Sunday, January 24, 2016


Being the finale of a two-parter, what follows will be immeasurably more coherent if you have read the previous Tales From the Opening Act: THE 'WAR FOR CONTENT' VS THE 'WAR FOR ATTENTION' (PART 1)

It wasn't a clear night, but the rain was holding back, like a deep breath.

I was being cooked dinner by a friend, so her big, open kitchen had that welcoming humidity of food and company. We were all in a good mood.

Do you know how rarely this happens? Dinner with my parent's friends were torture when I was growing up. It meant twenty minutes of decent eating, then HOURS of traipsing through a stranger's house, begging for something to entertain my brother and I while the adults talked. We once played with a set of Babushka dolls for an hour and fifteen minutes. I'm certain that's still a record.

But experiences become more nuanced with age. A meal cooked by a friend is now like gold. Particularly when they have skills, which this person certainly did. Bliss.

Sipping a glass of red wine, listening to the beef sizzle and smelling freshly chopped leafy things, I struck up a conversation with one of her housemates. We waxed lyrical about the movie business. He works in the industry, so carries insiders' knowledge and perspective. Over time, the conversation swung to the health of the cinema industry, and its future.

We couldn't have been more antithetical.

To him, cinema is the walking dead.

Half-empty theatres being attended by a dwindling audience that want convenience and cheaper prices for their content; all the while being usurped by other storytelling platforms, like gaming. From his perspective, the interactive story experience, when fully realised, will be the comet to cinema's dinosaurs.

I love a good argument.

The verbal fencing continued. The room filled with the warming aroma of searing meat, chilli, and herbs. My red wine dwindled.

I answered his call to arms. However, in the midst of a passionate defence of cinema and its fairly stable attendance levels, I had an epiphany.

I stopped mid-sentence. My sparring partner seemed confused. I put my hand on my heart and I said:

"I have to preface everything I am about to say by admitting that I believe in cinema, when used correctly, as a unique storytelling experience. I believe cinema is special and worthy, in its own way, as a storytelling medium."

He disagreed. In his view, the cinema industry needs "mass attendance" to survive at all. "Doomed" would be his version of understatement.

But I was lost to the argument at this point.

I felt lighter. It was like I had given myself a personal intervention by recognising my inherent bias to the power of cinema.

You see, as a kid growing up in the suburbia of Western Sydney, going to "the movies" was a luxury item. When we could afford it, we were treated with a trip to the only "picture theatre" in Penrith: The Hayden.

Family. Movies. Popcorn. It's a cherished memory. How could I not be influenced when attempting objective reasoning regarding cinema's future?

Alas, we didn't get to finish the debate. The world's problems remain unsolved. Dinner was ready.

But mulling on it later, as I am chronically prone to do, I thought about the issues we had turned over and peeked at. Good conversations do that to you. They linger.

And I realised that my critical analysis shortcomings in this instance, caused by my personal adoration for cinema, are equivalent to the thought obstructions facing other filmmakers. There is one undeniable principle we must all embrace:

Our history, our bias, is confusing us.

The film industry's resistance to new models of film distribution, like simultaneous release, is all based on outdated preferences and historical reasoning.

The confusion of audiences about how to engage with the changing model of film and content consumption, and the plethora of available options, is because it's evolving rather than brand new.

The filmmakers' hysteria about a crumbling film ecosystem exists because you are tectonically shifting what we are used to. If these same professionals were just starting out in the the world of filmmaking, they wouldn't know there were new normals being created to complain about.

So, what if we approached the new world with an unblemished mind? Made a conscious effort to shed our prejudices and approached the entire challenge as a 'green field'?

We would probably all smile more, for starters.

But we would also realise there are two entwined, but very different, wars going on in the evolving filmmaking world currently. They must be unentangled and then understood if we are to thrive.

The first is the war for content.

Simply put, the 'war for content' is the struggle by which screen stories (films, video games, etc) must fight for their place on a particular platform/delivery mechanism. This conflict was at the heart of the discussion I had with my diametric opposite before dinner.

Why should a film be in a cinema and not just on Netflix? What defines the audience experience in the cinema that makes a theatrical release a necessity? Why shouldn't this story just be a video game instead?

At this point it's worth you remembering that, historically, video gaming didn't exist and the false scarcity created by traditional film release windows (cinema > paid home entertainment > ancillaries > free to air television) meant that films did not have to justify being in a cinema. Theatrical release was a fact, not a question. But in the era of high-end home entertainment, and streaming/download services like Netflix, cinema no longer has a free ride.

And, much as there is confusion on this point, this first war is not about competition between storytelling platforms either. The argument of 'gaming versus cinema versus television' is from the old world and is not welcome here. The 'war for content' is about making sure that a screen story is presented on the storytelling medium which intrinsically delivers the optimal experience to audiences.

Yes, in the ongoing struggle of the 'war for content', each film or screen story must JUSTIFY it's existence on a particular platform, whether it be in the cinema, as a game, direct to home entertainment, or via holograms, etc, etc.

This new approach may seem logical, maybe even like common sense; however it is a drastic change to the way things have been done in the past.

The good news is that, if done right, all screen storytelling platforms can co-exist because each story will have a well considered reason to be on that medium. They will all have a comprehensible logic to prevail and attract paying audiences.

When that reorientation eventually happens, sanity will triumph and the 'war for content' will effectively end.

The second ongoing skirmish is the war for attention.

Unfortunately, on this planet, there are only 24 hours in a single day.

Work. Sleep. Meals. Bodily functions. Conversations. Commuting. Relationships.

Games. Films. Television. Books. Webisodes. Transmedia.

Life and entertainment are all competing for your precious seconds. Competing with each other and internally. Every two hours spent watching a film in the cinema, is two hours not spent gaming, after all.

This war will continue unabated, forever. There is no getting around the limitation of time and the surplus of content wanting to be noticed.


Am I allowing my bias of 21st century personal experience, once again, to fence in my thinking?

Isn't it possible that the technology could one day be created to 'download' storytelling experiences into our brain instantly?

Which would increase the volume of content someone could enjoy, in a single day, to levels I have never seen. A possibility I didn't consider until I purposefully disregarded the limitations of my thinking.

Because history and ingrained biases are an anchor.

Let it go and rise to the surface.

Or hold it and sink to the bottom.

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