Over*Flow: Festival of Disruption: A Report from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival
Sarah E. S. Sinwell / University of Utah

Directors of the New Frontier Shorts Program
Directors of the New Frontier Shorts Program

I have attended the Sundance Film Festival for the last five years. As a scholar of contemporary American independent cinema, I have eagerly followed the festival from afar as films such as sex, lies, and videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) and Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) changed the meaning of indie cinema and transformed the independent film industry. As a “Utah Local,” a special ticket option for those in the local community who hold a Utah driver’s license, I have had the opportunity to witness the excitement of local cinephiles as directors and stars such as Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here, 2017) and Paul Dano (Wildlife, 2018) have graced the stages of our art house theatres and libraries. I have also listened to seasoned festival-goers express their wistfulness for the earlier years of the festival when they would arrive at Trolley Square with camp chairs and coffee at 5 AM in order to queue for tickets. Even as recently as 2016, I myself queued for “Best of Fest” tickets at Trolley Square and made long-lasting friendships as I waited in that early morning line that snakes through the hallways of the mall. More recently, tickets for Sundance are obtained through waiting in an online queue or an online waitlist, so much of that comradery of long lines in pursuit of tickets is now limited to the lines before the screenings that are filled with eager cinephiles awaiting the latest “Sundance hit.”

The Sundance Film Festival still upholds its mission to be “the ultimate gathering of original storytellers and audiences seeking new voices and fresh perspectives,” but, those audiences are changing. It is now part of Sundance lore that Park City screenings are for the industry, while the Salt Lake City screenings forty-five minutes away are for the “true cinephiles.” When stars and directors choose to arrive at their Salt Lake City screenings (an occurrence that is not guaranteed since many stars and directors choose to return home after their Park City premieres), they often remark upon how these are the “real audiences,” as opposed to the Los Angeles industry insiders in Park City. In turn, Salt Lake City audiences are constantly seeking out the director or star Q&A after the screening, hoping they will travel that 45 minutes from Park City even if it is not the film’s premiere. This attraction to “liveness,” this hope for access to the industry, stars, and directors, and the possibility of discovering a new voice of independent film is often what drives audiences in Salt Lake City to brave the lines and snow and continue to attend the festival, even if those films may be present on Netflix just a few days later.

In 2020, the buzz at the Sundance Film Festival centered mainly around Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (a documentary about Taylor Swift that was available for streaming on Netflix even before the festival ended) and the Andy Samberg comedy Palm Springs, Neon and Hulu’s joint acquisition that beat Sundance’s record by selling for $17,500,0000.69 (69 cents more than Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation in 2016). In fact, Mike Fleming, Jr. of Deadline notes that the value of this deal is actually closer to $22 million. After winning a binning war with A24 and Netflix, the deal includes streaming rights and a bonus structure through Hulu. This year, Hulu also bought Justin Simien’s comedic horror satire Bad Hair for $8 million.

After the limited success of Amazon’s high-profile acquisitions of two crowd-pleasing comedies at Sundance 2019, Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night and Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon, many distributors were hesitant about what the future of distribution would be like at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020. In fact, many industrial professionals suggested that art house and niche films might be less likely than ever to receive expensive deals from streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. At the 2020 festival, the need for a partnership between streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu as well as theatrical exhibition through specialty divisions such as A24 and NEON became especially significant since the Directors Guild of America announced in 2019 that day-and-date releases would no longer be eligible for its top award, which would now be titled “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Theatrical Feature Film.”

Many of these distribution deals were made before the festival even began so some savvy Sundance-goers changed their screening choices knowing the films had already been picked up by streamers like Netflix. Interestingly, winner of the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Audience Awards, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari was already picked up for distribution by A24 before the Festival even began. This is becoming more and more prevalent as the streaming wars continue and new streamers like Apple TV+, Peacock, HBO Max, and others enter the market. In fact, the distributors of Sundance films are included within the program, so audiences may already be aware of a film’s distribution by companies like A24 or Netflix before the festival begins and may even choose their screenings accordingly.

At my local art house theatre, The Salt Lake Film Society, it has already been announced that more than seven Sundance films will be showing at our local theatre since companies like Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, and Sony Pictures Classics picked up films such as Downhill (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash), Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell), and The Climb (Michael Angelo Covino) even before the festival began. The possibility of seeing these films theatrically just a few weeks or months after Sundance is a new development, as previously it often took between six months to a year for a Sundance film to receive a wide release, especially in cities outside of New York and Los Angeles.

Also notable this year was the presence of Netflix’s own slate at Sundance 2020, including ten finished films and three additional acquisitions, ranging from dramas including Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted and Jeff Baena’s Horse Girl, to documentaries such as James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s Crip Camp and Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead. Even Disney + showed its presence at the festival within the Kids’ section, Tom McCarthy’s feature Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. One can assume that Netflix’s and Disney’s presence at Sundance provides free marketing and word-of-mouth for these films before they are released on streaming services.

Sundance 2020 By the Numbers
Sundance 2020 By the Numbers

The Sundance 2020 slate of directors also seemed more diverse than ever, with 46 percent of the competition categories directed by women, 38 percent directed by people of color, and 12 percent directed by the LGBTQ+ community. Women also took home all four directing awards, “of the 28 prizes awarded … to 25 films – comprising the work of 29 filmmakers – 12 (48%) were directed by one or more women; 10 (40%) were directed by one or more people of color; and 2 (8%) were directed by a person who identifies as LGBTQ+,” according to a press release from the festival. During the Q&A after the screening of her film The 40-Year-Old Version in Salt Lake City, Directing Award winner Radha Blank even alluded to the possibilities of turning her feature into a series. According to Chris Lindahl of IndieWire, The 40-year-Old Version is currently nearing a mid-to-high seven figure deal with Netflix. Since I had the opportunity to see Blank and her crew in the Q&A after a screening at the Salt Lake City Library, I can say that the room was full of the anticipation that comes with the discovery of an indie hit. As writer, director, and actor in her own story, Blank is certainly an exciting new voice in independent filmmaking; however, when this film shows up on Netflix in a few months, those watching at home will not be able to replicate that buzz of excitement as those 300 festival-goers discovered a star.

Radha Blank and the Cast and Crew of The 40-Year-Old-Version
Radha Blank and the Cast and Crew of The 40-Year-Old Version

Two of the often underdiscussed components of the festival, Indie Episodic and New Frontiers also exemplified this year’s festival’s continual rediscovery and fascination with redefining the meaning of “indie.” Including the virtual reality exhibition Persuasion Machines, from the director of festival favorite of 2019 The Great Hack Karim Amer, and indie episodic series from executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass (The Ride) and director Sarah Polley (Hey Lady), the possibilities of seeing these series and exhibitions in the future is still uncertain compared to 2019 in which Netflix picked up Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime and SundanceTV distributed Nick Hornby’s State of the Union.

Sundance Film Disclosure
Laverne Cox and the Cast and Crew of Disclosure

This year also saw the most expensive documentary acquisition ever at Sundance: $12 million for streaming rights on Apple TV+ and theatrical release from A24 for Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize winner for documentary Boys State. HBO also proved its commitment to documentary with its purchases of David France’s Welcome to Chechnya and Laurent Bouzereau’s Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind. Whereas other documentary films such as Sam Feder’s Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, executively produced by Laverne Cox, are still awaiting distribution. Overall, at Sundance 2020, streamers such as Netflix and Hulu continued to flood the market by buying more and more content, including features, series, and documentaries. And, it remains to be seen whether more traditional distributors such as A24, Focus Features, and Sony Pictures Classics will be able to compete for content as other streaming services such as HBO Max and Peacock enter the market. However, Salt Lake City audiences are already eagerly awaiting the possibilities of discovering even more new voices in independent cinema in 2021.

Image Credits:

  1. Directors of the New Frontier Shorts Program (author’s personal collection)
  2. Sundance 2020 by the Numbers
  3. Radha Blank and the Cast and Crew of The 40-Year-Old Version (author’s personal collection)
  4. Laverne Cox and the Cast and Crew of Disclosure (author’s personal collection)

Mr. Sandler Goes to Netflix
Danielle Williams / Georgia Gwinnett College

Adam Sandler
Adam Sandler at FYC Event For Netflix’s ‘Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh’

At the end of 2019, Netflix released a list of the ten most popular shows and movies that started streaming at the beginning of the year. The list included highly promoted programming including The Umbrella Academy (#9), The Witcher (#6), Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (#5), and the third season of Stranger Things (#2).[ (( Andreeva, Nellie. “‘Murder Mystery’, ‘Stranger Things’ Lead Netflix’s List Of Most Popular Movies, TV Series & Specials Of 2019.” Deadline, 30 Dec. 2019, https://deadline.com/2019/12/murder-mystery-stranger-things-3-netflix-list-of-most-popular-movies-tv-series-of-2019-the-witcher-you-netflix-what-we-watched-2019-1202818337/. ))] The top spot went to the Adam Sandler film Murder Mystery (Kyle Newacheck, 2019). While Netflix did not provide exact numbers for their top ten list, the company did provide insight into how it was created. For inclusion, Netflix measured how many subscribers watched the first two minutes of each show during the first month of the program’s release. While Netflix’s method of data collection and lack of providing transparency in doing so for movies and series may be problematic, the company’s relationship with Sandler is not. Troy Dreier states “Netflix doesn’t use data for creative decisions; it uses data to match content with viewers.”[ (( Dreier, Troy. “Netflix Uses Data to Drive Creativity, and It’s Terrifying Hollywood.” Streaming Media, vol. 15, no. 4, June 2018, pp. 6–7, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=bth&AN=130177445&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=gsu1. ))] The end results are definitive; Netflix subscribers watch Adam Sandler movies.

Murder Mystery is the fifth Sandler film for Netflix. Sandler became part of the Netflix family in 2014 when he signed a four picture deal worth $250M. The deal was surprising because Sandler’s box office success had diminished in previous years. Although his films Grown Ups (Dennis Dugan, 2010) and Grown Ups 2 (Dennis Dugan, 2013) were box office hits grossing $271 and $246M worldwide, his other films during this time were not as successful. That’s My Boy (Sean Anders, 2012) lost $42.5M and Pixels (Chris Columbus, 2015) made Sony a profit of $10M.[ (( Fritz, Ben. “Sony and the Swan Song of the A-List Actor: How Profitable and Powerful Were Adam Sandler and Will Smith in the 2000s? Their Hit Films ‘bought Our Houses,’ Joked Execs. But as Audiences Turned, the Duo Became the Flashpoint for the Collapse of the Star Market — and, Nearly, a Studio.” The Hollywood Reporter, vol. 424, no. 9, Feb. 2018, p. 72, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=edb&AN=130786441&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=gsu1. ))] Yet these numbers were not a deterrent for Netflix. According to Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, Netflix subscribers have been fans of Sandler for quite some time: “Very uniquely, he stands out for his global appeal to Netflix subscribers. Even movies that were soft in the U.S. [theatrically] outperformed dramatically on Netflix in the U.S. and around the world.”[ (( Kilday, Gregg. “Netflix’s Ted Sarandos Explains Adam Sandler, ‘Crouching Tiger’ Deals: ‘Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is.’” The Hollywood Reporter, 3 Oct. 2014, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/netflixs-ted-sarandos-explains-adam-737840. ))] Pixels is an example; it made $78M domestically and $166M internationally. Sarandos relates that Sandler’s films do well in Latin America, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The decision to create a long-term partnership with Sandler has so far proven to be an astute one as Netflix continues to expand globally. Currently Netflix has 157M global subscribers; only 67M of those subscribers are in the United States.[ (( Kafka, Peter, and Rana Molla. “Netflix Shows off the Numbers behind Its Global Growth Story for the First Time.” Vox, 17 Dec. 2019, https://www.vox.com/2019/12/17/21025154/netflix-global-growth-numbers-sec-streaming-investors. ))]

Adam Sandler in The Ridiculous 6
Adam Sandler in The Ridiculous 6

Sandler has cultivated a core fan base over time and his films for Netflix are designed with them in mind. His first film, The Ridiculous 6 (Frank Coraci, 2015), is a western spoof. While it was not critically acclaimed, the movie performed well for Netflix, becoming its most viewed film during the first month after its release.[ (( Robehmed, Natalie. “Netflix Zombies.” Forbes, vol. 199, no. 7, June 2017, pp. 98-100, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=bth&AN=123495471&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=gsu1. ))] The Ridiculous 6, as well as its successors, The Do Over (Steven Brill, 2016) and Sandy Wexler (Steven Brill, 2017) are standard Sandler comedies in which Sandler plays a lovable, flawed leading man along with familiar co-stars and cameos from the “Sandlerverse,” such as David Spade, Rob Schneider, Nick Swardson, Steve Buscemi, Kevin Nealon, Jon Lovitz, Kevin James, John Tuturro and Chris Rock. In 2017, Netflix revealed that since the release of The Ridiculous 6 in December 2015, Netflix subscribers have watched more than 500 million hours of Sandler movies.[ (( McCluskey, Megan. “Adam Sandler Movies: Netflix Users Watch 500 Million Hours | Time.” Time, Apr. 2017, https://time.com/4744571/adam-sandler-movies-netflix-ratings/. ))] Although Netflix did not provide any information about the initial films included in the partnership deal, they obviously performed well enough for Netflix to extend a second, four-movie, deal with Sandler. His fourth film, The Week Of (Robert Smigel, 2018) reunited Sandler and Chris Rock as parents and future in-laws dealing with the stress of their children’s upcoming marriage. For his fifth film, Murder Mystery, Sandler reunited with his longtime friend and Just Go With It (Dennis Dugan, 2011) co-star Jennifer Aniston.

Netflix released Murder Mystery on June 14, 2019.  Four days later, the company shared via its Twitter account that the film had broken previous viewing records with 30.9M households watching it during the first three days of release.[ (( Roettgers, Janko. “Netflix Reveals Record-Breaking Stats for Sandler-Aniston ‘Murder Mystery’ Flick.” Variety, June 2019, https://variety.com/2019/digital/news/netflix-murder-mystery-stats-1203246899/. ))] For this data sample, Netflix counted households that finished watching (or tuning into) at least 70% of the film. The success of Murder Mystery in breaking a three-day release record as well as being Netflix’s most watched title of 2019 is not a surprise. As stated, Sandler is one of Netflix’s biggest stars. It was also undoubtedly a boon to the film that Aniston co-starred in NBC’s Friends (1994-2004), which experienced an impressive resurgence via streaming.[ (( Roettgers, Janko. “Netflix Reveals Record-Breaking Stats for Sandler-Aniston ‘Murder Mystery’ Flick.” Variety, June 2019, https://variety.com/2019/digital/news/netflix-murder-mystery-stats-1203246899/. ))] Nielsen claimed that Friends was the second most streamed TV show in Netflix’s library. Netflix had experienced such a success with the series that they reportedly paid WarnerMedia $100M to extend the series after its initial contract. Friends ended its run on Netflix on December 30, 2019 and will be part of the HBO Max launch in May 2020. Friends also has international appeal. In January 2019, the BBC reported that the series was popular among teenagers in the United Kingdom.[ (( Coughlan, Sean. “The One about Friends Still Being Most Popular.” BBC News, Jan. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/education-47043831. ))] The Sandler-Aniston collaboration appeals to existing Netflix subscribers as well as new ones as the company continues its global expansion.

Sandler’s films assist Netflix in becoming a transnational broadcaster.[ (( Jenner, Mareike. Netflix and the Re-Invention of Television. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. ))] The deal also helps Sandler in maintaining creative control of his works. Sandler co-wrote The Ridiculous 6, Sandy Wexler, and The Week Of. In addition to starring in and producing multiple films for Netflix, Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison, has made two additional films for Netflix: Father of the Year (Tyler Spindel, 2018) and the upcoming The Wrong Missy (Tyler Spindel, 2020). Both films star David Spade.

David Spade, left and Adam Sandler, right
Adam Sandler and David Spade at the premiere of The Do-Over

While Sandler’s films provide mass global appeal for Netflix, they also provide Sandler a creative outlet that is cushioned from box office numbers and critics. Until Netflix says otherwise, Sandler can keep making comedies his way. Sandler’s films are their own formulaic niche full of gags and cameos. For example, Sandy Wexler is Sandler’s version of a romantic comedy. While Wexler (Sandler), the bumbling and offensive goofball with a heart of gold falls in love with beautiful and talented Courtney (Jennifer Hudson), Sandler-staple Nick Swardson is there to provide the slapstick humor as a daredevil stuntman whose stunts go horribly wrong every time.

Sandler’s upcoming Netflix project, Hubie Halloween (Steven Brill, 2020), reunites Sandler with favorites Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, Rob Schneider, Colin Quinn, and Julie Bowen. Sandler plays “’Hubie Dubois,” a well-meaning but widely mocked Halloween obsessive from Salem, Massachusetts. After a presumably wacky series of events lands Hubie in the midst of a murder mystery, it’s up to him to save Halloween.”[ (( Murphy, Rhodes. “Netflix Continues to Churn Out Adam Sandler Content With Halloween Movie.” Slate, July 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/07/adam-sandler-halloween-movie-netflix.html. ))] The description fits into the Sandler formula. A loveable, blemished fellow gets into a difficult situation; hilarity ensues and all is well in the end. While Bowen (best known for her role as Claire in the hit television series, Modern Family) does not have the international appeal of Jennifer Aniston, the film will surely appeal to Sandler’s loyal fanbase. Hubie Halloween marks the first time Bowen and Sandler have worked together cinematically since Happy Gilmore (Dennis Dugan, 1996). This reunion plus the film’s holiday theme and star-studded cameos appear to be a lock for the movie to break streaming records for Netflix. 

And if it doesn’t, Sandler will not be out of work; he still has two movies left with Netflix. Moreover, Netflix might not be Sandler’s forever home as the streaming business continues to increase and diversify. Sandler could easily move to one of Netflix’s streaming competitors as the need for original content continues to increase. Regardless, it appears that as long as Adam Sandler is in the movie-making business, there will be an audience to support his seemingly never-ending string of projects.

Image Credits:

  1. Adam Sandler at FYC Event For Netflix’s ‘Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh’
  2. Adam Sandler in The Ridiculous 6
  3. Adam Sandler and David Space at the premiere of The Do-Over


Advocating on Behalf of Independent Musicians: Copyright Reform and Corporate Consolidation
Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta

Spotify banner outside NYSE on opening day
People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.

Corporate streaming music services have brought forth few benefits for independent musicians. Meagre payouts, limited catalogues, and predictable algorithms combine to reward a shrinking number of bestselling popstars. Despite these issues, streaming services are often characterized by narratives of progress and superiority (infinite choices, new avenues of “discovery,” low prices). 

This narrative routinely makes its way into popular writing on streaming music. A recent Pitchfork column about the fusion of indie and pop in the 2010s describes streaming music listening as “detached, fully and finally, from the Earth. Recorded music simply materializes around us whenever we need it.” This recalls the concept of remediation, made evident by these popular assessments of our digital-musical-ecosystem whereby new media are “presenting themselves as refashioned and improved versions of other media” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, pp. 14-15). In a more blunt and messianic expression, Spotify is “the savior” of the music business.

In this introductory column (the first of three on issues of equity in the streaming music industry), I describe the process of participating in Canada’s copyright review process. In September of last year, Brianne Selman (University of Winnipeg) and I appeared before The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage: Remuneration Models for Artists and Creative Industries on behalf of The Cultural Capital Project, a collaborative research project that investigates issues of fair payment for creators (which also includes Andrew deWaard, UCSD). The purpose of our appearance, and subsequent written brief, was to argue that in an industry characterized by market consolidation, an imbalance of power between creators and big businesses is one of the largest factors that prevents fair remuneration for artists.

Members of the Cultural Capital Project, Brianne Selman and the author, speak to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during the hearing “Reumneration Models for Artists in Creative Industries.” More info at cultcap.org.

Canadian musicians are at the mercy of non-Canadian media and tech companies. In 2015, Billboard reported that Universal, Sony, and Warner control roughly 86% of the North American recording and publishing market. LiveNation and AEG monopolize the live concert and ticketing business; SiriusXM dictates the satellite radio market and has purchased Pandora; and the digital streaming media sector has come to be dominated by Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify. Further, the top 1% of artists account for 77% of recorded music income (Thompson 2014), and radio playlists and Billboard charts are dominated by just a handful of the record industry’s biggest superstars (Craven McGinty 2018). 

In light of these trends, our submission advanced recommendations that sought to rethink copyright and the role of the public domain in the Canadian music industries. A few of these recommendations include: an increase of public funding dedicated to independent artists; to recognize that user rights and the creative commons have value for Canadian creativity and that these should be protected; and to consider automatic rights reversions as a way to mitigate the ill effects of copyright term extensions. At this time, Canada had signed on to the USMCA, which includes a copyright term extension from 50 years after the author’s death to 70 years, an extension that industry representatives were collectively in favor of.

More specifically, we suggest that the federal government should prioritize relationships with provincial and municipal governments, particularly when it comes to policies and initiatives that fund and support live music venues, small record labels, do-it-yourself and artist-run spaces, and campus and community radio stations. Our submission argues that a more thorough consideration of public domain principles in our thinking around the digital music industries and copyright/cultural policies is essential if we are to take issues of equity and sustainability in the music industries seriously. This is an issue made all the more pertinent as conservative provincial governments in Canada have been slashing funding to their investment to arts and culture. In Ontario, funding for the Ontario Music Fund was reduced from $15 million to $7 million by the province’s Progressive Conservative government budget. More recently in Alberta, a budget rife with cuts to essential public services projects that over 50% of the province’s Arts and Creative Industries budget will be gone by the year 2023. 

With respect to rights reversions, we argue that copyright term extensions do not hold up to scrutiny in cultural economic theory (Giblin 2018) and that most of the commercial value of a sound recording is extracted in the first 10 years; so a 70 years after death term provides no real additional incentive for creators (Gowers Review of Intellectual Property 2018, p. 52). To mitigate the ill effects of the term extension we encourage a careful consideration of automatic rights reversions, with rights reverting back to authors after a period of no greater than 25 years. This echoes other arguments that have been put forth, including Bryan Adams (yes, that Bryan Adams) advocating for rights reversions with the ability of creators to reclaim ownership of creations 25 years after they have been given away (see also Rebecca Giblin’s Conversation post on Adams’s appearance). This recommendation offers some balance to the historically imbalanced relationship between artists and record labels, where creators are often pressured to sign away their rights for life.

Musician Bryan Adams before standing committee on Canadian Heritage
Canadian rock star Bryan Adams appears as a witness at a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Reflecting on this process, it felt as though our ideas were heard and that the Committee was in support of initiatives to improve the livelihoods of Canadian musicians. However, the report published by the Committee that followed the meetings and briefs, “Shifting Paradigms,” advanced a status quo narrative of continued copyright protection that was pushed by industry representatives.

Music industry representatives and lobbyists were collectively in favor of extending the copyright term (these can be read in our summaries of their briefs and presentations). On a positive note, the report did make recommendations that urge tech companies and streaming companies to support the work of Canadian creators, but there is very little in the way of tangible policy suggestions that provide an indication that these corporations will comply. Much of this discussion fell within an emphasis on the “Value Gap” in Canada’s music industries. 

Music Canada, a non-profit “trade association that promotes and protects the value of music and advocates on behalf of its creators,” defines the Value Gap as “the result of the marked disparity between the value returned to those artists creating and developing artistic content, and the online sources and telecommunications corporations who benefit greatly from the distribution of said content” (Bambrick 2019). Further, “Shifting Paradigms” did indicate support for an artist protection provision (in its Recommendation 14) and this is one area in which our submission and brief is represented. However, we recommended a Copyright Act amendment that would make a rights reversion automatic, so it will remain to be seen how this recommendation is applied. We are concerned that if the rights reversion is not properly enforced, the situation will be one in which artist contracts are restructured to avoid this protection provision.  

Just as there are issues with concentration in the telecommunications and broadcasting industry, as the “Value Gap” report indicates, the same can be said for the record industry (Music Canada lists its three members as the Canadian subsidiaries of the Big 3 record labels: Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc., Universal Music Canada Inc., and Warner Music Canada Co.). More substantial copyright reform would advance a digital-musical ecosystem that provides fair compensation to artists and acknowledges listening norms and practices of everyday users.

Streaming music services are now the dominant music providers in Canada as in much of the world, and at the same time, the record industry’s increasing concentration has meant the continued persistence of a power dynamic that marginalizes independent musicians. Our hope is that our research may help to protect a vibrant and diverse Canadian music industry and that more space can be occupied by artists and non-industry representatives in the policy-making process as well as in the reporting on issues of equity in the music industries. 

Notes: “The Cultural Capital Project: Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization for Canadian Independent Musicians” is a SSHRC-funded research project led by Brian Fauteux, Brianne Selman, and Andrew deWaard, with research assistance from Dan Colussi, Anna Dundas-Richter, and William Northlich.

Media Credits:

  1. People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.
  2. Members of the Cultural Capital Project, Brianne Selman and the author, speak to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during the hearing “Remuneration Models for Artists in Creative Industries.” More info at cultcap.org.
  3. Canadian rock star Bryan Adams appears as a witness at a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.


Bambrick, H. (2019). Foreward. Closing the value gap: How to fix safe harbours and save the creative middle class. Music Canada. Retrieved from https://musiccanada.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Closing-the-Value-Gap-Music-Canada-2019.pdf

Bolter, J., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Giblin, R. (2018). A new copyright bargain? Reclaiming lost culture and getting authors paid. Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, 41, 369-411.

Gowers Review of Intellectual Property. (2006). December. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/228849/0118404830.pdf 

Craven McGinty, J. (2018). Superstars are hogging Billboard’s Hot 100. The Wall Street Journal. 14 December. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/superstars-are-hogging-billboards-hot-100-11544788801

Thompson, D. (2014). The Shazam effect. The Atlantic. December. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-shazam-effect/382237/ 

Strangers: Using the Small Screen to Expose Mainlandization
Andrew Gilmore / Colorado State University

The revealing look at mainlandization in Amazon’s Strangers (2018- ).

Set in Hong Kong, Strangers (titled White Dragon when the series appeared on Amazon Prime in early 2019) tells the story of British university lecturer Jonah Mulray. Without divulging too much of the plot, upon hearing that his wife, Megan, has been killed in a car crash in Hong Kong, Mulray travels to the city to repatriate her body. Arriving in Hong Kong, Mulray makes two shocking discoveries. Shock one: Mulray is not Megan’s only husband. Shock two: his wife’s death may not have been an accident.

After the airing of the first two episodes of the eight-part crime drama, Guardian features writer Sam Wollaston’s jocular three star review of the series focused on its plot holes and how the story compared to his own life in London. While Wollaston found Strangers to be “intriguing,” he didn’t feel that it stood “up to too much scrutiny.” I beg to differ.

Set against the backdrop of a shady police force, corrupt politicians, Western journalists attempting to uncover the truth, and teenage Hong Kongers intent on showing their distain for the city’s “democratic” process, Strangers’ plot of murder and betrayal turns into a story of whodunit and, importantly, why did they do it.

In light of its narrative, like Wollaston, I find Strangers to be an intriguing piece of television. As somebody who studies Hong Kong, however, a closer examination of the series reveals more. Strangers is a fascinating media text that attempts to expose the mainlandization of Hong Kong to a global audience.[ (( Since Hong Kong was handed back to China in July 1997, the citizens of Hong Kong have increasing felt the effects of the mainlandization of their city. To be more specific, in a now-deleted post (possibly providing more evidence of mainlandization), Cheong defines mainlandization as “the erosion of freedom, plurality, tolerance, and rule of law.” David Gruber, meanwhile, characterizes the term as “the encroaching influence” of mainland China. I define mainlandization, simply, as the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong. For more information, see David R. Gruber, “A Beijing Wolf in Hong Kong: Lufsig and Imagining Communities of Political Resistance to Chinese Unification,” in Imagining China: Rhetorics of Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, Edited by Stephen J. Hartnett, Lisa, B. Keranen, and Donovan Conley, 371-394. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2017.))] In short, I argue that Wollaston failed to join the dots and look behind Strangers’ basic plot.

On the eve of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule, Britain’s then-prime minister, John Major, promised Hong Kongers that, despite the city’s impending return to the Communist Party of China (CPC), the city would “never walk alone.” The CPC had other ideas. Whether commenting on Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution, the city’s current Hard Hat Revolution, China’s territorial control of the South China Sea, or its use of Uighur Muslim “re-education camps,” nations, including Britain and the U.S., have fallen foul of the CPC’s curt warnings that they have no place “meddling” in China’s domestic affairs.

Hong Kong protestors please
Hong Kong protesters plead for international assistance during the 2019 protests.

Returning to Hong Kong, over the past two decades, the concerns of British officials have been continuously rebuked by the CPC. While British politicians have repeatedly suggested that “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is under increasing pressure,” the CPC has been quick to emphasize that, since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule, “Britain has no power to intervene” in the city’s internal affairs.

In light of being warned not to comment on the events in Hong Kong, how else can the plight of Hong Kongers be communicated to a mass global audience? Perhaps, through the commission of a TV crime series set in the city. Behind its surface plotline, Strangers is littered with references to the mainlandization of Hong Kong that Wollaston may have missed.

Depictions of Mainlandization

A major facet of the perceived mainlandization of Hong Kong—and the catalyst that led to the outbreak of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, as well as the recent and ongoing Hard Hat Revolution—is the CPC’s insistence on choosing candidates for the role of the city’s chief executive. In Wollaston’s review of Strangers, he draws attention to the character Xiaodong Xo, “a property developer” that Hong Kong students “do not approve of.” As a clear representation of Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive CY Leung, however, Wollaston’s dismissal of Xo’s character is an oversight.

Throughout his time in office, Leung—himself a former real estate consultant—was plagued by controversy and
accusations of shady business dealings, illicit wealth, and deep CPC roots, all
of which draw Leung closer to the character of Xo. In Strangers, the
company headed by Xo plans to build luxury apartments on a site that is
intended for affordable housing. This element of Strangers’ narrative is not randomly placed. Instead, it highlights
another facet of
mainlandization: A lack of affordable housing available to average Hong

As Hong Kong’s property market continues to be a popular place for “rich mainlanders… to park their money,” the city has spent the last decade as the world’s least affordable place to live. With Hong Kong’s median property price over 20 times that of median household income, as a direct result of mainlandization, large swathes of Hong Kongers can simply no longer afford to reside in their own city. In extreme cases, Hong Kongers are reduced to residing in “wire mesh cages” and “coffin homes” that are too small for inhabitants to fully stretch out their legs.

Hong Kong not China banner
This is Hong Kong, not China.

As documented cases of police and judicial corruption—often attributed to mainlandization—increase in Hong Kong, Strangers’ narrative that includes a body missing from a morgue, unauthorized cremations, the doctoring of police evidence, and police protection of a known murderer communicates further facets of mainlandization. In the midst of all this drama, however, Strangers narrates the story of mainlandization in a thoughtful way that is often lacking in media texts that depict Asian culture.

Identity and Representation to (Re)Raise Awareness

While recent movies such as Ghost in the Shell (Sanders, 2017) and Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) have been accused of whitewashing, stereotyping, misrepresentation, and flawed depictions of Asian culture, Strangers impresses by casting a number of local, Hong Kong actors. Moreover, the use of Cantonese—Hong Kong’s language that is being slowly eroded as a result of mainlandization—adds another important and, perhaps, overlooked element to the plot. Strangers, then, showcases issues in Hong Kong and, vitally, does so by providing a platform for Hong Kongers to tell their own stories about mainlandization.

While I argue that Wollaston failed to join
the dots in his reading of Strangers,
this isn’t really part of his job. He watched the series for what it is: a fun,
suspenseful, and, at times, far-fetched crime drama. A closer reading, however,
reveals that commissioned TV drama’s such as Strangers can lead the way in providing a slightly more accurate
portrays of Asian culture and, at the same time, shine a light on authoritarian
regimes that continue to exert their influence over minorities.

Reviewing Strangers for online magazine Bustle, Jack O’Keeffe writes that the series isn’t based on a true story. While the surface plot may or may not be true, the overarching themes that play out in the background of Strangers are based on a very true story: the mainlandization of Hong Kong.

With almost half a decade passing since the outbreak of the Umbrella Revolution and the global press coverage that it attracted, until this summer, the plight of Hong Kongers was a fleeting moment that had been forgotten by many. When waiting to get my hair cut earlier this this year (before the recent spate of Hong Kong protests), a man sat next to me struck up a conversation about what I studied. “Oh yeah,” he responded. “The yellow umbrella protest! I’d forgot about that!” A few days later, I was in an Uber and my driver posed the same question. “So, Hong Kong got what it wanted, yeah? They won?” People need reminding about Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, but communication channels need to be chosen wisely.

When writing about the media and politics, communication technology scholar Manuel Castells states that politics has become a “tragicomedy motivated by greed, backstage maneuvers, betrayals, and, often, sex and violence.”[ (( Manuel Castells, “Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society,” British Journal of Sociology 51, no. 1 (2000): 13.))] Castells could be describing the plot of Strangers. Indeed, for Castells, politics is “increasingly indistinguishable from TV scripts.”[ (( Castells, 13.))] The issues faced by Hong Kongers, though, are not fiction; they continue to be very real. In an age when the CPC ties the hands of “meddling” politicians and journalists, Strangers can aid in ensuring that the situation in Hong Kong does not fade from public memory and discourse.

As has been witnessed over the past few months, Hong Kong’s fight continues, as does the battle faced by politicians and print journalists who seek to communicate concerns about the CPC’s handling of its disputed territories. As I write this, on-street protests have been taking place in Hong Kong for the last 15 weeks and they show no sign of abating. Moreover, protests in Hong Kong are more violent than ever. However, when the protesters leave the streets, either through fatigue or military force, the issues faced by Hong Kongers must remain in the public realm. To this end, a TV series commissioned by the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster that (re)draws attention—however implicitly—to Hong Kong can only be a boon to the city as it continues to feel the “heavy hand” of the CPC.

“Glory to Hong Kong”: the city’s 2019 protest anthem.

Image Credits:

  1. The revealing look at mainlandization in Amazon’s Strangers (2018- ).
  2. Hong Kong protesters plead for international assistance during the 2019 protests. ©Andrew Gilmore, 2019
  3. This is Hong Kong, not China. © Andrew Gilmore, 2019
  4. “Glory to Hong Kong”: the city’s 2019 protest anthem.


The Cancellation of Swamp Thing and the Precarity of DC Universe
Rusty Hatchell / University of Texas at Austin

Swamp Thing
Swamp Thing, a DC Universe original series

On May 31, 2019, Swamp Thing premiered on the DC Universe streaming service. A week later, shortly before the release of the second episode, the series was cancelled. To date, neither DC Universe nor its parent company, WarnerMedia, have cited any particular reason for the show’s demise, although an official post on the streaming service’s Watchtower forums—the official space dedicated to DC Universe’s updates and news items—states that they are “not in a position to answer” the questions of why at this time. As can be expected with vague or incomplete media industrial news, theories regarding the cancellation soon spread across social media and fan networks.

One particular theory that gained mild traction pointed to a potential clerical error and a misunderstanding in the tax rebates Warner Bros. would receive from the state of North Carolina where the series filmed. However, Guy Gaster, director of the North Carolina film office, later confirmed that the budget discussions between his office and Warner Bros. “had nothing to do with Swamp Thing‘s cancellation.”

Additionally, the show was reported to be suffering from creative differences between various heads of DC Entertainment and WarnerMedia, the latter of which formed as a reorganized conglomerate after the completion of an $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner by telecom giant, AT&T. For reference, the completion of the WarnerMedia deal in June 2018 occurred a month after DC Universe had given a script-to-series order for Swamp Thing, marking the series as one of the last to be ordered and announced for production under pre-AT&T Time Warner. One evidential sign that the series was suffering from creative differences occurred mid-production in April 2019, with WarnerMedia reducing the planned thirteen episode season down to ten episodes and abruptly halting production of the series, much to the shock of the cast and crew of the series.

Despite the varied yet possibly related theories on what led to the demise of Swamp Thing, fans have begun to worry that the cancellation news is pointing to a precarity of sorts for the streaming service dedicated to all things DC Comics and DC Entertainment. Shortly after the WarnerMedia deal was finalized, plans to develop and launch a major streaming service to compete against streaming giant Netflix as well as rival development plans for streaming services from Apple (to launch late 2019), Disney (to launch late 2019), and Comcast’s NBCUniversal (to launch early 2020) were announced. Additionally, in the year since WarnerMedia was finalized as a new parent company, smaller and niche streaming services under the WarnerMedia umbrella of companies—including Filmstruck, Super Deluxe, and Drama Fever—have been discontinued. This is part of Warner’s new strategy to consolidate “resources from sub-scale D2C efforts, fallow library content, and technology reuse.” [ ((John Connelly, “WarnerMedia to Launch Direct to Consumer Streaming Service in Late 2019,” Variety, Oct. 10, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/biz/news/warnermedia-direct-to-consumer-streaming-service-john-stankey-1202975598/.))]

Disney Plus
Disney+, announced earlier this year, will position Marvel as one of the service’s five main content hubs

Thus, many comic and superhero media fans may find that their go-to space for DC-branded content might be doomed before it can find its footing. Indeed, DC Universe has not been without their own missteps since the service was first announced in April 2017. Imagined as a central digital hub for all entertainment related to DC, including live-action television and film, animated television and film, as well as the comics and graphic novels that inspired such content, DC Universe currently still does not offer any content from DC’s two most profitable and most-visible media franchises—the DCEU franchise of feature-length films and the television franchise of DC properties airing on the CW network (colloquially referred to as the “Arrowverse” in reference to the franchise’s flagship series, Arrow). DC Universe’s plans to “supplement the lack” was to develop original programming to help lure fans to the service. Yet, the service launched without any original content readily available; DC Universe’s first original title, Titans (a live-action retelling of the Teen Titans run of comics as well as the popular Teen Titans animated program and subsequent films), released its first episode over a month after the service launched in September 2018. Nearly a year after the launch of the service, there are only three live-action series for viewers to watch, with a fourth (Stargirl) scheduled to debut in early 2020.

DC Universe Originals
DC Universe offers viewers original content as well as a variety of television programs and feature-length films from its DC Entertainment library

Even as comic book and superhero properties have become highly lucrative for the contemporary media industries, superhero television has become interwoven into the tangled web of industrial strategies employed by many of the major media conglomerates, particularly Walt Disney’s Marvel brand and WarnerMedia’s DC brand. The precarity of the DC Universe service calls into question the ways media scholars have tried to understand the post-network era of television, a periodization made popular through Amanda Lotz’s The Television Will Be Revolutionized. While Lotz considers the shift of control from the networks to the viewers who “now increasingly select what, when, and where to view from abundant options,” [ (( Amanda Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, 2nd edition (New York City, New York University Press, 2014), 15.))] it might help to also note the ways in which networks—through their reorganized media conglomerates—are attempting to regain control in the distribution of their respective libraries, especially as the media industry enters what has been has been commonly noted as the “streaming wars.”

Assessing that media scholars “should consider this a period of transition for the medium,” Mike Van Esler notes that “greater emphasis and attention can be placed on the role that major media conglomerates play in developing, funding, and legitimizing new forms of television distribution, in addition to co-opting disruptive technologies and business models and at the same time hindering others.” [ (( Mike Van Esler, “Not Yet the Post-TV Era: Network and MVPD Adaptation to Emergent Distribution Technologies,” Media and Communication 4, no. 3 (2016): 132-33.))] While the streaming ecology of the early 2010s was quickly dominated by Netflix, the announcement of corporate strategies over recent months have forecasted a pending wave of conglomerate domination in streaming media. Subsidiaries and independent media companies are either bought and dissolved (in the case of Machinima) or repurposed to fit the (re)organization and (re)prioritization of parent companies (in the case of Turner Broadcasting).

In the case of DC Universe, only time will tell how WarnerMedia fits the streaming service and its productions within its larger goal of launching their still-unnamed streaming service. While DC’s rival, Marvel Entertainment, has been announced as one of five major content hubs for Disney+, it’s unclear to what extent WarnerMedia’s streaming service will include DC branded entertainment. So far, WarnerMedia’s plans have shifted from a three-tier system that would allow users to pay for specific types of content (notably categorized by form rather than brand) to one that would cost $16-17 a month (notably more than any other existing or planned streaming service) and would include HBO and Cinemax content as the central element of the bundle as well as recently-released DCEU films, such as the 2018 Warner Bros./DC film, Aquaman.

As Disney, Apple, NBCUniversal, and WarnerMedia continue to develop their streaming services for launches in late 2019 and early 2020, it is clear to see that there will be major casualties in this new period of the streaming wars. Media scholars should continue to keep their eyes on what is still a transitory period for streaming, moving from the niche and subsidiary-oriented strategies to the broad and aggressive pushes by tech giants and media conglomerates themselves. The demise of Swamp Thing suggests that we as media scholars should be cautious in simplistic and reductive logics and analyses—in this case, the sustainability and profitability of comic and superhero properties for major media companies, particularly when DC’s industrial struggles are perpetually placed in conversation with Marvel’s economic successes. Rather, we should continue to view contemporary superhero television as an ephemeral moment in the transition toward a new era of conglomerate-controlled streaming media.

Image Credits:

1. Swamp Thing, a DC Universe original series
2. Disney+, announced earlier this year, will position Marvel as one of the service’s five main content hubs
3. DC Universe offers viewers original content as well as a variety of television programs and feature-length films from its DC Entertainment library

Stream Heat: Netflix, Broadway Theatre, and Industrial Convergence
Peter C. Kunze / Eckerd College

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale in American Son
Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale star in American Son on Broadway.

This past January, Netflix announced it would film Christopher Demos-Brown’s play American Son following its Broadway run. Kerry Washington, the production’s star, described the Netflix project as a “movie-play hybrid event.” [ ((Peter Libbey, “American Son Play Starring Kerry Washington Will Be Adapted by Netflix,” New York Times, January 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/theater/american-son-kerry-washington-netflix.html.))] More recently, producer Ryan Murphy revealed his Netflix deal would include adaptations of the Broadway musical The Prom and the 2018 revival of Mart Crawley’s The Boys in the Band that Murphy co-produced and that featured a star-studded cast including Matt Bomer, Robin De Jesús, Jim Parsons, and Andrew Rannells. (Whether these films would be shot in a theatre or a studio remains unclear.) Nevertheless, these projects demonstrate the streaming service’s ongoing flirtation with Broadway theatre, which previously included filmed-on-stage versions of the Nick Kroll-John Mulaney show, Oh, Hello; a Bruce Springsteen concert from his 14-month residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre; and John Leguizamo’s one-man show, Latin History for Morons.

The Wiz Live!
The Wiz Live! on NBC, starring Shanice Williams and Amber Riley.

To be fair, the venture into filming live theatre seems a natural extension of Netflix’s success with stand-up comedy specials, which depend on similar modes of production. The streaming service’s interest also continues the media industries’ longstanding strategy of poaching content and talent from the live entertainment industries. In her work on Broadway musicals and television, Kelly Kessler points to various reasons historically and more recently for television’s attraction to Broadway theatre. When television production largely originated from New York, Broadway provided highly skilled actors and dramatists prepared to work in the emerging medium. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Broadway in the Box: Television’s Infancy and the Cultural Cachet of the Great White Way,” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 25, no. 3 (2013): 352.))] More recently, musical episodes and live TV musicals capitalize on their status as event television, and viewers tune in to see it first, catch amusing errors, or participate in conversations on social media. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Primetime Goes Hammerstein: The Musicalization of Primetime Fictional Television in the Post-Network Era,” The Journal of e-Media Studies, 4, no. 1. (2015): n.p.))] Today, Broadway provides streaming services the opportunity to film and distribute already packaged and produced shows while diversifying their offerings.

While we cannot assume the Broadway audience and the Netflix, Hulu, and/or Amazon Prime audience(s) are exactly the same, all of them heavily depend on a middle-class consumers base for their survival and expansion. The average Broadway customer, for example, has a household income exceeding $200,000 and annually attends five shows, where the average ticket price usually exceeds $100 each. [ ((Michael Paulson, “Not Just for Grown-Ups: The Broadway Audience Is Getting Younger,” New York Times, October 19, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/theater/broadway-league-theater-audience-demographics.html.))] Variety reported last year that the planned Netflix price increases scared away customers with lower incomes, which suggests the middle class remains their primary demographic. [ ((Janko Roettgers, “Netflix’s Latest Price Hike May Have Scared Away Low-Income Consumers,” Variety, August 28, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/netflix-low-income-price-hike-1202918302/.))] Only PBS provides broadcast viewers with regular access to the performing arts, so filmed theatre represents an opportunity to tap into that network’s demographic. It attracts or satisfies subscribers who seek out this form of middlebrow entertainment. And filming Broadway shows allows streaming services to avoid supporting development costs to purchase a fairly polished product.

Celia Keenan Bolger and Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird
Despite top ticket prices of $497, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird took six months to recoup its investment.

Most interestingly, streaming services have been more attracted to the straight play than the musical. Broadway obviously works in a fundamentally different way than film and television, and musicals have been almost consistently popular there while musicals’ esteem on the big screen has wavered over time. Producing Broadway theatre remains a notoriously risky endeavor, and the majority of shows never recuperate their investments while on Broadway. For example, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird opened to rave reviews and high demand in December 2018, but it only recovered its capitalization in late April 2019. Straight plays are much cheaper to produce than musicals, as seen by the fact that the Broadway version of Newsies—the most modestly staged of Disney musicals—still took 41 weeks to recover its investment. Kyle Meikle rightly observes that musical adaptations exploit special effects and special affects to maximize their commercial appeal, leading to higher costs and (hopefully) higher payoffs. [ ((Kyle Meikle, Adaptations in the Franchise Era, 2001-16 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 142.))] Most Broadway shows (especially musicals) make their money either on the road, through licenses to amateur and regional theatre companies, or by selling the movie rights. American Son and similar plays provide a rich opportunity to streaming services because they do not have enough name recognition for a national tour or major motion picture without a major star at the helm, but the star power of Kerry Washington makes a filmed stage version a desirable acquisition for a streaming services like NetFlix, Amazon Prime, or the theatre-focused BroadwayHD.

Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson in King Lear
Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson star in a limited-run revival of King Lear.

Burn This, Tracy Letts and Annette Bening in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, or Glenda Jackson as the title character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, to maximize appeal with a familiar stage property. Brand new plays almost always need film, television, or stage stars to attract financial backers as well as committed and casual theatregoers. Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton with Laurie Metcalfe and John Lithgow is a good recent example. Since these stars often cannot commit an entire year (or the energy) to take the show on the road around the country, streaming services offer an easy payday for the creative team, a record of the performances and production, and an advertisement for the magic of live theatre (in a negotiated form, of course). As Elisabeth Vincentelli noted, “theater is distinguished by the uniqueness of the moment, [but] sometimes you just want to rewind that moment as soon as it’s over.” [ ((Elisabeth Vincentelli, “A Night at the Theater From Your Couch? No Apologies Needed.” New York Times, November 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/theater/theater-streaming-services-cennarium-broadwayhd.html.))]

Santino Fontana stars as Tootsie
Santino Fontana stars in the 2019 Broadway musical Tootsie, based on the 1982 film.

For years now, Broadway critics and fans alike have lamented the theatre’s dependence on Hollywood properties. [ ((Terry Teachout, “The Broadway Musical Crisis,” Commentary, July 2014, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-broadway-musical-crisis/))] In the last year alone, musical adaptations of Beetlejuice, King Kong, and Tootsie have made their way to the Great White Way, while stage versions of Mean Girls and Waitress continue to draw audiences. Disney Theatrical, which prefers to run three shows at a time, dominates the box office with The Lion King (in its 21st year), Aladdin (in its 5th), and Frozen (in its 2nd). Sony and Comcast maintain theatrical investments on Broadway via Columbia Live Stage and Universal Theatrical Group, respectively. Of course, the move of Hollywood properties to the stage dates to at least as far back as when Cole Porter adapted Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka into the 1955 musical Silk Stockings. Most of the Broadway shows from the Golden Age (arguably Oklahoma! in 1943 until the 1960s) were based on plays, short stories, novels, even memoirs. Musicalizing Hollywood films reflects the culture industries’ familiar risk management strategy of using pre-sold properties to guarantee audiences, at least at the outset. [ ((Peter Marks, “If It’s a Musical, It Was Probably a Movie,” New York Times, April 14, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/14/movies/if-it-s-a-musical-it-was-probably-a-movie.html.))] The dependence on Hollywood films may be less a matter of creative bankruptcy than a reflection of how movies have surpassed literature as the most popular storytelling medium. Television, on the other hand, remains a largely untapped resource for Broadway. As entertainment conglomerates acquire or revitalize properties, we might expect stage adaptations of musical series such as Glee, Smash, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or even shows that occasionally draw upon musical theatre conventions like The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

Ryan Murphy announces The Prom
As part of his Netflix deal, Ryan Murphy announced an adaptation of the Broadway musical, The Prom.

But one also should note the representational politics behind these popular shows, both on and off the stage. Despite signs of improving diversity in recent years through the alternative casting practices of Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Frozen, productions by, about, and starring white people comprise the bulk of Broadway theatre. The projects Ryan Murphy will produce—The Prom and The Boys in the Band—explore queer characters and themes, but still feature predominantly white casts. (In fairness, Murphy also produces Pose, a show that has promoted the talent of trans people of color.) The responsibility here rests on the industry collectively rather than one producer exclusively. Broadway, of course, is only one piece of the New York theatre scene. Off-Broadway (theatres for 100-499 audience members) and Off-Off Broadway (theatres for less than 99 audience members) often offer more diverse casts and creative teams as well as more challenging subject matter, but these productions often do not receive the buzz or possess the mainstream marketability to garner streaming services’ attention.

Despite the increasing excitement and promise between Broadway and the traditional media, scholars have paid limited attention to this revitalized relationship, though the tide is changing. For example, Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical, Kelly Kessler’s history of Broadway musicals and television, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Erica Moulton has written an illuminating series of articles for Playback that explore the formal conventions behind filmed theatre, including the Ivo van Hove adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network and the Spike Lee-directed film of the Antoinette Nwandu play Pass Over that Amazon Prime curiously distributed with minimal promotion. Recent SCMS presentations by Laura Felschow, Britta Hanson, and Jamie Hook represent a new generation of scholarship. Even Francis Ford Coppola has published a book championing a new medium he calls live cinema—”conceived as cinema and yet not losing the thrill of a living performance” [ ((Francis Ford Coppola, Live Cinema and Its Techniques (New York: Liveright, 2017), xiii.))]—that draws from filmic and theatrical modes of production and exhibition.

Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell star in Fosse Verdon
Broadway talent Thomas Kail and Steven Levenson co-created the FX miniseries, Fosse/Verdon.

The interdependence, even rivalry, between the film and theater industries date back to earliest days of Hollywood. Radio, television, and streaming extended and complicated these lifelines, and this interindustrial network of labor, narratives, and technologies remains as important now as it was when these respective media emerged. Tom Hooper is directing a film version of Cats after years of failed attempts by others, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner are adapting West Side Story, and Disney has recruited Broadway talent Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justin Paul, and Benj Pasek for the remakes of its animated classics. On television, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and Dear Evan Hansen book writer Steven Levenson co-created Fosse/Verdon, the miniseries examining the turbulent creative and romantic relationship between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon, while an upcoming Lifetime movie about country music legends Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline is led by Broadway stars Jessie Mueller and Megan Hilty. These projects reveal the ongoing marketability of Broadway projects, the profit potential the film and television industries have found in appealing to theatre fans, and the movement of Broadway talent around the culture industries. Indeed theatre and live entertainment remain vital contributors to the operation and livelihood of what we insist on calling “media conglomerates.”

Image Credits:
1. Playbill
2. NPR
3. The New York Times
4. The Los Angeles Times
5. The Hollywood Reporter
6. Author’s Screenshot.
7. The Wall Street Journal

Please feel free to comment.

Just Saying No: Labour, Gender, and Refusal in Twitch Streaming
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

Twitch streamer Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins

Twitch streamer Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins

Streaming on Twitch.tv is a massive popular culture phenomena, with top (broad)casters garnering massive fanbases and incomes. One of the best-known of these is Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who shot from obscurity to the position of most followed Twitch caster when he began streaming his Fortnite play. In 2018, he briefly courted media fire when he professed to not playing with female gamers in order to avoid harassment on the basis of suspicions about flirtation and infidelity in his marriage to fellow streamer and manager Jessica “JGhosty” Blevins.

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Ninja’s motives and methods were controversial for a number of reasons, not least of which being the historical and ongoing exclusion of women in gaming culture, including within the emerging and lucrative sectors of streaming and e-Sports. The decision to not play with women was also framed as a possible hindrance to their gaining the same degree of prominence as male streamers. A less examined element of Ninja’s strategy is the question of responsibility for addressing what Sarah Jeong dubs “the Internet of Garbage“, or the normalization of sexist, racist, and otherwise hateful speech and interaction in online spaces including but not limited to gaming. When Ninja abdicated from his position to address harassment, he affirmed yet again that it is the work of already marginalized people to deal with the trash and engage in the social and affective labour of creating positive change. By shutting down harassment through the mechanism of refusing to work with women, he exemplified the gendered nature of what Sarah Sharma has called ‘sEXIT‘- who has the ability to walk away from societal problems, and who is left to engage in care work for themselves and others just to be able to participate in public life. Female streamers already face a double-standard in terms of their appearance AND their sexual availability; for instance popular streamer Amouranth was harassed after a viewer claimed to have found evidence that she was not single and that she gained an unfair advantage by not disclosing her marital status. Ninja’s solution for harassment therefore sets a dangerous precedent, particular given that he has an audience of over 20 million YouTube subscribers and 12.5 million Twitch viewers. Rather than drawing on his influence and power to make an intervention into the increasingly expected harassment of streamers as they go about their activities, the superstar steamer simply shut the door on his female contemporaries, leaving them to negotiate the incivility and abuse alone.

Streamer Amouranth

Streamer Amouranth

Ninja’s decision needs to be contextualized in both digital culture practices and historically gendered patterns of labour. The Internet’s functionality is maintained by the work of a range of people focused on ensuring and promoting specific kinds of affect, defined in local and contextual ways. Some of this is compensated work, for instance in the case of online content management teams screening out child porn on YouTube or the community managers ensuring that the relationships between game players and developers remain positive. But a great deal of this is unpaid labour, for instance in the case of activists on social media platforms raising awareness and advocating for inclusion for those disproportionately impacted by online harassment. And this already tends to be the labour of women and people of colour, who have historically been responsible for often uncompensated and unrecognized social reproduction work [ ((Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs 1992, 18(1), 1-43))].

While online harassment is widespread across platforms and targets, streamers like other kinds of social media influencers are in a particularly vulnerable position because their primary task is to engage an audience, typically from the setting of their bedrooms. A plethora of tutorials online highlight that the success of a Twitch broadcaster is based not on their set-up and even necessarily their gameplay prowess but on their skills as an entertainer. Engagement is a complex, messy, and yet rarely interrogated concept in these tutorials, but tends in practice to entail tremendous scrutiny about all elements of a streamer’s life, including their appearance and their romantic relationships, and how authentic their persona is deemed to be by viewers. The pace of production for successful streaming is hyper-intense, with expectations for daily content updates and immediate response to feedback. Metrics of success are also highly granular, with the clear signalling of dissatisfaction indicated by even the slightest dip in viewer and subscription numbers directly impacting on ad revenue and status on a given platform. The overwhelming personal costs of audience engagement has resulted in mental health issues for social media influencers and streamers including burnout, leading YouTube to produce a self-care video for content producers.

YouTube's self-care video

YouTube’s self-care video

The broader picture, then, indicates that the costs of engagement for streamers like Ninja are neither gendered nor racialized per se. Indeed, invisible and affective labour is widespread in streaming as well as other forms of online community management as Kat Lo’s research highlights. But Ninja’s refusal to stream with women indicates that there remain important nuances in how this kind of work is negotiated based on privilege. Women in technology broadly have been offered the choice to ‘lean in’—a plethora of neoliberal individualized actions that communicate acceptance of exclusionary sectors or to ‘lean out‘—leaving these toxic spaces behind and starting something outside them. Both of these options have costs for those who stay and those who go, financial and otherwise, and leave unchanged the culture that marginalized women and other groups to begin with. Ninja’s withdrawal—from women rather than the toxicity of streaming and its norms—further serves to reify this marginalization and imply the inevitability of harassment and other abusive and exploitative practices in digital culture. And to add another double-standard- his decision was not even critiqued as sexist separatism in the way that women-only groups and safe spaces have been, particularly in games. As this indicates, while the affective elements of new forms of work imply forms of invisible and emotional labour for all involved, the broader structures underpinning these practices highlight the ongoing relevance of considering power and its stratifications therein.

Image Credits:

1. Twitch streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins
2. Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja
3. Streamer Amouranth
4. YouTube’s self-care video (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Representation and Experimentation: The Women of Late-Night TV
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin

The Women oF Late-Night

Figure 1: Women taking control of the male-dominated late-night landscape

“Late-night” is a complicated and often confusing term in television studies. As television in the post-network era has increasingly catered to fragmented and time-shifted viewing practices, late-night programming has dramatically shifted both aesthetically and industrially. Despite these supposed advancements, though, the genre continues to lag in its representation onscreen. Broadcast networks still exclusively have white male hosts. Cable channels and streaming services have become the outlets through which “experimentation” (read: deviation from the genre’s racial and gendered norms) occurs. Women are noticeably more present on non-broadcast late-night, but their programs are constantly qualified as niche or uncharacteristic of mainstream viewing interests.

In just the last year, Hulu launched I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman; BET debuted The Rundown with Robin Thede; and Netflix launched The Break with Michelle Wolf. Before that, TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee was the only late-night program hosted by a woman. While women are certainly not new to the late-night scene, their history has frequently been marked by deliberately sexist decision-making and rhetoric that re-articulates larger gendered dimensions in the comedy landscape. For instance, Joan Rivers was passed over for The Tonight Show despite her qualifications and ratings success as the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson – this largely stemmed from Carson’s almighty authority with NBC and the perception of an “unruly woman” such as Rivers being unfit for broadcast audiences. [ (( Summergrad, Sophie. “Can We Talk?: A Discussion of Gender Politics in the Late-Night Career of Joan Rivers.” (master’s thesis, Boston University, 2016): 45-46. ))] More contemporary examples of women on late-night paint female comics’ transition to the nighttime genre as failures, with black women often bearing an exceptional burden: Wanda Sykes had a short-lived hour-long series on Fox followed by a short-lived sitcom on the same network; Whoopi Goldberg had a 30-minute series in syndication that lasted for just over a year; and Mo’Nique had an hour-long talk-show on BET that was cancelled within a year of its premiere. These industrial “experiments” outside of the norm and their quick cancellations perpetuated historical notions of the expected late-night audience (white men) and further validated (however irrationally) the historical placement of women’s programming in the daytime.

The recent female forays into late-night programming are significant because they push back on numerous assumptions and accepted norms within the genre. They are each aesthetically and stylistically experimental, which is inherently linked to their unique industrial positioning on their respective channels and services. Notably, late-night television is no longer assumed to be a pure promotional vehicle as its broadcast exemplars still often showcase. Instead, the genre is now, first and foremost, a form of political satire and commentary, with women often at the forefront of those shifts. Stephen Colbert’s move to CBS signaled the genre’s more politically skewed bent, and Samantha Bee’s series doubled down by formatting each episode as an extended political dialogue about the week’s current events (undoubtedly influenced by her time as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). Her series is more vulgar and has drawn considerable controversy, an issue that has similarly struck comediennes like Michelle Wolf at the 2018 Correspondents Dinner. Bee’s program eschews the traditional late-night desk in favor of a monologue-heavy style that often feels like a plea with audiences at home in contrast to traditional late-night fare. This has been popularized on other cable channels like HBO, where John Oliver’s weekly series has the host delivering news almost exclusively from a desk. Oliver’s program aesthetically links to news broadcasts (inspired by his time working with Jon Stewart), whereas Bee and Wolf’s programs visually associate themselves with stand-up, a historically maligned genre.

Michelle Wolf's monologue.

Figure 2: Michelle Wolf delivering her stand-up-like monologue

Late-night television looks considerably different on streaming services, with Wolf and Sarah Silverman acting as strong examples. Wolf’s series, as mentioned, aesthetically emulates a stand-up routine on multiple occasions. Each episode begins with the comedienne walking up to the camera and delivering a few one-liners before moving into the seemingly traditional late-night monologue. Wolf is the only late-night host to wield a microphone, an action that formally connects her monologue to stand-up. The connection does not end there, though. The director and cinematographer both capture wider angles that show Wolf’s full body maneuvering around the stage, much like a stand-up special’s visual style. This distinguishes the series visually from its other late-night counterparts, which generally cut off the monologist a little below the waist. While only a minor change, this aesthetic link is a visual marker that generally only emerges when stand-up comics perform at the end of various late-night episodes.

Both Wolf and Silverman also switch up the dynamics of the celebrity interview that usually occupies much of late-night’s format. Late-night has historically been rigidly segmented in structure: an opening monologue; then, a desk segment or two; finally, multiple celebrity interviews and a musical or stand-up performance to close out the program. Both of these comediennes place their “interviews” at the end of each episode, most notably mirroring the satirical series The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. However, the visual dynamics are much different. For Wolf, she either stands with her celebrity guest and engages in a visual stunt/prepared exchange, or she sits on a couch and delivers a scripted exchange with a fellow comic like Neal Brennan or Seth Meyers. Silverman, meanwhile, always sits on a couch for her interviews, asks guided questions, and occasionally crosses her legs or makes other visually informal decisions that are fitting for casual couch conversations at home. These are striking because these women are not reserving themselves to the desk as practically every other male late-night host does (Jimmy Fallon is a notable exception, although his celebrity interviews generally start at the desk before moving into his sketches or gags). This is only a small showcase for how female comics frequently re-negotiate the visual spaces afforded to them that have long been dictated by masculine practices and dynamics.

Despite more vulgarity and expressive openness from these women, not all women hosting late-night programs are aiming to be subversive. Busy Philipps, who recently received a series order for a late-night series on E! called Busy Tonight, points out that once-a-week late-night shows are usually “more politically bent.” [ (( Gardner, Chris. “How Busy Philipps Will ‘Bring Something Different’ to Late-Night with E! Series.” Hollywood Reporter, June 22, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/rambling-reporter/busy-philipps-new-memoir-e-show-busy-tonight-summer-plans-daughters-birdie-cricket-1122088 ))] Her series, though, will be more entertainment and pop-culture focused, and she hopes that her series will air multiple nights a week to alleviate that political burden that some series face. This rhetoric falls in line with E!’s branding and harkens back to Chelsea Handler’s time on the channel before her shift to Netflix. Handler’s short-lived run on the streaming service is remarkable on two fronts: (1) Netflix’s current strategy to mass-produce content and rarely cancel programs means that the series was an industrial failure for the service, and (2) the series’ focus on celebrity interviews and promotion demonstrates how that formula does not easily translate to non-commercial services and their respective programming strategies.

Chelsea Handler's Netflix series.

Figure 3: Chelsea Handler’s more conventional Netflix late-night series

The temporality of late-night television is also an understudied area, and one that has seen considerable shifts just within the last year. Handler’s aforementioned Netflix series shifted from thirty to sixty minutes in its second season in an effort to cut down costs and decrease the number of episodes each week. Meanwhile, all of the currently airing female-hosted late-night series are half-hours, while the broadcast networks have hour-long slots for each of their hosts. In an interview with Vulture, Conan O’Brien (who has resided on TBS since 2011 after working on NBC’s late-night programming for almost two decades) commented on his series’ upcoming shift to the half-hour format by articulating that the change could shock him into coming up with new material. Importantly, his shift is not an industrial imperative but rather a creative spark; for most women aiming to host late-night, they are not afforded the privilege of changing their time slots in hopes of inspiring creativity. Full Frontal executive producer Jo Miller says that she would “kill” to have just a few more minutes in each episode, but she knows that is unlikely. Female hosts also struggle with diversity in on- and off-screen representation, a problem Robin Thede pointed out despite BET allowing her to make the show she wanted to make. The Rundown‘s recent cancellation further exemplifies how difficult it can be for women of color to receive the trust and time needed for a late-night series to prosper.

As broadcast networks increasingly move their content to online platforms like CBS All-Access or NBCUniversal’s now-defunct Seeso, the late-night format will likely continue to see considerable aesthetic and formal changes that complicate our previous understandings of the genre. This industrial trend and the concurrent movement toward more inclusive representation onscreen might signify a genre-altering shift in late-night, one hopefully led by all women.

Image Credits:
1. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee‘s take on late-night.
2. Author’s screengrab.
3. Author’s screengrab.

Please feel free to comment.

Synergy of Attractions: Disney’s Not-So-Secret Weapon to Take on Netflix
Casey Walker / University of Texas at Austin


Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando, Florida

As The Walt Disney Company prepares to launch its new video streaming service in the fall of 2019, a looming conflict between Disney and Netflix is on the horizon. As the collision course between these two giants approaches, a study released this last April states that despite the more than six billion dollars Netflix spent on original programming in 2017, 80% of its viewership is generated from content they license from other providers, which up to this point has included not only Disney content, but content from Disney’s possibly soon-to-be acquired 20th Century Fox. [ (( Spangler, Todd. “Netflix Licensed Content Generates 80% of U.S. Viewing, Study Finds.” Variety. April 12, 2018. Online. ))] However, despite the loss of these studios’ content, Netflix will still have an enormous head start with respect to its subscriber base, as its subscriber count recently passed 125 million worldwide. [ (( Lawler, Richard. “Netflix subscriber count hits 125 million.” Engadget. April 16, 2018. Online ))] In order to compete for viewership with Netflix, Disney is going to have to pull out all the stops, including heavily utilizing its own not-so-secret marketing weapon, its theme parks. Disney has long used its theme parks Disneyland, Disney World, and others around the world to market its content through rides, attractions, and merchandising. But in anticipation of its streaming service launch, Disney is preparing an all-out blitz of new attraction construction and new content that work together to create synergy between their theme parks and their entertainment division in an effort to both promote more recent franchises like Star Wars and Toy Story, but also bolster the value of older back catalog properties like The Little Mermaid and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

To create this synergy, Disney is following a strategic plan on three fronts. First, it’s replacing theme park attractions either not directly affiliated with a Disney entertainment property or affiliated with a less successful Disney property with a mix of its new and most successful films and films from their back catalog of entertainment for which the studio wants to re-enforce the brand value. Second, Disney is planning a slate of new films based on some of its most popular theme park attractions, a tactic it’s used before, both with great success and also huge financial disappointment. And finally, rather than continuing to license properties from other studios on which to base new theme park rides, Disney is outright buying or bidding for studios with whom it currently holds such licensing agreements, such as Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. Disney is hoping these three strategies will create a robust marketing synergy between its theme parks and its emerging streaming service, thus giving the company the boost it will need to catch Netflix.

Synergy, the ubiquitous marketing-speak term that is defined as the combined agency of two groups working to create a cooperative effort greater than the two groups’ singular efforts, is not a new approach for Disney. Walt Disney was a believer in the strategy before synergy was even a term. This illustration from 1957 shows how the company envisioned it could utilize all of its available assets to create a multi-faceted marketing design:

1957 Synergy Map

Walt Disney’s 1957 “Synergy Map”

Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner (1984-2005) was also a huge proponent of the strategy, saying in 1995, “One plus one will add up to four.” Eisner even created a position for the company in charge of handling this master plan with the job title of Director of Corporate Synergy. [ (( Greenburg, Julia. “How Disney is Making Sure You’ll Never Be Able to Escape Star Wars.” Wired. November 17, 2015. Online. ))] Eisner’s successor (and current Disney CEO), Bob Iger, would take the synergy ball and run and with it. In 2015, the Disney holdings comparable to those in the 1957 illustration would look like this:

Synergy Map 2015

The Walt Disney Company’s “Synergy Map” from 2015

Disney is hoping that all of these holdings can contribute to the synergistic whole, but it’s betting big on the efforts of its theme parks. First, the company created an aggressive plan to replace theme park attractions either not directly affiliated with a Disney entertainment property or affiliated with a less successful Disney property with a mix of attractions pushing new or popular films, franchises, and television shows. At its Hollywood Studios in Orlando Florida, gone are the Honey I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure, The Great Movie Ride, and the Studio Backlot Tour. In their place, Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be opening in the respective summers of 2018 and 2019. And at Epcot’s Norway pavilion, the Maelstrom Viking cruise has become the Frozen Ever After ride, while the Gran Fiesta Tour boat ride in the Mexico pavilion looks poised to be converted into a ride based on the successful 2017 Pixar film, Coco. The park has already completely redesigned the entrance to the ride with Coco exhibits, art, and merchandise.

And while it’s not uncommon for competing theme parks like Universal Studios to bring in new attractions based on more recent and popular intellectual property, Disney is also launching attractions based on properties from their back catalog, going as far back as eighty years! In their recent renovations to Fantasyland at Magical Kingdom in Florida, they constructed a recreation of the Beast’s castle from Beauty and the Beast (1991) (complete with a nearby Belle’s Village), Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, and the Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train, based on Disney’s first feature length film, released in 1937. Not only is this amount of park-wide expansion and refurbishment unprecedented for a park that has for so long rooted itself in the tradition of its classic rides and attractions, but Disney’s careful selection of which of its intellectual properties to feature in this expansion shows a concerted effort to boost the value of not only its current studio output, but also its library of films going back decades.

This doesn’t mean Disney is sweeping away all of their classic rides, however. In fact, Disney hopes to keep rides like It’s a Small World, Jungle Cruise, and Space Mountain for years to come. But how can Disney create synergy for theme park rides that aren’t a part of their catalog of entertainment content? By following their second strategy, to create films based on popular original theme park attractions. Disney tried this strategy before with mixed success. Its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, based on the popular theme park ride, was hugely successful worldwide, grossing billions. However, the successive financial disappointments of Mission to Mars (2000), The Country Bears (2002), and Haunted Mansion (2003) temporarily blunted this strategy. But with the impending release of its streaming service, Disney is ramping up production on a filmed adaptation of Jungle Cruise, set to film this summer with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The studio has also hired screenwriters to write an adaptation of It’s a Small World and is working on a Haunted Mansion reboot with Guillermo Del Toro, for which he has been writing a script. [ (( Celestino, Mike. “Guillermo del Toro confirms he is still writing his “Haunted Mansion” movie.” InsideTheMagic.com. April 28, 2016. Online. ))] A Space Mountain movie is surely to follow if these film adaptations find success.

Three of Disney World’s most popular attractions, were not originally Disney properties at all. Star Tours-The Adventure Continues, Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, and Pandora-The World of Avatar were based on Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox properties. Licensing intellectual properties from competing studios for attractions based on their films is a common practice in the theme park business. Universal Studios licenses Harry Potter from Warner Bros., Men in Black from Sony, and Transformers from Paramount for popular rides at their theme parks. But Disney wasn’t content to just license the property. In 2012, the studio announced it was purchasing Lucasfilm and, in 2017, the beginning of a possible blockbuster acquisition of 20th Century Fox was made public. While it would be silly to assume these purchases only occurred for synergistic alignment with Disney’s holdings, it would be equally silly to assume it wasn’t a consideration. These acquisitions allowed Disney to cement all of its theme park intellectual property rights under the studio’s roof, and the potential purchase of 20th Century Fox allows for future theme park expansion based on Fox’s intellectual property without the added expense of licensing fees. We could soon be seeing attractions based on Titanic, Deadpool, X-Men, Independence Day, Night at the Museum, and the Ice Age franchise. The possibilities are endless. However, Disney has competition for Fox, as Comcast is aggressively battling Disney in the bidding process. Fox shareholders are set to choose between the two companies’ offers at a July 10 meeting. [ (( Tartaglione, Nancy and Dade Hayes. “Fox and Disney Set Shareholder Meetings for Vote on Merger.” Deadline. May 30, 2018. Online. ))] It should be noted that Comcast, Disney’s fellow suitor for Fox, owns Universal Studios. Apparently, Disney isn’t the only company that sees the synergistic possibilities with respect to Fox’s assets and its theme parks.

Disney takes synergy very seriously, and it’s always at the forefront of their marketing strategy. To bridge the large subscriber gap between its upcoming streaming service and its primary competitor, Netflix, Disney will have to use assets like its theme parks to serve as important marketing tools. By creating new rides based on its popular properties, creating new films based on its popular rides, and buying up studios from which it licenses material for attractions, Disney is hoping visitors to its theme parks will be immersed in the studio’s content marketing blitz and feel compelled to purchase a subscription to the new streaming platform, which will be the universal and unique source for these properties. Disney has also positioned itself as perhaps the one true competition to Netflix’s dominance, not only with its content monopoly on Disney and possibly Fox properties, but also its specific and numerous marketing tools designed to create synergy. The Verge’s Bryan Bishop commented on the impending battle between Disney and Netflix late last year and asserted, “Disney’s streaming service has won, and it hasn’t even launched yet.” [ (( Bishop, Bryan. “Disney’s streaming service has won, and it hasn’t even launched yet.” The Verge. November 11, 2017. Online. ))] Disney is wishing upon a star that he’s right.

Image Credits:
1. Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando, Florida
2. Walt Disney’s 1957 “Synergy Map”
3. The Walt Disney Company’s “Synergy Map” from 2015

Please feel free to comment.

The Future of B.C.: Vancouver as Sci-Fi Television’s Ideal Media Capital
Rusty Hatchell / University of Texas at Austin

Vancouver's BC Place Stadium in Netflix's Altered Carbon

Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium in Netflix’s Altered Carbon

Earlier this year, television critic Tim Goodman noted that television has been experiencing a renaissance of sci-fi, fantasy, and supernatural programming over the last few years. Indeed, many studios have begun producing more sci-fi and fantasy productions as many cable channels and streaming platforms desire to air the next Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present). Last year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly demanded his studios bring him his own Game of Thrones, instigating a major shift in the streaming giant’s development slate, including production on at least four new sci-fi series (Lazarus, Snow Crash, Ringworld, Culture) and two new fantasy series (Wheel of Time, The Dark Tower). Additionally, Amazon is positioned to spend an unprecedented $1 billion on its upcoming five-season Lord of the Rings small-screen project by the time series production wraps. Meanwhile, CBS has reportedly spent $8-8.5 million per episode on Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access, 2017-present), a show that might be one of the most expensive in TV history yet only reaches the approximately 2 million subscribers of CBS All Access.

However, sci-fi television has not always lavished in high production budgets. As J.P. Telotte notes, “SFTV [sci-fi television] has traditionally had to work at a disadvantage.” [ (( J.P. Telotte, The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2008), 5. ))] From the advent of sci-fi television in the 1940s, filming other-worldly and futuristic scenes on limited budgets has typically constrained the narratives of many earlier productions. As efforts concentrated on making sci-fi more visually palatable through visual effects (VFX), studios have found other ways to save money, including relocation of productions to more affordable locations.

Blogger's photo of the set of USA's The 4400

Blogger’s photo of the set of USA’s The 4400

One such location for many sci-fi productions over the past twenty-five years has been Vancouver, British Columbia. Although there were a few sci-fi productions filmed in Canada during the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was the debut and subsequent early success of The X-Files (FOX, 1993-2002, 2016-18) that sparked a wave of studios flocking to Vancouver to film sci-fi, fantasy and supernatural programs throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, while a 1980s-developed tourism motto for the province—”Super Natural British Columbia,” which is still used today—intended to “promote travel to the province by extolling the beauty and variety of British Columbia’s natural landscape … by the mid-1990s, the slogan became more closely associated with the fact that Vancouver was the production home of nine of the top American ‘supernatural’ television series.” [ (( Serra Tinic, On Location: Canada’s Television Industry in a Global Market (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 29. ))] Many of these productions—including Poltergeist: The Legacy (Showtime, 1996-98; Sci Fi, 1999), The Sentinel (UPN, 1996-99), Sleepwalkers (NBC, 1997-98), Harsh Realm (FOX, 1999-2000), Dark Angel (FOX, 2000-2002), The 4400 (USA, 2004-07), Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, 2004-09), Supernatural (The WB, 2005-06; The CW, 2006-present), and Kyle XY (ABC Family, 2006-09)—filmed in the Canadian city (and the surrounding area) to take advantage of lucrative provincial and federal tax incentives as well as the weak exchange rate on the Canadian dollar.

Shortly after the wave of Hollywood-financed sci-fi television, Canadian creators began to produce and finance their own sci-fi content, quickly catching the attention of executives at Syfy. Thomas Vitale—executive vice-president of programming and original movies—explained, “[w]hether it’s shows that are made in Canada for the international marketplace, or some very original shows produced in Canada, the Canadian marketplace is a terrific place for good programming in the sci/fi, fantasy and supernatural genre.” [ (( Etan Vlessing, “Syfy Bulks Up on Canadian Sci-Fi Imports,” The Hollywood Reporter, Feb. 5, 2013, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/syfy-bulks-up-canadian-sci-418198. ))] Canadian-produced content—as well as co-produced content—showcased Vancouver’s shift from a production capital mostly populated with Hollywood runaways to a more diverse hub full of runaways, co-productions, and domestic productions alike. Meanwhile, the number of runaway productions in Vancouver continued to rise through the 2010s, strengthening the city’s claim as the third largest production center in North America. In the essence of Michael Curtin’s assertion that media capitals “represent centers of media activity that have specific logics of their own,” Vancouver has rightfully become a unique production hub for the majority of Hollywood’s sci-fi and supernatural programming as well as an emerging destination for Canadian sci-fi production. [ (( Michael Curtin, “Media Capital: Towards the Study of Spatial Flows,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2003): 203. ))] However, as premium TV and streaming platforms continue to push the budgets of dramas and other hour-long offerings into $10-million-plus territory, it remains a curiosity why Hollywood firms continue to depend on filming their sci-fi projects in Canadian locations rather than relocating to California.

The natural landscape of B.C. stands in as a foreign planet on Netflix's Lost in Space

The natural landscape of B.C. stands in as a foreign planet on Netflix’s Lost in Space

For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, Canadian production volume reached $8.3 billion, with British Columbia edging out Ontario’s provincial share of the figure for the first time ever, in large part due to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. [ (( Canadian Press, “B.C. Now Canada’s Most Popular Province For Film, TV Production: Report,” HuffPost Canada, Feb. 2, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2018/02/02/b-c-now-canadas-most-popular-province-for-film-tv-production-report_a_23351725/. ))] Netflix and Amazon have led the pack of major streaming services investing in higher-end sci-fi filmed in Vancouver, with the former debuting Altered Carbon (2018-present) and Lost in Space (2018-present) earlier this year and the latter’s The Man in the High Castle (2015-present) forecasting the platform’s aforementioned surge into high-budget development and production of sci-fi and fantasy programming. Additionally, Netflix has co-produced two sci-fi productions: Between (2015-16)—a co-production with Rogers-owned City—filmed in Ontario, while Travelers (2016-present)—a co-production with Corus-owned Showcase—has filmed in British Columbia.

There is no doubt that Canada has become the sci-fi nation. Yet, there has been a silent shift in the role of Vancouver, Toronto, and other production centers, particularly for Hollywood-produced content. Whereas the cultural markers of Vancouver have long been erased to stand in for American (and other non-Canadian) locations in decades past, a modern, economically-forward image of Vancouver has emerged in more recent Vancouver-shot media. Much of this is due to the direct economic impact of the creative industries funding urban revitalization efforts across the Lower Mainland of B.C. In 2016, when Wayward Pines (FOX, 2015-16) filmed in the suburb of Coquitlam, the $100,000 that the city collected in service and permit fees paid for upgrades to one of the city’s parks. Surrey—another suburb of Vancouver—has recently implemented a massive economic strategy to position the city as a metropolitan center, which has identified the creative arts industries as one of five key sectors of growth. The city’s newly constructed Surrey City Centre Library (pictured below) has already been featured in a number of television series—including Continuum (Syfy, 2012-15), Travelers, and Supergirl (CBS, 2015-16; The CW, 2016-present). Much of the city’s more modern architecture—including many of the glass skyscrapers across downtown Vancouver—can easily represent futuristic locations with the help of visual effects.

Surrey City Centre Library (with Central City Shopping Centre in the background)

Surrey City Centre Library (with Central City Shopping Centre in the background)

The city boasts a vibrant industry for VFX and other post-production necessities. In 2015, the Digital Animation or Visual Effects tax credit (DAVE) was strengthened to keep post-production activities in the province. This effort to keep all stages of production in Canada helps to continue the industry’s growth and, more importantly, the clustering of various sectors in one accessible area. Today, the city claims to be the world’s largest cluster of VFX and animation studios. One such studio—Artifex Studios—has played a massively important role in VFX for many Vancouver-filmed sci-fi productions, working on Continuum, Zoo (CBS 2015-17), Almost Human (FOX, 2013-14), Travelers, The Man in the High Castle, and many others. Additionally, ever since the company began operations in the Canadian city in 2013, Industrial Light and Magic—Lucasfilm’s post-production company—has expanded many times, most recently opening up a second location in the city to meet growing demands.

Returning to Telotte’s comment on the disadvantages of sci-fi production, the influx of streaming platforms producing high-budget content marks a moment in which economic assertions of runaway productions in Vancouver must be reconsidered. First, as reports of Netflix producing 700 series in 2018 and Amazon amping up their own production slate continue to dominate industry headlines, Vancouver’s position as an essential site for runaway productions should be revisited as perhaps one of an ideal site for premium cable and streaming platforms. In other words, while some studios with tighter budgets may film in Vancouver primarily for tax incentives that lessen their financial risks—such as Warner Bros. Television, which is Vancouver’s biggest TV client—production efforts in the city from premium cable and streaming platforms may consider tax incentives simply as an added perk, packaged with the fully-clustered production hub of Vancouver and its highly-experienced crew in science fiction production. Second, as economic strategies continue to impact the visual identity of the city through urban planning and architectural developments, the city’s Vancouverness becomes slightly more recognizable. Websites dedicated to identifying Vancouver landmarks and specific locations have appeared for shows like Altered Carbon, while fans have started sceneframing—the effort of showcasing a location from a media text in the context of its actual location—much of Vancouver in reference to the multitudes of programs that have and continue to film in the city. This latter practice is, in part, a fascinating digital extension of Vancouver’s fan tourism and pilgrimage scholarship. [ (( For further reading on fan tourism and pilgrimage practices, see Will Brooker’s “Everywhere and Nowhere Vancouver, Fan Pilgrimage and the Urban Imaginary” in International Journal of Cultural Studies, Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures, and Rebecca Williams’ “Fan Tourism and Pilgrimage” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom (ed. Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott). ))]

Sceneframing The CW's Arrow in Vancouver

Sceneframing The CW’s Arrow in Vancouver

But perhaps the most important consideration is the potential impact of deep-pocketed streaming platforms continuing to film in the Canadian city. As production budgets continue to inflate and streamers attempt to produce the next big genre hit, only time will tell how much of a positive economic impact streaming platforms will have in Canadian production hubs. A recent announcement by the Canadian government that Netflix will invest C$500 million in original productions over the next five years in the country provides a glimpse into the role premium cable outlets and streaming platforms will play not only in global distribution, but also in runaway productions—particularly in Canada.

Image Credits:
1. Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium in Netflix’s Altered Carbon
2. Blogger’s photo of the set of USA’s The 4400
3. The natural landscape of B.C. stands in as a foreign planet on Netflix’s Lost in Space
4. Surrey City Centre Library (with Central City Shopping Centre in the background)
5. Sceneframing The CW’s Arrow in Vancouver

Please feel free to comment.

Transnational Television Dramas and the Aesthetics of Conspicuous Localism
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Hibana: Spark

Hibana: Spark

This semester, graduate students in my seminar and I started a Global Television Club, where we screen pilot episodes of television series from around the world. Specifically, we selected recent, high-end drama series co-produced and released (more or less) simultaneously in multiple territories. Our goal was more than entertainment or familiarity with non-U.S. television cultures: instead, we sought to identify common stylistic, thematic, and generic tendencies that might cut across these transnational television dramas, regardless of country-of-origin. Unfortunately, due to scheduling problems, our investigation didn’t get far, and we are planning on continuing our investigation in the fall. Still, I include several of the observations that emerged out of the club’s viewings and discussions below.

Within the global television industries, little doubt exists that high-end transnational television drama is a new and growing phenomenon, enabled by the streaming ambitions of FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google), as well as several dozen smaller streaming companies from around the world, including the BBC, Arte in France, ZDF in Germany, and iQiyi in China, to name only a few. In 2017, C21 Media, one of the leading international television trade magazines, published a report assessing the trend and examining its impact of television drama production in numerous markets worldwide.



In television studies, we have been hesitant to identify this new trend, perhaps because of the contentious status of the concept of “quality” in a field based on the idea that all forms of culture expression can be inherently valuable, and that the designation of “quality” or “artistic” acumen are mere discourses of classed, gendered, and raced social distinctions. I largely sympathize with this perspective; I find the critiques of quality in television programming that folks like Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman’s make in Legitimating Television—that many of the features of supposedly high-quality television dramas are dismissed or ignored when they appear in women’s genres—quite convincing. Nevertheless, I do believe that we are seeing the emergence of new, transnational discourse of quality television within the programming industries—what I would call a certain form of “industry lore”—that, together with the technological and economic structures of the global media industries, are ushering in an era of high-budget transnational television series. It is this trend that I want to analyze here, while bracketing for the moment questions of quality or art.

Co-produced transnational television dramas, released in multiple territories, are certainly nothing new. They have frequently featured a limited number of genres, particularly historical miniseries with characters and stories that resonate across national borders. In Europe in the 1980s, this strategy was deployed in order to leverage production budgets from multiple territories and compete with high-end, imported U.S. television programs. While this specific model of co-production led to derisive comments about culturally vacuous “Europudding” miniseries, it is also the case that a number of well-received and popular series emerged from this model.

Descendants of the Sun

Descendants of the Sun

Much the same economic and cultural logic is at work in the surge in today’s transnational television dramas as well, but several features of the current moment in transnational television drama are unique as well, most obviously the budgets. Babylon Berlin, co-produced by Sky and ARD for simultaneous streaming release in the UK and Germany, is the most non-English series ever produced. Occupied, a Norwegian political thrilled co-produced by Arte and simultaneously released in France is the most expensive Norwegian show ever. Likewise for the Korean series Descendants of the Sun, co-produced and simultaneously released by Chinese streaming service iQiyi. And so on.

The global streaming wars between Amazon and Netflix drive these budgets: this year, Netflix will put about $8 billion into original programming worldwide, as will Amazon, while HBO, Hulu, and Sky are pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars each. In addition, there are hundreds of medium sized streaming services around the world that are pouring in money as well.

Hotel Beau Séjour

Hotel Beau Séjour

All of this production money leads to a second significantly different feature on contemporary transnational television drama, what I would call “conspicuous localism.” A major part of the expense of these series comes from the variety of locations in which they are shot and the extensive use of HD cinematography to create a strong sense of place, unlike most co-productions in television’s past. The Icelandic series Trapped, co-produced with German broadcaster ZDF, features cascading shots of massive, snowy mountains; the Japanese series Hibana: Spark opens with a craning shot of pedestrian mall in Osaka with green mountains in the distance, and much of the subsequent action takes place in the Kichijoji and nearby Kami Shakuji areas of Tokyo. This conspicuous localism is further reinforced by local-language production, even to the point of shooting in subnational dialects (witness the Belgian Arte co-production in Flemish, Hotel Beau Séjour), as well as plotlines and themes that often require very specific cultural knowledge, such as the Japanese two-team stand-up comedic form, manzai, which is at the heart of the story in Hibana: Spark.

This sense of conspicuous localism is for me the most interesting cultural trend in transnational television drama today. I call it “conspicuous,” riffing on the idea “conspicuous consumption,” because I believe that this form of localism serves quite specific audience and industry needs that are all about appealing to others, much as conspicuous consumption is done to signal to others. The conspicuous localism of the cinematography, storylines, and languages of contemporary transnational television drama are, I believe designed to appeal to a cosmopolitan international audience. For subscribers to streaming platforms, dramas with a strong sense of authenticity offer cosmopolitan cultural capital to affluent viewers in a way that less conspicuously local production strategies do. Given the nationalist and ethnic backlashes against globalization and immigration in many Western nations, the consumption of seemingly authentic media culture from abroad is a way to signal to one’ self and others one’s cosmopolitanism.

Babylon Berlin

Babylon Berlin

Meanwhile, for creative industries around the world, conspicuous localism is a way to promote local tourism, as well as to spotlight and expand local creative industries. For the nation-of-origin, high-end television dramas serve nationalist ends that are similar to the opera houses of the 19th and 20th centuries. Much as opera houses and locally-produced operas in the national language became markers of a nation’s modernity in earlier centuries, so are transnational television dramas markers of the maturity of a nation’s creative industries in the 21st century.

Image Credits:
1. Hibana: Spark
2. Trapped
3. Descendants of the Sun
4. Hotel Beau Séjour
5. Babylon Berlin

Please feel free to comment.

Showtime’s The Chi and the Surge in Black-Cast TV Dramas
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Cast of Showtime's The Chi

Cast of Showtime’s The Chi

Showtime’s new series, The Chi, has drawn countless comparisons to HBO’s The Wire. Set in a South Chicago neighborhood, The Chi has many of the same themes as The Wire, an ensemble cast, and relies on extensive on-location shooting to create a strong sense of place. At the same time, while The Wire addressed the institutional and economic causes and conditions of black inner-city poverty, The Chi explores the interiority of lives lived alongside the day-to-day grind of poverty, violence, and social decay. Perhaps even more interesting, in its characterizations, its cinematography, and its sound track, The Chi manages to find hope, dignity, and even beauty in back urban life in a way that The Wire never did.

Despite some complaints that the social critique of The Chi is not as sharp as The Wire, the series manages to tell a unique story and, in African American media studies, telling unique stories has long been considered an objective good. Moreover, one could argue that the sympathetic exploration of the characters and their lives reflects the unique standpoint of its African American female showrunner, Lena Waithe; that, at both a narrative and a stylistic level, the series exhibits a distinctly black feminine sensibility.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Chi is that it launched in an era of abundance for predominantly black-cast television dramas. Even five years ago, a new, well-funded black-cast drama series would have caused a splash, but today, we barely take notice. To name only a few prominent examples, there’s Power (2013-present) on Starz, Dear White People (2017-present), She’s Gotta Have It (2017-present), and The Get Down (2016-2017) on Netflix, Atlanta (2016-present) on FX, Being Mary Jane (2013-present) on BET, Black America (expected, 2018) on Amazon, and Empire (2015-precent) on Fox.

Promo for FX's Atlanta

Promo of FX’s Atlanta

Still for Netflix's The Get Down

Still for Netflix’s The Get Down

Alvin Poussaint, among others, has noted that African American characters on television have largely been restricted to comedy. Before 2013, the only predominantly black-cast dramas in U.S. television were the ABC miniseries Roots (1977), the Showtime series Soul Food (2000-2004), and HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008). Why have we seen this recent explosion in black-cast dramas, when for nearly 70 years of TV history, they were absent, and what might this new slate of black-cast dramas tell us about current state of African American television culture?

One popular narrative explaining the surge in black-cast series attributes it to a growing number of nonwhite showrunners who often seek creative talent from outside of traditional TV circles. But major changes in the portrayals of African Americans on television have always been linked to broader changes in the commercial institutions that produce, fund, and profit from American television. In the 1980s, competition from cable, combined with growing African American purchasing power, led to a growth in network sitcoms focused on predominantly black casts (Gray, 1995). [ ((Gray, Herman (1995) Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for “Blackness.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.))] In the 1990s, Fox Broadcasting’s efforts to start a fourth network focused on underserved African American audiences in large urban markets, leading to a host of distinctly black situation comedies produced and written by African Americans (Zook, 1999). [ ((Zook, Kristal Brent (1999) Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.))]

In exploring the industrial dimensions of the changing fortunes of black-cast dramas, the first thing to note is that several are high-budget series offered through subscription services – a significant departure from the past, when black-cast series had low budgets compared to white series. Among these subscription series, some, like The Chi, can truly be called auteur TV.

How might we explain the sudden willingness of the television industry to invest money in black-cast series? For one thing, African Americans tend to spend more on subscription television than other U.S. racial groups. However, as I noted in a previous Flow post, African Americans also undersubscribe to subscription streaming services: while urban black subscriptions to video-on-demand services are 10% higher than average, subscriptions to streaming video-on-demand services are roughly the same as other racial groups. Moreover, Horowitz Research’s State of Cable & Digital Media: Multicultural Edition reports that, while African Americans watch a disproportionally large amount of TV drama, they watch only an average amount of original streaming dramas.

These statistics suggest that the African American market for subscription streaming services remains somewhat untapped, and that original television dramas may a good way to attract them. With competition for subscribers growing, it should perhaps come as no surprise that black-cast dramas helmed by African American creatives have proliferated. We saw this competition on display last summer when the new HBO series Confederate, a counterfactual history series from two white creators based on the premise that the Confederacy won the Civil War, spurred strong opposition from African Americans. In the wake of the controversy, Amazon immediately announced its own Civil War counterfactual series, Black America, which narrates the story of a separate black nation created within the borders of the United States and is produced by Will Packer and Aaron Magruder.

If I am correct that subscription television services, particularly streaming services, have begun to use black-cast dramas to increase African American subscriptions, some important questions remain. Are these services targeting all black viewers equally, or are certain members of the African American community more desirable? And, how important are non-black viewers in the decision to create black-cast television dramas?

My answers to these questions are speculative. They are rooted in the notion that, much as among white Americans, African American taste cultures tend to divide along class lines, with the proletariat classes preferring content that is rowdier, gaudier, and more visceral than the refined, intellectual culture that their bourgeois counterparts enjoy. Within African American studies, class-based taste differences in comedy and humor have been well documented, going back to Mel Watkins 1994 classic book, On the Real Side. These differences in class-based taste cultures, however, are less well theorized when it comes to television and film drama.

Returning to The Chi, one of its most noteworthy aesthetic elements is its conscious and effective use of stylized editing and camera techniques. In the first sequence featuring a young man named Coogie biking through the neighborhood, past bright graffiti and blighted buildings, we see several jump cuts that unsettle the viewer and prime us for his eventual discovery of a dead body. In episode three, when Coogie’s older brother get involved in a shooting that threatens to ruin his romantic relationship and his budding career as a successful chef, the narrative continues to circle back over and over to the dark, posterized scene of the shooting until we realize who the true shooter is. There are several moments in the series that are highly stylized, with the camerawork, lighting, and editing all working together to reveal the stark beauty of the urban landscape.

In other words, the artistry of the series is clear. At the same time, it is an artistry primarily born of film schools and art house cinemas, rather than the rich visual history of black popular culture. By contrast, the Afrofuturist aesthetics of a film like Black Panther into a populism that transcends class-based African American tastes cultures. Of course, my point is not that working class and poor African Americans can’t get textual pleasure from watching The Chi. However, I would argue that The Chi’s aesthetics appeal to a decidedly middle-class, liberal subscriber, regardless of race.

For much of the history of African American television, series combined bourgeois and proletariat aesthetics in an effort to appeal to both working-class and well-off African Americans. To be viable, broadcast series needed to maintain as many black viewers as possible, while also incorporating white viewers. Not that every series achieved this balance, but most black-cast series tried. By contrast, today’s high-budget black-cast dramas seem designed to splinter the African American audience along class-based taste culture lines in an effort to cobble together an affluent multi-racial subscriber base.

Image Credits:
1. Cast of Showtime’s The Chi
2. Promo for FX’s Atlanta
3. Still for Netflix’s The Get Down

Please feel free to comment.