Admit it. You might be getting bored. Despite being among the fortunate 0.1 percent of Pakistanis who have access to Netflix — or someone who visits illegal torrent or streaming sites, media servers on cable internet, or DVD shops that copy movies and series on to USB drives — chances are that, even with the wealth of options, you’re still not enticed by what’s streaming. Perhaps you’ve run out of “good stuff” to watch during the coronavirus pandemic, or the excess of options feel like a turn-off?

Well, to the people who crave entertainment, I have bad news… and then some bad news.

The first bad news is for everyday viewers who can’t settle on what to watch: your chances of not being able to pick a title may involve much more head-scratching in the next two years. Hypothetically speaking, if you’re skipping 10 titles to find something good to watch, chances are that, soon, you’ll be skipping 50.

The second bad news: there will be standardised excellence to the quality of productions, which will, ultimately, make every film or serial look the same. When things start looking the same (one can change the production design and story only so much before it starts repeating itself), how would one make the choice of choosing one title over another?

Ah, to be able to go back to the good ol’ days when choices were relatively fewer… and easier.

With mega corporate-media mergers happening globally, do individual and non-conforming creative voices stand a chance? Do Pakistani start-up platforms? More importantly, do audiences?

It has been a little more than six months since we discussed the rapidly escalating global war of giant streaming services Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Hulu, Disney+, Paramount +, and a whole lot of pluses coming our way (The Great OTT War, published January 3, 2021).

In the months since, a new twist has lent itself to the story: corporate mergers.

In the context of showbiz, corporate mergers are a standalone genre in its own right, ripe with the best clichés of storytelling; they have romance and drama, backstabbing and betrayal, and billions of dollars at stake, as we learn later in this piece.

If you thought superheroes, tentpole franchises, remakes, reboots or films based on toys and video games were the big trend in Hollywood, you’re wrong. In historic terms, big corporate deals shape the very structure of the industry.

Now, before you ask, ‘How do corporate mergers influence my choice on what to watch?’ Let me tell you: whatever you see today, in any form of entertainment, is a direct result of a well-planned corporate philosophy made by people who hold degrees from prestigious business schools.

This is not news. But in a business that thrives on creative choices and artistic freedom to tell stories, the corporate influence can be damaging. In an irksome way, the productions born from these decisions can feel too calculated, as if they’ve been deliberately designed to appeal on a global scale, put out specific messages, influence cultures and so on (the unwarranted invasion of culture is a long topic for another discussion).

Mergers and acquisitions — the world-shattering kind, such as Disney’s meticulously planned takeover of Pixar for 7.4 billion dollars in 2006, Marvel Entertainment (which includes their comic label and film and television rights for a major chunk of characters) for four billion dollars in 2009, Lucas Film (makers of Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies) for 4.05 billion dollars in 2012, and rival studio 20th Century Fox for a whopping 71.3 billion dollars — are directly responsible for the creation of the wholesome, risk-free, franchise-spewing barrage of content one regularly sees on screens.

Entertainment is business, and business is governed by statistics. If there is a sudden gush of high-profile fantasy series on television or streaming platforms (The Witcher, Warrior Nun, Cursed, Luna Nera, Shadow and Bone, Fate: The Winx Saga, Invisible City, Curon debuted on Netflix this past year), or if you’re fed-up with an off-shoot of Star Wars, you’re probably witnessing a business decision that’s cashing in on a trend.

The bombardment of excessive, ‘quality’ entertainment will not be limited to the streaming platforms either; the synergy of web and traditional entertainment will be absolute and baffling at the same time.

Think: the Marvel cinematic universe that spans across story ‘phases’ in films and series, but messier. Case in point: Marvel’s rival, DC Comics, and their head-scratching universe of series and films, that do not have a focal point or aligned continuity (Arrowverse on television, Snyderverse in the movies, standalone films such as Joker, or titles such as Suicide Squad or Shazam lingering somewhere in between).

So, yes, the reason you’re not seeing a good, sensible Superman film — or that there are talks of an African-American Superman movie in the works — is because of a corporate decision. And, as you may have realised, not all corporate decisions are good ones… especially when creative choices are involved.

Let’s turn back the clock a few months for a developing story that’s changing the very history of two nearly 100-year-old movie studios: Warner Bros. and MGM.

For whom the bells toll

Like a modern-day love story, the casual flirting began with emojis, according to stories on the topic published in the New York Times (NYT) and other publications.

“You around,” tapped David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery, in an email to John Stankey, the AT&T chief executive in February. “I’ve been thinking…” the former wrote. Stankey’s reply came back within minutes: “Always scares me when you do that.”

Within weeks, a secret union was underway. Stankey, through telecom giant AT&T, controlled WarnerMedia — an entertainment conglomerate that owns about 30 major brands, including Warner Bros. Studios, HBO, CNN, TCM and DC Comics. Zaslav, via Discovery Inc., has 20 brands including Discovery, Animal Planet, OWN (Oprah Winfrey’s channel), Food Network and HGTV.

It was a marriage made in corporate heaven… one that would ease AT&T’s financial burden, enabling the telecom giant to concentrate on its core business, and not worry about the business-end of WarnerMedia assets, which it had been bungling up.

According to the contracts of the union, the “spin-off” company (technically called a Reverse Morris Trust), will give AT&T and Discovery Inc. a split of 71 percent and 29 percent, respectively, and place Zaslav at the helm.

This is not WarnerMedia’s first big merger, though. AT&T had acquired Warner Bros. and their sister assets from Time Warner for 85.4 billion dollars in 2018. A similar deal was set in motion in 2011, when AT&T’s competitor, Comcast acquired NBC Universal from General Electric (GE).

By March, with most internal negotiations between the big-wigs secretly sorted out, an important and awkward conversation needed to take place. That happened two months later, in early May. Jason Kilar, a former Amazon executive and CEO of Hulu, and nearly a year-old CEO of WarnerMedia, was about to be given the boot after a corporate “Et tu, Brutus?” moment.

Kilar was deemed a trail-blazing maverick — he is the man behind the structuring of HBO Max as a global OTT service, the architect of the platform’s fierce global roll-out plan, and the controversial decision-maker behind releasing all Warner Bros. films on the same day-and-date simultaneously on the streaming service and cinemas.

Yet, despite his credentials as a “disruptive force” in the industry who had skyrocketed HBO Max’s appeal internationally (and also angered cinema owners, A-list actors and directors), Kilar was kept out of the loop of the deal between Zaslav and Stankey.

On May 14, an extensive profile, where Warner and other industry executives sang praises for Kilar, was published in the Wall Street Journal. The article was facilitated by AT&T. Kilar, however, didn’t share the piece with his 37,000 Twitter followers, according to a NYT article. He, instead, hired an ace legal team to negotiate his exit from the company that weekend.

According to the rumours, Zaslav will be taking over the new iteration of the company, temporarily called Warner Bros. Discovery, which will let go of the iconic shield logo that had the words WB at its centre. A horrendous, cheap-looking makeshift logo, of gold letters across an open blue sky, was shown to investors at a recent conference. A tagline, also in gold, reads: ‘The stuff dreams are made of’ — a classic line uttered by Humphrey Bogart’s character from The Maltese Falcon (1941).

If Warner Bros.’ production decisions appeared erratic and inconsistent year after year this past decade, one could blame the issue on an ever-changing roster of executives. If Zaslav maintains his reins and all comes to pass, one can expect WB to have a radical change of image that’s consistent for the long-run.

By 2022, I doubt much of Kilar’s plans would remain at this new empire, when the deal finally comes to pass for Warner Bros. Discovery. The new media giant will be home to Warner Bros., CNN, Cartoon Network, Discovery, Animal Planet, HBO, HBO Max and an additional 20-odd brands functioning under a singular corporate umbrella.

Like Disney, whose corporate philosophy of wholesomeness is embraced by most of its brands (Avengers, and the characters’ standalone movies, are nothing but wholesome), Warner Bros. Discovery might have a similar overarching set of doctrines in place that would have two goals: design and maintain an image of the company (what that is, remains to be seen; WB was once known to be a radical, but diverse, studio that entertained serious films), and push as much content as possible to broaden the subscriber base.

At another end of Tinseltown, another shake-up with a similar outlook was simultaneously in progress.

Amazon, who owns their own major streaming service, Prime Video, announced that it would acquire MGM for 8.5 billion dollars. The price was 40 percent more than other prospective buyers, Apple and Comcast, deemed it worth. MGM, as its chief Louis B. Mayer once bragged, was “home to more stars than the heavens”.

That was in the golden days of Hollywood. Today, after decades of losses, MGM was slowly on the road to financial recovery before the pandemic hit. It had been shopped around for months, before Amazon snagged it.

Despite most of its classic pre-1986 film library sold off decades ago (classics such as Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz and Gone to the Wind are owned by Warner Bros), and the studio lot recently bought by Sony Pictures, the roaring old lion still owns 17,000 episodes of television content and 4,000 movies, including Rocky, Robocop, The Pink Panther, The Silence of the Lambs, Legally Blond, Moonstruck, Basic Instinct, Tomb Raider and James Bond.

The excessive price for MGM has a reason. In today’s world, when corporate takeovers are creating mammoth media conglomerates catering to worldwide audiences, streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix or HBO Max need time-tested intellectual properties (IPs) and as many brands as possible in their arsenal.

Obviously, studios who already own IPs are unwilling to license their libraries to rival platforms (notice how, slowly, Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros. titles are going away from Netflix). With exception to Sony, who has a long-term deal with Netflix, and which technically doesn’t own a major OTT (the studio owns Sony Liv, an India-specific streaming service with limited international growth), every major studio is forced to bolster its own streaming service with new and old content.

“The acquisition thesis here is very simple,” said Amazon head Jeff Bezos during an annual shareholder meeting. MGM has a “vast, deep catalogue of much-beloved” movies and shows that Amazon “can reimagine and redevelop for the 21st century.”

According to a report from the NYT, Bezos said that the “work would be fun” and “people who love stories will be the big beneficiaries.”

The MGM buyout doesn’t sit well with John Logan, the three-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Gladiator, Aviator and Hugo, and the James Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre.

Logan wrote an extensive op-ed in the NYT, voicing his concerns over the future of Bond, now that MGM owns 50 percent of the franchise (the other 50 percent is owned by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, of Eon productions, owners of the cinematic rights of Bond).

“The reason we’re still watching Bond movies after more than 50 years is that the family (Barbera and Michael) has done an extraordinary job of protecting the character through the thickets of moviemaking and changing public tastes. Corporate partners come and go, but James Bond endures. He endures precisely because he is being protected by people who love him,” wrote Logan.

“The current deal with Amazon gives Barbara and Michael, who own 50 percent of the Bond empire, ironclad assurances of continued artistic control. But will this always be the case? What happens if a bruising corporation like Amazon begins to demand a voice in the process? What happens to the comradeship and quality control if there’s an Amazonian overlord with analytics parsing every decision? What happens when focus groups report they don’t like Bond drinking martinis? Or killing quite so many people? And that English accent’s a bit alienating, so could we have more Americans in the story for marketability?

“If you think I’m exaggerating, consider some internal polling data that decreed that the movie adaptation of Sweeney Todd — for which I wrote the screenplay — would be much more popular without all those annoying songs,” he argues.

“From my experience, here’s what happens to movies when such concerns start invading the creative process: Everything gets watered down to the most anodyne and easily consumable version of itself. The movie becomes an inoffensive shadow of a thing, not the thing itself. There are no more rough edges or flights of cinematic madness. The fire and passion are gradually drained away as original ideas and voices are subsumed by commercial concerns, corporate oversight and polling data. I wonder whether such an outré studio movie as Vertigo would have survived if such pressures existed then. Not to mention radical films such as Citizen Kane, The Red Shoes, Cabin in the Sky and Bonnie and Clyde.

“Please let 007 drink his martinis in peace. Don’t shake him, don’t stir him,” he concluded.

The Inevitable, inescapable future

One can’t argue against Logan’s apprehensions; in fact, this writer couldn’t have worded his concerns as compellingly.

There is a consensus that every major studio is scared of YouTube, Facebook and TikTok, and that scare is forcing billions to be funneled into productions.

Netflix will invest 28 billion dollars per year on productions by 2028; Disney+, will spend 16 billion dollars by 2024; Amazon will fund an expansion of the Lord of the Rings with a mammoth per-season cost of 465 million dollars. The above-mentioned merging and restructuring of Warner Bros. Discovery, the indecisions of executives, bad decision-making in terms of characters and IPs and, lastly, their global push for HBO Max, is a part of that very changing future.

As the future of the entertainment industry changes, and streaming services super charge their content by cashing in on nostalgia, new franchises and happening trends, and productions start rolling out on blistering production schedules and unfathomable scales, no one seems to think about the audiences — or the fact that there is will eventually be a thing as too much entertainment.

This writer remembers that, in his youth, there was a popular saying that simply meant watching too much television rots the brain. Today, one cannot escape entertainment. Are we eventually on the path of becoming those obese, brainwashed couch potatoes from movies and shows that depict a technologically oppressive, media-controlled, totalitarian future? Perhaps.

With the mad-rush of creating global conglomerates, the future is inevitable. Homegrown OTT platforms in Pakistan do not hold a chance against a world-sweeping onslaught by the likes of Apple+, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Paramount+ and Netflix, when they eventually invade this country. The promise of entertainment is great, but the long-term damage will be immense.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 18th, 2021

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