Readers Write In #396: Streaming my Consciousness

Posted on August 18, 2021


(by Anonymous)

The following are some random questions that I have had for so long. Pardon me if I am not very coherent here, because for all I care about now, is getting all these questions out in some form of articulate manner, which conveys the intent behind all of this questioning.

Let us start with the most basic and frequently asked question. Does OTT change the way we make movies? I guess so. In the theatrical screening, we are time bound. We give somebody else the control of our time. We can’t switch it forward, rewind it, pause it or skip some portions.

So far, the movies have been more like music than literature. As Andrei Tarkovsky famously said, the movies are about sculpting in Time. With literature, as readers we always have the luxury and ease of deciding how long we want to read it, how we want to read it, when do we stop and ponder, when do we not put down, what we skip, what we re-read. But, now people are going to have the control of time in their hands, at their fingertips, with one click of the button. So is this going to make movies more like literature and less like music?

The pauses, the silences, the tempo, the lanquidity, the energy – all of these were devices that the film maker could use to set an emotional experience for the audience. If they were to convey sadness, they could make the audience feel sad for however long they want instead of merely suggest it and quickly move on.

Why would an audience sit through an emotion when they have full control of how they want to feel and how long do they want to feel it, instead of actually feeling it and eliciting an emotional response? So will the plot points become more and more important than the emotion and feeling?

I am sure any artist would not want to give the control of their art to the audience. Don’t get me wrong here, I always stand for the side that thinks art takes shape and completes itself in the mind of the viewer. But, I am equally sure the artist wouldn’t like the audience to meddle the actual art itself. Say, a painter would not want the viewers changing the size of their brush stroke, or the poets wouldn’t love readers putting extra punctuations in their poem. In similar fashion I don’t think film makers would love the audience meddling with the flow of time in their movies.

Most of us have heard the now famous (or rather infamous, I don’t really know) quote by the CEO of Netflix, “We actually compete with sleep. And we’re winning!”. Any corporation, any political party, or anybody in power has only one thing on their agenda, to become bigger and acquire more and more control. So, this begets the new question, are the audience really in control?

We as an audience are fighting our desire to sleep, which is one of the most basic human needs, which is so vital to the health of every individual, which is unquestionably non-replenish-able. And we are losing. We are given a remote to feel power, like we are given a right to vote to feel the power. Are we as an audience really in control? Or like every other time, Is the true power always with the corporation and the governments?

But, you could question, are these really that bad? Haven’t they provided so many opportunities to the industry when it is completely stranded during the pandemic? Haven’t they improved the state of cinema without necessarily fighting with the censor boards? Haven’t they grown the scope of the  small budget films to wider audiences and made them bigger than they were capable of earlier? Of course, Yes, a big Yes.

But, I refuse to believe in a binary point-of-view, outside of Science. So, there are questions beyond these goods they do now. While all of these are of benefit to some people who are already a part of the industry, made a name for themselves and have a niche audience for themselves, I have serious doubts about the image of these streaming giants being this Benevolent Saviors of the new age of cinema.

By understanding behavioral economics, we know about the concept of “Power of Defaults”. The subscription model as revenue uses this concept to grow their companies. It is default that you pay for one month, they store your information on their file, they automatically claim for the service, next month when it is due. They can make the unsubscribe a little more hidden, they can make the resubscribe a little more painful, and exploit our human tendency of taking “Path of least resistance” to make their money.

This is a model that works fantastically well in digital space, as the cost of scalability, delivery and distribution is way lesser than logistics of an analog (or tangible or real, I don’t know what the right word is, but I hope you get the idea, for e.g. Newspapers subscriptions) business. There is also the added benefit in people’s mind of paying lower/affordable costs each month than to pay a big price upfront (like EMIs, it makes no real economical sense, but our dimwit brain thinks otherwise).

To be totally fair, this is a revelation in market psychology which made a lot of money for all technological companies (not just streaming) from Apple to Adobe, they have all exploited it and have become bigger and bigger. Not exactly totally-accusing them for it, as I already said, I refuse to believe in binaries. But we need to be aware that this is their business model, so we can see through what their real priority is.

As every business is an endeavor to make more profit for the people/stakeholders who invested in it and make the lives of people working in that company to have better monetary rewards. So, the aim of the streaming platform is always going to be getting more people to have new subscriptions. Isn’t that question very similar to what the cinema halls trying to do, how will we get more audience? The answer is always, get the big names, get people who already have the bigger market place on board. That is exactly what the streaming business’ priority will be. They could either buy/produce 10 films with a small budget that doesn’t increase their subscriber count much, or could buy/produce a big film that is going to get loads of hype and new subscribers. As a business, what is going to be their priority?

The question of how Art and Commerce could blend to create a right economic model that is fair for artists, audience and distributors has been there for ages. Is it okay for every film to charge the same price for each individual? There are always going to be films that a huge population is going to see, as human beings we are evolutionarily conditioned to the herd mentality, we need to do what everybody else is doing, we need to see what everybody is seeing. That is always going to keep the generic film making styles. But there are going to be movies that only a few people are going to see, but it might make a deep emotional impact on the viewer like a life experience. How do we price both of them? Is it fair that both the movies have to follow the same business model?

There are issues from audience side as well – the subscription, the easy interface, high quality/definition and having the credit card information on file minimizes the prolonged issue of combating piracy. Heck it is even called “Thiruttu VCD”, that’s theft in the very name of describing the act. But it doesn’t even weigh the viewers down with a fraction of the guilt, as say stealing a kerchief from a garment store. The society as a whole doesn’t really find it demeaning.

Human brains are notoriously adamant when it comes to taking the path of least resistance. So it would feel like a monumental effort to type out our credit card information every time we need to watch a film. Barcode kind of solves that problem, but subscription works way better for the companies, so they aren’t even trying to find out if that really works. Or we could do the pay as you wish and put the onus on the benevolence of human beings. While this has worked out well for a lot of small scale physical stores, we have no idea how this will fare in terms of digital movie business. Last time I heard something like this on a digital big scale was Radiohead’s release of their album “In Rainbows”, but that is Radiohead and later they did release a physical disc too, and I don’t have the economic account of how it fared.

How do artists who want to make what they really want, ensure at least breakeven, when the audience and distribution aren’t really receptive to anything new. Most times with art, what is beyond our understanding and aesthetics, is almost always as frustrating (if not more) to watch as the art that we perceive as beneath our understanding and aesthetics.

So what is really the answer to all these questions? I have no clue, especially with the medium of cinema being one of the expensive forms of art. How do we design a system that is fair for all – The artists, The audience and The middlemen? All I have are more questions and no real answers, but I am pretty sure the current streaming and subscription model is not “the” ultimate solution.

All said and done, I remain Anonymous on this post because I am still optimistic (for myself) about making a movie, and I don’t want to be scared of the guilt of public shaming if I happen to sell it to these platforms. If that makes you think that I am a hypocrite, I would say that is a fair assessment. But then, I would also add that almost all human beings are in some way or form hypocrites too. At least I am honest and open enough about my opinions, at least I am self-aware instead of being self-righteous and looking down on people from a pedestal and inflicting morals. If in your book, that counts for nothing, so be it. But I refuse believe in binaries.