a total view count of a staggering one hundred and ninety three million. This is the work of a single individual, and hardly representative of the highest tier of success. Often he makes his content about cinema, and that is how I first encountered his work. But this is not his exclusive focus. His channel is his own brand. He might cover any number of subjects, whether it be about art or society in general. Because of my familiarity with his brand, I am highly likely to watch his content even if I am only tangentially interested in the subject matter. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that I agree with all of his concepts or even consider myself an avid fan, but it is obviously the case that his work, for me, is comfortable. It is a viewing decision that requires minimal effort on my part, and provides sufficient reward. This is the type of low-commitment contract that is the bread and butter of the YouTube economy.
Now if we were to look at the last century as a model for this one, we would expect for channels that produce similar content to be in direct competition with one another, and that this competition would result in harsh rivalry and differentiation between otherwise similar channels. This does not appear to be the case. In the past few years, we have seen rather symbiotic relationships develop between channels of similar content.
The rather short form, low intensity content does not lend itself to harsh rivalry. Again the concept of low-commitment contract between audience and creator means that there is little requirement for brand loyalty on part of the viewer. The audience is first and foremost interested in an endless stream of content and no single creator is prolific enough to satiate the audience over time. Thus other channels with similar content are welcomed and contribute to the collective profile of each viewer, providing them with more avenues to find the content they desire. For this reason, one channel's success does not mean another's failure. Unlike television, there is no need to compete for time slots, and there are always more hours in the day and more desire for content.
This has even led to channel crossovers, where YouTube personalities get in touch, coordinate their efforts and interact with their respective platforms. Each creator will come out with a video featuring the work or ideas of the other creator. In the process, each creator is introduced to the other's audience, who are already predisposed to be interested in their content. This cross pollination encourages viewers to branch out and makes them far more likely to watch videos by the creator they were previously unfamiliar with. Thus, each creator wins as each is introduced to a new, expanded audience.
The result of this constant interplay between creator and audience, and creator and creator is a model of media unlike anything our society has seen before. The information does not flow one way, it is a dialogue, a discussion unfolding over time.
Defining the Impending Era
Currently, there is an immense gap between a traditional filmmaker and the audience. This gap represents unmet demand by audiences for low-commitment content relating to the films and ideas surrounding them. The desire for this type of content far exceeds the availability of traditional film and film marketing, which is too precise, expensive and polished to be available in the volume required. Over time, grass roots filmmakers will unleash the untapped potential of this market. The change will unfold democratically and without the input of traditional gatekeepers, marketers and distributors, who will have to drastically change their models in order to keep up.
This new era in film will be defined by audience accessibility to the filmmaker. Each filmmaker on this model will represent a brand, a personal brand. It will be the filmmaker's goal to build up the audience over time with regular content and direct interaction. Livestreamed Q&As will be a common format, with the filmmaker taking questions right from the online audience, perhaps viewers will pay a small fee to have their questions moved to the top of the queue. Youtube already has the infrastructure to support these transactions. There is an obvious question that follows. Aside from teasers, behind the scenes featurettes and Q&As, what kind of content can there possibly be? This is where we will see the greatest variance between individual filmmakers.
The most obvious kind of content would be regular updates about the process of making a film – its emotional toils and the visceral details and drama of production. This would be produced by the filmmakers themselves or by a small team intimately connected to them. It would bear no resemblance to reality TV, or ENG production teams. The content will be simple and unpolished, it would not be presented like the DVD special features sizzle reels and short behind the scenes segments. It would be raw, filled with the honest emotions of the day, edited and uploaded as the process unfolds.
Some may find this model implausible in light of the harsh demands a production requires, but I believe this would be shortsighted. It is true that the current elite spate of filmmakers would likely blanch at this additional burden on top of their already massive list of duties. These filmmakers have no need for this model because they are already established. It is the next generation of filmmakers who shall embrace this process. This shall be the chief innovation of the Gen Z filmmaker. The younger generations shall have little trepidation with this mode of presentation. We already see it foreshadowed in daily instagram stories, tiktok and regular VLOGs. There is no reason to suspect that young filmmakers will cease using these modes of expression. Rather we should expect them to only continue to embrace them in increasingly creative forms. The process of making the film, the film itself, and the dialogue surrounding the film shall all become one. They shall film themselves making their movies.
But, as I have already alluded, the process of making a film will always be a niche interest that will have a definite but limited appeal. If this new generation of content would be limited to this, there may not be much more to say. But this type of content shall represent only certain filmmakers and only a narrow slice of the broader possibilities. It is the ideas behind the film, the themes, the settings, and the real humans behind the adaptations, these are the types of content that shall dominate.
But among these ideas, the brands and personalities of the filmmakers themselves will be predominant. It is easy to name filmmakers from prior generations who have well established personas. Even in traditional media, sometimes the reach of these personas nearly exceed the influence of their own directorial work. Directors with strong personal brands, like David Lynch, or Jim Jarmusch come to mind. As we have already discussed, there is no reason for David Lynch, an elite, established filmmaker, to have his own YouTube channel, as fascinating as that may be. But the David Lynches of the next generation, shall certainly have theirs. Their content shall present a broad tapestry of their interests, whatever they may be, such that the film itself is the mere capstone of their work. Their own brands; self cultivated, honest, and accessible, will be the chief draw.
* Update: Thanks to the Pandemic we now have a David Lynch Channel:
It is important that we say more about what kind of content this might entail and to whom it might appeal beyond filmmakers and cinephiles. It is not possible to stress how much this will vary for each artist. David Lynch is not only a filmmaker, but also a painter, a musician, and a woodsmith of furniture and sculpture. We might expect a David Lynch channel to feature, among other things, his pantheon of artistic pursuits. David Lynch does not often like to speak in any detail about the meaning of his films, but that needn’t be indicative of other artists. Many shall happily participate in the discussions about their own work. In Lynch’s case, since content could include subjects quite different from filmmaking, his audience and subscribers would naturally include people who would otherwise have never encountered his film work. The wide swath of discussion filtered through the lens of a great artist could have significant crossover appeal, all of which would add to his brand and build his base of subscribers.
A filmmaker of historical drama would have quite different content. It might feature simple videos of visiting historic sights, or interviews with historians or eyewitnesses. The goal of the filmmaker on this model is twofold. First, to create a tapestry of the ideas and notions surrounding his or her work, and second, to build the personal brand. When the time comes to announce a film, the filmmakers of this model would be able to immediately reach their audience, discussing how their film might tie into their regular content. The film would then serve as the climax and culmination of the ideas expressed in their regular videos on a given subject.
This supplemental content is not quite Cinema, but something else -- something adjacent to the movies. I would never venture to say it could replace it. It may be that such expanded discussion can serve to maximize the reach of a film and to solidify the power of its themes. I think those who would doubt that there is demand for such content will be in for a tremendous surprise. Here again I would want to emphasize the different nature of low-commitment content. Contrary to cinema, it is not necessary to sustain the intense focus, narrative drama, or to keep one on the edge of a seat. Here one needs only to provide a comfortable and familiar excuse to click the next link, or to do nothing as the next video auto-plays.
Although we have used Youtube as the prime example, there is no reason to think that this dialogue could not take place on any number of the prominent social media platforms.
To provide a wider view of what content might follow, let us briefly define a few more types of filmmakers on this model. We should not think of this list as complete but merely an expanded ostensive definition of what might be possible in these new forms.
Content would focus on film in relation to academic pursuits. They would interact with Academia, and the ideas and personalities within science, philosophy, history, psychology, literature, and etc.
Filmmakers with talent in a variety of artistic fields. Content would include any number of artistic pursuits tied into how these fields relate to film, or art critique in general.
Filmmakers as Filmmakers
The production diary type of filmmaker. These types will very meticulously document their processes of filmmaking, production and the various technical details involved. This may not be limited to directors, but also cinematographers, production designers, and anyone who is able to build a following.
Creators of light, trendy, easy to consume content that is very indicative of cultural trends. Light on substance, heavy on feel good emotions. Well suited as supplemental material to star driven blockbusters. They shall feature a smattering of BTS, but nothing too technical. Actors shall make for natural hosts due to their familiarity and comfort in front of the camera.
Film video essayists and critics shall enter the fray as filmmakers themselves and perform both roles. They shall be the most vocal of the bunch in discussing the themes and ideas of their own work, and shall be the most engaged with other filmmakers both within and outside of these platforms.
Focused on world building, speculative fiction, possible futures, dialogues with authors, other fictions.
Martial Arts, Military, Filmmakers
Emphasis on combatives, fight choreography and any variety and combination of martial arts and or military procedure.
Focused on social issues, race, gender, or political themes. Interacts with politicians, pundits, activists and other public figures.
Filmmakers focused on religious, theological themes sometimes tied very tightly into their films and sometimes in much more general terms. May also interact with Theologians, Pastors and other important figures. Current faith based productions will bear little resemblance to the sophistication of ideas to come.
Documentary filmmakers already shoot hundreds of hours of footage, meaning almost 98% of what they film is unused. This new form shall provide ample avenues for such filmmakers to explore supplementary content and tell additional stories too tangential to survive the traditional edit. Consequently they may have the easiest time adapting to this new form.
Other Interest Group filmmakers
Filmmakers who are spokesmen for any variety or combination of interest groups. It is quite possible that institutions might sponsor filmmakers who are felt to represent and articulate their views effectively.
Filmmakers who will blend the lines between fact and fiction. They would use other platforms to augment the fictional world of their films, expanding upon what was able to be shown within the film, featuring additional content and scenes. May also involve the audience to varying degrees, including Easter eggs, mysteries or various interactive features that effect and influence the viewing experience by audience input. This notion is different and expansive enough from the other types to warrant future discussion.
Any combination of the above
There is no reason to suspect that a filmmaker would be limited to one type or one interest group. Indeed the combination and intersection of interests shall serve as one basis for each individual filmmaker's appeal. The most successful filmmakers shall have the broadest appeal.
This model quite clearly shall appeal most strongly to independent productions and voices. The large studios would likely be the slowest and most hesitant to adopt this new model, waiting until they can come to grips with the financial realities beneath. What we may see is a vast democratization of filmmaking, where the filmmakers have almost direct access to their audiences. Gatekeepers, at least at first, will have to find new ways to insert themselves into the process, and for a time, there will be almost no decision makers between audience demand and artistic creation. As a result, films shall be more common, more personal, more varied and more risky. Films shall be heavy in jargon, specific lexicon and knowledge belonging to their respective niches. Films of this model shall better satisfy their highly specified audiences than is presently possible with global theatrical distribution.
Films made under this model will likely be small, low to moderately budgeted affairs, with geographically limited narratives. However, as technology continues to improve, small crews and low budget projects shall be able to attain production values successively greater than is presently possible on comparable budgets. Film style in general will be more greatly stratified, each creator attuned to the needs of their audience. The vast majority of creators will be relatively middle class in comparison to a hyper successful minority and the traditional Hollywood elite.
Theatrical windows may still exist, but shall be of more ceremonial importance than the chief financial drive of films made under this model. Revenues will come from a panoply of avenues, including ad partnerships, sponsorships, merchandising, on-demand, streaming and traditional distribution deals, and more. It is quite likely that large Hollywood tent poles and a smattering of prestige pictures shall continue to exist in some form or another, casting the widest net of appeal, and continuing to feature the highest budgets and most renowned talents. It is possible that some adopters of the new model might achieve widespread success that rivals the traditional model.
Since we have thus far considered the bright possibilities that this new media form might bring, we must also consider some potential dangers and pitfalls that may lie within.
Given the historic propensities of human society, it is unlikely that this state of egalitarian, meritocratic artistry shall last forever. After several decades of relative openness, new gatekeepers, agents, managers and various kinds of middlemen shall likely insert themselves into the system, and themes, and styles shall again conglomerate. It is possible that institutional, corporate or government sponsorships of channels may become a necessary prerequisite for success. This may limit the range of topics to those which are deemed acceptable and approved. New forms of propaganda may proliferate, and audiences shall be unable to critically distinguish factual accounts from fabrication. The fairly egalitarian algorithms of YouTube may come to be replaced by more biased modes of selection. Audiences shall be highly stratified into specific interest groups, having little reason to interact with ideas from opposing sources. As a word of qualification, the dangers of a closed, propagandistic society exist regardless of the types of media available.
Even without Orwellian overtones, filmmakers may simply feel enslaved to their personas and PR machines. Following the initial democratization, newcomers may have an increasingly hard time gaining viewership in a saturated market. The charming amateur works of novice filmmakers may be crowded out by professionals on a platform initially meant for the general population. It may be difficult for films to gain an audience without an accompanying personality and vast library of supplemental material. On the flip side, films made for smaller audiences in the current market rarely reach their audiences to the full potential. And most novice filmmakers presently have a difficult time having their work seen as it is. So what we are describing here might represent something of a market correction, albeit with the necessary Faustian Bargain to accompany it. Like most innovations of society and technology, benefits and drawbacks shall come forth from the same hand.
There are a number of variables at play which might hinder this vision from ever coming into reality, or might limit the extent to which it manifests. Whether or not these problems are soluble is a question that must be left to time.
Films are immensely difficult to make at every aspect of production. The emotional and physical toil on both cast and crew is well documented. This difficulty leads to two obstacles. Firstly, the difficulty of filmmaking means that only a limited number of films can be made within any given time frame. The relative infrequency of filmmaking might mean that creators can never effectively satiate the audiences viewing needs in a timely manner. Secondly, the energies of the creators might be too completely absorbed in the traditional process of filmmaking such that no time is left for supplemental content.
Filmmakers may never embrace the role of film critics. Although not every form of this model requires critique in a formal sense, almost all the models shall require immense self reflection and verbalization of private artistic processes in manners unprecedented for artists. While social media gives us reason to suspect that millennial and post millennial generations might embrace this, there simply is no guarantee that creators shall embrace these supplemental endeavors with the same rigor they apply to their primary focus.
The scale of audiences might be too small to rival the financial impact of the traditional models of filmmaking. Thus, filmmakers may have difficulty procuring the necessary funds in order to deliver content up to the standards of their own audience.
Cinema may be too direct a medium to blend well with the low-commitment contract content that characterizes Youtube and most new media platforms. Thus, views on the latter platforms might not lead to actual purchases of tickets or on-demand streaming to the level necessary to justify expenses.
Although we can expect low-commitment content to proliferate even further than it already has, it may be the case that it is not possible to effectively integrate this with the cinematic experience.
Ultimately the question is not whether or not these new forms shall exist, but to what degree. None of these problems ought to be unsolvable. They merely represent factors that shall heavily influence decision making processes, and determine who shall succeed and who shall fail.
Conclusion and Personal Thoughts
Speaking broadly, digital filmmaking can be said to have at least three forms: traditional cinema, series streaming, and user uploaded content, mostly via Youtube. The lines between these modes shall blur with each taking on many of the characteristics of the other, yet continuing to exist on their own to some degree. This shall result in the democratization of filmmaking, bursts of creativity, interactive audience experiences, and a wide swath of films appealing to vastly different, yet interconnected audiences.
Despite my usual trepidation about the future, the manifold potential drawbacks, and the obstacles that stand in the way of this vision, I find myself optimistic. I am fascinated by the idea of art as the connective tissue of society, the means by which we understand perspectives and ideas foreign to our own. It connects us to the past and draws us into the future. I love when, in my personal reading, I encounter writers who reference their forerunners who shaped them, or the historical events that molded them. Or in seeing two artists' paths cross at a certain point in their lives, resulting in a beautiful collaboration, only to separate again. In this vision, I see immense potential to fulfill this ideal in contrast to our present oligarchic, propagandist, and blandly commercialized forms.
There will be many modes of this media conflagration. My own inclination is to contextualize work within art, society, and history at large. Others shall comprehensively document their creative process to such a degree that their followers shall nearly participate in the making of the film. But the most interesting of all of these forms shall be the fictional extensions of the narrative into other mediums, where fact and fantasy meld, and there is no clear line as to where the story of the film ends and real life begins. It will be fascinating to behold, like a massive, live symphony. One note, one share, one upload at a time, unfolding over weeks and weeks, complete with motif and leitmotif, and themes and references, and arcs and twists, and beginnings and ends, across a dozen mediums and culminating in the release of a film that shall merely serve to tie the disparate threads together.
There will likely be many such filmmakers in this young generation, so inundated with social media, that it is part of their very bone. For them, to be open and honest with their digital friends shall not be a chore but a natural extension of themselves. It shall be as ordinary to them as any other kind of conversation. No other generation has this kind of integration with the internet. In my experience, even millennials feel a certain unease and existential threat in the vanguard of social media but this is a feeling largely absent in the next generation.
Undoubtedly, new media forms will continue to enter the picture, presenting unimaginable possibilities. Current mediums shall change and evolve such that the present forms appear as nothing but the crude progenitors of the things to come. Yet it shall never be technology alone that connects us in our lonely Twenty-First Century. It shall be the art: the Internet of Us.