I am working on a series of essays focused on the future of storytelling: the “Story Stack” – an entire ecosystem that I see developing around storytellers and creators. These essays will focus on the following topics:
Part 1. Moving Pictures – Cut to the Chase (this essay)
Part 2. Written Word – Here be Dragons
Part 3. Games
Part 4. Marketing and Ads
Part 5. The Story Stack – how the future of storytelling will come to pass
Imagine a group of young 20-somethings making movies. They are writers, directors and actors (some take on all the three responsibilities). They are from different parts of the country – looking to achieve fame. The movies are silent and use canned sound clips. All the clutter is cut away – the focus is on a moment in time – a gag, a beat (an action-reaction pair in film parlance). There is comedy, romance and action. Some sequences are speeded up and others are slowed down for dramatic effect. Because budgets and time are limited, sometimes multiple movies are shot in a day. Productions are completed fast and the final product is shipped quickly. Your popularity depends on you generating more content.
I can imagine a lot of you nodding along – thinking of all the youngsters you know – trying to become TikTok and social media stars. But the scene I described above is not from the present. Far from it.
It is the 1920s, and everyone and their grandmother is moving to Hollywood. Filmmaking is the next big gold rush. Studios are being established. Money is being raised. Multiple productions run around the clock. 800 movies were made every year in the US through the 20s (compared to a paltry 500 studio movies now, 100 years later).
Every major editing technique was employed more than 100 years ago to make these movies as tight and as action-packed as possible. The phrase “cut to the chase” literally came from editors sitting in dark rooms cutting out extra frames and scenes and literally cutting the film roll to the final chase sequence in the story.
By the end of the decade, 5 major studios emerged in Hollywood. These studios had actors, writers and directors under strict contracts. The studios owned their own theatre chains and controlled distribution (this monopoly was only broken by the US government in the late 40s). Almost 65% of all Americans visited the movie halls in 1930 (compared to less than 10% last year).
History has a way of repeating itself. The growth of moviemaking in the 1920s was led by opportunistic/ visionary businessmen who had the money and the resources to hire young artists, put them under iron-clad contracts, and exploit/ nurture their creativity to make millions. These artists moved to California from all over the US (and the world) to seek out fame (they still do). Film making was a costly enterprise. Access to cameras was limited.
Cut to the present day. We all carry state-of-the-art cameras in our pockets. There are great affordable editing tools available across the board. Heck, most UGC (user generated content) platforms offer more versatility and capability in their mobile editing tools than anything that was available to film editors in the last 100 years. And large social/ UGC platforms offer never before seen discoverability and distribution for your content. Software is eating the world slowly – but it is absolutely devouring the world of storytellers (writers, artists, film- and game-makers).
The big difference between the 1920s and now: while everyone wanted to make a movie back then, it is now genuinely feasible for each and every one of us to make one. Think of the kids in JJ Abrams’ Super 8: running around a small town in Ohio with their video camera, using locals as actors and extras, creating props out of paper and glue. We are all like those kids.
The rise of creators is happening. But first …
The Curators Strike Back
In the world of art, a curator is a custodian – discovering, presenting and preserving pieces of art. They are tastemakers – they tell the world what matters and who matters. They decide what is in and what is out. The best ones, nurture artists and help birth great pieces of art. But what if, over time, they also become the lords and masters of the entire economy that evolves around these pieces of art. Imagine if Anna Wintour told the world that a new Hermes bag was the most important fashion accessory of the season and also just happened to own Hermes.
Now think of every exec in the publishing, music, film and television industry. As custodians of quality, they decide which author gets published, which scriptwriter’s work is optioned and turned into a movie, which musician becomes the next big pop sensation. They control the production budgets and distribution – obviously taking the lion’s share of profits home. The streaming wars have definitely helped a few creators make significant money (think of Adam Sandler and Shonda Rhimes and the two gentlemen who destroyed GoT). But mostly, curators control the movement of money in this ecosystem.
Even independent filmmakers need large distributors: the real prize of winning a film festival is a contract with a distributor. Solo artists and creators have seldom been able to reap the complete benefits of their work. Self publishing has been around since good ol’ Gutenberg printed the first book. But it is every writer’s dream to be represented by a big-name publisher (even though it makes zero economic sense – more on this in the essay on the Written Word). Being picked by a curator sends a very strong signal to the world – you are good/ you deserve a chance. The rise of content platforms (music, video, UGC) has definitely helped in shifting this balance of power – but there is a long way to go.
A Question of Quality
The argument always boils down to quality. Curators guarantee quality. The extensive checks and balances they put in place, ensure that only the best works see the light of day (or so they claim). Self publishing is frowned down upon (music, books, etc) and labels like “vanity publishing” are used to dissuade creators from going down this path. “A TikTok star is not really an actor/ director/ writer” – because a large studio is not backing them?
But is quality really a problem? I am always reminded of the science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon who coined the eponymous Sturgeon’s Law – “ninety per cent of everything is crap”. The insane part is that this law can be applied to any type of content by an individual. Lots of us would find 90% of AFI’s “top 100 movies of the last century” underwhelming. Billboard top 100? Chances are you loathe a large chunk of those songs.
The great thing about the law is that it mirrors the power-law curve. A small percentage of any type of content (books, movies, songs, artwork) would command a disproportionate amount of revenue/ watch time/ listening time/ user ratings. But this is where technology has an edge. We can now capture strong signals from users – what they like and dislike. And we can personalize their content streams. The platforms which were aggregators are also now curators (a proxy for viewers’ consumption habits).
We live in a world, where pop-culture is dictated and moulded by the curators. They wield immense power – both creative and financial. And they will continue to wield this power for a long time to come because they understand the market and have built deep moats (owning intellectual property being the biggest one). But a parallel economy is already on the rise – one in which creators will reap the largest chunk of benefits from their creations – and an entire collaborative ecosystem of other creators, tool makers, marketeers and distributors will also thrive and flourish. Many platforms will live and die – but it is the Story Stack that will continue evolving.