Marking the end of appointment viewing
Once upon a time – i.e. 2009 – life was simple for the entertainment industry. Audiences watched films in theatres and shows on televisions. The smartphone was not an entertainment device and the Internet was a place for bloggers and pirates. The categories were neat and everything had its place.
Ten years later, it’s all a glorious mess. The Internet has made the world of entertainment more expansive than ever. A handful of entertainment companies seem to be poised for world domination while YouTube channels run by everyday people collect fan bases of thousands and even millions. Studies suggest attention spans are about as short as a simple sentence, but over the top (OTT) platforms say subscribers binge-watch shows for hours.
There’s so much content being produced that we’re literally at a loss for words with which to describe it. For example, when a television show is viewed on an OTT platform such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hotstar, does it make sense to still call it a “TV show”? And what do we call the content made for and by OTT platforms? Web shows? Streamers? Bingeables?
We may be lacking words to describe what’s on OTT platforms, but that hasn’t stopped this sector from making dramatic strides in the past decade. Today, cinema, dominated as it is by big studios and tent-pole releases, is no longer considered the most exciting space for visual storytellers. Instead, the imagination has turned to the Internet.
RAIDERS OF THE ARC
It began with OTT platforms taking a hammer to appointment viewing by buying TV shows that were inventive and cleverly written. Subscribers could now watch the shows whenever they wanted, rather than when a channel had decided. Even if they were originally made for TV, shows such as Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Broadchurch and Black Mirror were perfect streaming content for a simple reason: they were binge-worthy. The layered writing and intelligent direction meant episodes survived repeat viewing and detailed analysis by eagle-eyed fan communities. Few subscribers would have realised that their seemingly casual choices of what to watch was helping build the cornerstone of a sector that today enjoys one of the highest growth rates within the entertainment industry.
When Netflix announced it would produce an American adaptation of a British mini-series called House of Cards in the early Twenteens, what set tongues wagging was the news that big data had informed the show’s creation. Having analysed its viewers’ habits, Netflix figured it had the ingredients for a hit show: A loyal fan base for political thrillers, actor Kevin Spacey, and director David Fincher. Next thing we knew, Fincher was the executive producer on Netflix’s adaptation of House of Cards, starring Spacey. On February 1, 2013, all 13 episodes of the first season appeared on Netflix. Video viewing was about to change forever.
Until House of Cards, binge-watching was a joy reserved for those who indulged in piracy. Everyone else was a slave to appointment viewing. With its policy of releasing all episodes of a season at once, Netflix turned binge-watching into a virtue. It also changed the experience of writing for such shows. In its most conventional form, television writing continues to be manacled to ratings, which results in contrived cliffhangers and insane plot twists to hold the audience’s attention. However, in the streaming sector, episodic storytelling has transformed into a remarkably versatile and powerful device because OTT platforms seem to focus on the audience’s response to an entire season, rather than an individual episode.
Speaking at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, House of Cards’ showrunner Beau Willimon likened writing for network television to “fighting for your life” with every episode. In contrast, the two-season contract that Netflix had initially given House of Cards was “freeing”. Since he could plan for a 26-episode arc, there was screen time to build characters and layer plots. “Knowing that you would get 26 hours, knowing that you could lay a tiny little grace note in the first episode and it might not boomerang back until 26 hours later, that really liberates you,” said Willimon.
Although many shows have been taken off OTT platforms because not enough people were watching them (allegedly), there’s a sense of creative freedom to this medium that has drawn some of cinema’s finest talents to it. Today, Netflix not only has films by Martin Scorcese, Alfonso Cuaron and Noau Baumbach in its stable, but it’s also letting directors try ambitious projects that seem too expansive for conventional cinema. For instance, Fincher’s Mindhunters, a show based on a real team from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that studied serial killers, is expected to play out across at least five seasons. From the first two seasons, it’s clear that in addition to the main plots, Fincher is also incrementally building up the story of a man who was known as the “BTK Killer” across seasons. The BTK Killer was finally caught in 2005. With the second season of Mindhunters, we’ve reached 1981. How’s that for a long game?
LOOKING AHEAD, AND BEHIND
It’s a curious coincidence that much of the entertainment in the global North has looked back rather than forward even as technological advancements transform our daily lives. If the 1960s were characterised by writers and artists imagining the future, then the 2010s will go down as the decade when the yin of dizzying change was met with the yang of nostalgia, in America in particular. The fascination for vintage that began with Mad Men in 2007 became the flavour of the Twenteens, with different genres using the past in different ways. Sometimes, it was an imaginary history, like the medieval fantasy world of Game of Thrones and the steampunk aesthetic of Carnival Row. Sometimes, the setting was historical but romanticised, like in Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which is set in the late 1950s, and The Crown, which began in 1947 and will end in the present. True crime delves into the recent past, like in Making of a Murderer and The Jinx, exploring it with meticulous attention to detail. For all its cruelties and darkness, the past is a place that American entertainment has turned to repeatedly, drawing comfort from knowing wrongs may be exposed, if not righted, with the benefit of hindsight.
It’s not that the future has no takers. Black Mirror and The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, with their many visions and versions of our future are already considered iconic. However, it seems storytellers in the global North are finding it difficult to imagine the future as anything other than dystopic, which inevitably leaves both content creators and audiences feeling nostalgic.
In sharp contrast, the Indian content on OTT platforms are all focused on examining the present and presenting a modern India, perhaps to reflect the relatively young population of the country.
By the time Netflix and Amazon came to India in 2016, OTT platforms had already established themselves as the next big thing in entertainment. Before Indian audiences, they dangled the promise of entertainment that was uncensored and current. For content creators, it meant an opportunity to be counted alongside international counterparts. Both Amazon Prime and Netflix came with chequebooks in hand, looking to produce local material in order to expand their subscription base. And so it is that now, home-grown Indian entertainment ranges from kitschy TV soaps such as Manmohini, about a love triangle between a man, a woman and a 500-year-old witch, to tautly written shows such as Mirzapur and the first season of Sacred Games.
Indian shows on OTT platforms still tend to lean on the commercial Hindi film industry, which works for shows such as The Family Man, which balances the flamboyance of Bollywood action films with a script that doesn’t waste time on tropes like song sequences. Made in Heaven explored affluent Delhi society by taking us through the trials and tribulations faced by a wedding planning firm. One of the lead characters in the show is a gay man while another leaves her husband at the end of the first season, offering a stark contrast to stock characters seen on TV soaps. Delhi Crime was set in the aftermath of the December 16 gang-rape and offered a lot more nuance than the popular crime shows on TV.
Remarkably, the past decade has also been one of the most creative periods for cinema, despite directors such as Martin Scorcese and Steven Soderbergh lamenting the loss of aesthetics under the onslaught of superhero franchises. The immense popularity of these films suggests they’re feeding a very particular hunger in audiences across the world. Superheroes stoke a fantasy that lurking under everyday helplessness is the agency to change the narrative. It’s a powerful dream at a time when large groups feel they’re underrepresented or being written out of the narrative of the country.
The carefully calculated campaign for Marvel Studios’s Infinity Saga — which began with Iron Man and ended 23 films later with Spider-Man: Far From Home — has ensured not one year has passed in this decade without at least one blockbuster, superhero film from the Disney subsidiary playing at a cinema near you. This has meant fewer screens for everyone else. In spite of this, America saw a resurgence of the a genre that was decidedly niche till the Twenties: Horror. Films such as Get Out, The Babadook and Hereditary took standard-issue genre topics like demonic possession and crafted them into complex cinematic works. It was almost as though the industry was dealing with its own fears by exploring the idea of fear itself, and audiences have loved these films.
For all the formulae and flaws, the Infinity Saga movies are also among the best of the superhero genre. While Marvel Studios may not have allowed any radical shifts in storytelling, the studio did bring in indie directors such as Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel). With Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and DC Comics’s Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the overwhelmingly white and alpha male collective of superheroes got some much-needed diversity.
While we waited for the next tent-pole adventure, streaming content had The Umbrella Academy, The Boys, and Watchmen — all of them adding twists and complexities to squeaky-clean simplicity of the big-screen superhero. We’ll never know whether decisions like the revelation of who is Doc Manhattan in Watchmen was guided by data, a whim or conversations about the lack of representation for people of colour in entertainment. Perhaps it’s enough that these choices are being made and there is an attempt to forge new heroes out of the ruins of the old.
Also, for all the hand-wringing anxiety about cinema being reduced to formulaic content, this past decade has been an extraordinarily creative one. It gave us imaginative wonders like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Mad Max: Fury Road by George Miller. Despite the challenges posed by lack of funds and shortage of screens, films such as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which was filmed over 12 years, did get both made and screened as did tender, beautiful little films such as Tangerine, Frances Ha and Lady Bird.
In India too, commercial Hindi cinema has had a good run this decade. Keeping its eye on the contemporary, Bollywood got better at the craft of filmmaking, if not the business of it. There were unconventional stories like Lootera, Kahaani, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Queen, Tanu Weds Manu, NH10, Piku and Kapoor & Sons, which gave Bollywood actresses roles in which they could finally shine. While big-budget films that relied on star appeal and fantasy — like Kalank, Bombay Velvet and Zero — found little love from audiences, smaller-budget films became hits and raised the stature of actors like Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao. Commercial Hindi cinema dipped its toes in the pool of idealism with films like Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir; Masaan, a story about caste and misogyny set in Varanasi; and Article 15, a well-meaning but tone deaf take on caste and violence in rural India.
In the recent past, the Hindi film industry has become increasingly enamoured by the history of the subcontinent, with an eye to revising it. Fact and accuracy are irrelevant to this project, with filmmakers determinedly imagining a theatrical, opulent Hindu India peopled with triumphantly nationalist sons of the soil. Mohenjo Daro, Kesari, Manikarnika, Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat, Rustom, Thackeray are all part of this project. Imagined histories include the mythical setting of Baahubali, which broke multiple box office records, and the faux colonial India of Thugs of Hindostan, which was a resounding flop despite having star actors Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan in the cast.
Looking ahead, it’s clear that more than ever before, every medium is looking to the audience and its data for direction. While creators have always sought the approval of the public, this is perhaps the first time that the public is playing such an active role in the creative process. The question now is, where will the data lead us?