You're Going to Miss the Movies When They're Gone
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1. The Ankler
My pal Richard Rushfield runs the single best media product about the entertainment business, period. The end. If you care about Hollywood and the movies, you should be reading it.
Richard loves movies, down in his bones. But he’s completely clear-eyed about the business of movies. And he sees what’s happening. He’s been sounding the alarm on the Silicon Valley conquest of Hollywood for years. And if the people in the C-suites had been listening to him, their industry would not be facing extinction today.
Anyway, here’s Richard daring to say the obvious about West Side Story and the future of cinema:
[C]an you believe people don't want to see West Side Story? The most famous musical in the world for Baby Boomers! It's pre-sold!
So have you met Americans lately or the entertainment consumers of the world? It may shock you to learn that they aren't versed in the history of midcentury American musical theater. The mass culture as it stands can barely remember who Katy Perry was and won't take kindly to anyone pointing out to them that entertainment existed in a time before that.
As for whether the film will have legs: do any of you recall how West Side Story ends? (Spoiler alert: Tony doesn't reveal he's really Iron Man.) . . .
I personally loved the movie. I was dazzled; all my thumbs way up. . . .
And I am open to (but not optimistic about) the possibility that it somehow legs it; that a massive Oscar sweep carries it into profitability. Things happen.
But looking beyond that, the stack of evidence that box office today is a pale shadow of box office of yore is becoming an elephant in the room, as everyone tries to ignore it and say – well if only they had released it two weeks later! If only they had Timothee Chalamet! If only they had set it in Tampa!
But looking at the fate of the industry as the Sword of Damocles dangles, how many examples do we need of things that "don't work" anymore on this jalopy of a theatrical business before we start to wonder if it's safe out on the road? . . .
That's the thing here in my recent forecasts of the end of the film industry, I don't necessarily mean it will cease to exist entirely. Just that the industry as we know it is doomed. The returns are in now and we can try to dance our way around them as much as we want, but this isn't just exit polls and the citizens of Dixville Notch. We've got months of data now, on top of 10 years of numbers before that.
Hear ye, hear ye: The movie business will be changing into something else.
The music industry didn't die after the digital dawn. But today's business bears little resemblance to the industry of 2001. The news business still exists, and even thrives in some quarters; but very few of the jobs of 2010 are still around. There's still bookstores out there and taxicab companies. They didn't die. Just everything about the way they functioned did.
I love movies, too. The movie has been the most important artistic medium in my life. The large majority of my cultural touchstones are movies.
And I think I may be the last generation—or at best the next-to-last generation—for whom that is true. The Millennials seem more attached to the prestige television of their youth. The kids today seem much more likely to be formed by YouTube and TikTok than something you drive to the mall to watch in a crowded auditorium.
This is all bad. And not “get off my lawn” bad, but seriously bad.
Cinema means something. It means a blend of artistic and commercial intents. It means a level of quality commensurate with finite product lines.
It means a shared culture. It means a shared experience. It means making contact with other humans in physical, incarnate ways—you ask a girl to go and actually sit next to you at the movies.
And in a world where our attention is always divided—your phone, your laptop, the TV on the wall, the conversations of people around you—the movie theater is literally the only activity which gets your full and complete attention. It’s the only experience we’re able to give ourselves over to, completely without distraction.
And the movies are dying. Or rather, they’re being choked out of existence by the free money the stock market showers on tech companies. It’s like a super-sized version of what the big-box revolution did to downtowns and small-businesses. And how’d that work out for us?
Those big-box concepts weren’t sustainable. And neither are the economics of the streaming revolution. At some point, the bill will come due at Netflix.
But not in time to save the movies.
2. Astral Codex Ten
I linked to this essay from Scott Alexander yesterday, but I want to air it out more fully here, because it’s on an interesting concept: evidence.
Alexander in interested in unpacking what we mean when we say there is “no evidence” for something. Because we use that exact phrase to mean many different things:
Science communicators are using the same term - “no evidence” - to mean:
This thing is super plausible, and honestly very likely true, but we haven’t checked yet, so we can’t be sure.
We have hard-and-fast evidence that this is false, stop repeating this easily debunked lie.
This is utterly corrosive to anybody trusting science journalism. . . .
In traditional science, you start with a “null hypothesis” along the lines of “this thing doesn’t happen and nothing about it is interesting”. Then you do your study, and if it gets surprising results, you might end up “rejecting the null hypothesis” and concluding that the interesting thing is true; otherwise, you have “no evidence” for anything except the null.
This is a perfectly fine statistical hack, but it doesn’t work in real life. In real life, there is no such thing as a state of “no evidence” and it’s impossible to even give the phrase a consistent meaning. EG:
Is there "no evidence" that using a parachute helps prevent injuries when jumping out of planes? This was the conclusion of a cute paper in the BMJ, which pointed out that as far as they could tell, nobody had ever done a study proving parachutes helped. Their point was that "evidence" isn't the same thing as "peer-reviewed journal articles". So maybe we should stop demanding journal articles, and accept informal evidence as valid?
Is there "no evidence" for alien abductions? There are hundreds of people who say they've been abducted by aliens! By legal standards, hundreds of eyewitnesses is great evidence! If a hundred people say that Bob stabbed them, Bob is a serial stabber - or, even if you thought all hundred witnesses were lying, you certainly wouldn't say the prosecution had “no evidence”! When we say "no evidence" here, we mean "no really strong evidence from scientists, worthy of a peer-reviewed journal article". But this is the opposite problem as with the parachutes - here we should stop accepting informal evidence, and demand more scientific rigor.
Is there "no evidence" homeopathy works? No, here's a peer-reviewed study showing that it does. Don't like it? I have eighty-nine more peer-reviewed studies showing that right here. But a strong theoretical understanding of how water, chemicals, immunology, etc operate suggests homeopathy can't possibly work, so I assume all those pro-homeopathy studies are methodologically flawed and useless, the same way somewhere between 16% and 89% of other medical studies are flawed and useless. Here we should reject journal articles because they disagree with informal evidence!
Is there "no evidence" that King Henry VIII had a spleen? Certainly nobody has published a peer-reviewed article weighing in on the matter. And probably nobody ever dissected him, or gave him an abdominal exam, or collected any informal evidence. Empirically, this issue is just a complete blank, an empty void in our map of the world. Here we should ignore the absence of journal articles and the absence of informal evidence, and just assume it's true because obviously it’s true.
I challenge anyone to come up with a definition of "no evidence" that wouldn't be misleading in at least one of the above examples. If you can't do it, I think that's because the folk concept of "no evidence" doesn't match how real truth-seeking works. Real truth-seeking is Bayesian. You start with a prior for how unlikely something is. Then you update the prior as you gather evidence. If you gather a lot of strong evidence, maybe you update the prior to somewhere very far away from where you started, like that some really implausible thing is nevertheless true. Or that some dogma you held unquestioningly is in fact false. If you gather only a little evidence, you mostly stay where you started.
I'm not saying this process is easy or even that I'm very good at it. I'm just saying that once you understand the process, it no longer makes sense to say "no evidence" as a synonym for “false”.
Though I must confess that I find something slightly semantical about this point. People do not always speak (or even write) in perfectly, totally, precise ways! Sometimes they use abstractions!
When Alexander says that misusing “no evidence” is utterly corrosive, I think he’s overstating matters somewhat.
The truth is that in the real world, people communicate using nothing but imprecise abstractions. In a very real way, you could even argue that none of us speaks the same language—we all carry around slightly different ideas for what the same words mean. The fact that we can ever understand one another is a minor miracle.
Though I’m equally open to the idea that, as a philosophical matter, no two people have every truly and perfectly understood each other.
Real precision—along with perfect truth and understanding—is only found in 1’s and 0’s. In math.
So yes, it would be nice if we could try for more epistemic modesty and keep that as a goal.
But at the same time, it seems to me that a much more corrosive problem is people asserting things which are not true—or which they have no way to prove might be true—and hoping to muddy the waters in an attempt to pursue some agenda.
Epistemic modesty is not a suicide pact.
Frequent Bulwark contributor Robert Tracinski started his own Substack, called Symposium. And this essay, “If Everything Is ‘Woke,’ Then Nothing Is,” is fantastic:
The woke present themselves as the spokesmen—excuse me: persons of spoke—for the preferences and agenda of various minority groups, without ever really asking those groups what they want or need. But this should be no surprise. It is just an extension to race and gender of the old Leninist idea of a “revolutionary vanguard,” a committee of coffee-house intellectuals who appoint themselves as the voice of the toiling masses.
This failure has created a sense of opportunity, and that naturally leads to opportunism, the attempt to hitch popular rejection of wokeness to some other agenda. . . .
My objection is to the impulse to expand “woke” to mean “anything advocated by the left” or even “anything I disagree with.” . . .
That impulse is widespread right now. Wesley Yang, for example, defines “wokeness” so broadly that it could literally be anything. “‘Woke’ means ‘striving to be at the vanguard of today's progressive beliefs, whatever those happen to be.’” Or I recently got an announcement for a podcast that promises to connect “wokeness” to COVID mitigation measures.
This approach is used most brazenly and self-consciously by Christopher Rufo, who started by using “Critical Race Theory” as a “catchall”—his term—for today’s political dogmas on the subject of race. . . .
But when someone like Christopher Rufo designates it as a catchall for any idea on the left, he is confirming the left’s claim that the term is malleable and crudely partisan—because for him, it is.
This also threatens to break apart the growing anti-woke coalition. It tells our potential allies on the center-left that if they want to be anti-woke, they need to also become global warming skeptics and sign up for the drug war.
The reaction to the “Latinx” fiasco and the growing fear that the woke kids are costing Democrats their base of support among minority voters has led some on the center-left to begin advocating for the party’s return to a semblance on sanity. It would undoubtedly be good for the country and the culture if they succeeded. But we make it harder if we hand them a matrix of other views they have to agree with in order to be sufficiently non-woke.
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