The Death of Shared Cultural Experience
I grew up in a world where the release of a movie or a record was a big deal. If Fleetwood Mac or Elton John released an album, everyone knew about it. Films would stay in cinemas for weeks, so if you didn’t go on opening weekend, you could probably still find it 6-7 weeks later, as so fewer films made it into cinemas back then.
A few years back I listened to a podcast that listed and discussed every film released in cinemas from around this period onwards, and I recalled at least 80% of those movies. But who could recall 20% now, outside of the #filmtwitter list enthusiasts?
In my career, I worked across the launch of two major home entertainment formats. My first job was at a retailer who sold only compact discs, and I started with them in 1988. I unboxed and sold shedloads of copies of Dire Straits Brothers in Arms, Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night and Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. Music sales were colossal during this period. Everyone was updating their back catalogue and chewing up new releases from all the big bands and solo artists.
My second wave with a new format was at Universal Pictures a decade later, launching the very first DVD’s the studio released here, and whilst that was a slower start, it was the beginning of a huge renaissance in the film industry, bringing in the profit that fuelled all the theatrical divisions. We made hay while the sun shone.
The 90s boomed in terms of film and music. Sales were high and so was mass consumer awareness. Everyone took their VHS and vinyl collections down to the local car boot sale.
Come the digital music revolution, and then streaming of films and series, a paradigm shift occurred. U2 gave away their new record and nobody cared. People even complained that it was taking up space on their iPods! And then came Spotify - no more need to make compilation tapes - it was all there for you, but the artists just stopped making any meaningful money so took to constant touring for income.
As an avid consumer of music, I loved the fact that I could have all my favourite songs and albums on a device smaller than a Sony Walkman - it was a huge convenience. But whereas we once aspired to listen to music through the best possible sound systems, with sub-woofer speakers bespoke hard wired into our cars, we now learned to put up with compressed mp3 files, but who cared when convenience beat quality?
So far, so good - there was still a sense of occasion around the release of films and records - just.
Fast-forward to 2022, post-pandemic, and everything seems like a blur (not the band). Major films premiered weekly on streaming services, some of which you couldn’t see as you didn’t have a subscription to that platform. Films churned out that you hadn’t seen a trailer for, read a review or of or even seen an advert for. But you stumbled upon them just by opening Netflix or Prime Video, and you watched them for 90-100 mins and then forgot about them. You didn’t even discuss them with your friends outside of maybe a lazy tweet.
Some of these films, such as Netflix’s Bird Box would have been the #1 global theatrical hits of their release years, if quantified by actual viewers, as opposed to cinema admissions. Incredible amounts of views, but at the same time a kind of cultural misfire, outside of being a statistic.
Making independent films now is so hard that it’s little surprise that filmmakers jump at the chance of getting a streamer to fund (and then own) their movie/script. An independent film released today is almost immaculate conception, if conceived outside of a streamer’s rich benevolence.
They involve so many foreign co-productions, exec producers, location funds, postproduction-deals, private gap equity, etc. An indie film is so tied up with contributors that it resembles something barely stuck together by sticky-back-plastic. It’s a miracle that any make it through at all - but even if they do, their wider awareness levels are non-existent-pitiful.
Even if you do get a film funded by a streamer now, unless you’re a big name you won’t be getting a prestigious festival release, or even a local cinema outing. You may not even get an ad budget or a PR campaign, you’ll just appear on the platform one day, maybe to be forgotten the next. It’s hardly what I would have aspired to a few years ago - but hell, I’d still take it…
Now, if U2, Elton John or Fleetwood Mac released an album, who would really know? Who would really care? The music industry is a singles market anyway. And it’s a market where even 3-4 of your mates have their own songs listed on Spotify.
Everything is so fragmented and everyone is a film critic, with their own blog, and people care less and less what the paid critics think anyway. Arguably, the only content with any sort of cultural resonance now is Marvel. And for how much longer can the industry sustain itself on superhero movies alone? I’m amazed that the genre has lasted as long as it has but, then again, they lost me very early on. I find it incredibly hard to take people in lycra seriously.
So, whilst it seems that each month the global box office records are shattered by the latest fantasy blockbuster, what about the rest of the content that is released? How many films have you watched that you have since forgotten all about as they were not a 'traditional' cinema release backed with a significant advertising and promotional campaign?
These days even the Best Picture winners and nominees are streaming films. But does anyone care? Is Roma still remembered as much as Gravity?
I, for one, miss the idea of a shared cultural impact. When we all watched and discussed the same films and TV shows. For a while, we even did that in the early days of streaming, with the likes of Breaking Bad, Narcos and House of Cards etc. But now we are all watching and listening to different things at different times.
I don’t even watch scheduled TV now, so I don’t see many adverts and I don’t buy a newspaper, so I feel out of the loop when it comes to advertising awareness. I work from home so seldom see billboards and Railway advertising, and I avoid watching trailers as I find that they spoil films for me. So I really do feel in the dark as to what is being promoted.
I sometimes even discover that one of my favourite bands released a new record a few years back that I missed and see that a major film was released in cinemas at the weekend that I hadn't even heard of.
By the way, my latest single, ‘Coal’ will be released later this month on Spotify. Good luck finding it!