The Great Collapsing Culture Bubble

The Great Collapsing Culture Bubble

From classic movies to documentaries, the foundations of film culture are under siege from cost-cutting executives.


Everywhere you look, the culture industry is shrinking. It’s a moment when the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike only cracks the top 10 list of things going wrong. In the last two weeks, a perfect storm of industry trends converged to reshape the experience of dramatic entertainment—decisively for the worse. The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles canceled its 2023–24 theater season and laid off 10 percent of its staff, citing $8–9 million annual shortfalls in fundraising, and an audience that has not come back since the pandemic. Paramount+’s merger with Showtime brought not only the cancellation of several shows but also their wholesale removal from its platform, for the sake of tax write-offs. Then, WB Discovery continued its companywide crop burn by laying off top executives at the beloved cable channel Turner Classics Movies (TCM).

For decades, TCM has provided a unique home for devotees of American film’s past, programming both an impressive roster of cinema classics and considerations of the history around them via its documentaries, curated film series, and expert hosts. That particular cut put WB Discovery’s CEO David Zaslav on a conference call with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Paul Thomas Anderson. The three filmmakers left the call “heartened” about the channel’s future prospects. Perhaps, but 70 TCM staffers were somewhat less heartened to learn of a brutal round of layoffs, reducing the channel’s team from 90 to 20.

The culture bubble has burst. On May 31, Disney announced that it reached its goal of laying off 7,000 employees—3.2 percent of its 220,000 worldwide global workforce—mostly in media divisions, not theme parks. Across North America, movie theater screens have dropped from 41,172 in 2019 to 39,007 in 2022. In Los Angeles, this meant the loss of the Arclight theaters (including the landmark Cinerama Dome), a chain that guaranteed viewers a ban on cell phone use during the movie and no one talking. Arclight provided the quiet car experience of seeing a movie, another element of the American cultural experience degraded during the Covid pandemic.

Amazon, Netflix, and WB Discovery have all laid off workers, too. They rolled out new product seemingly daily, spreading themselves too thin in an overcrowded, limited marketplace, pandemic or not. The proliferation of platforms and their apparently limitless choices of movies and TV shows created the illusion of success. Last September, as Netflix executives coordinated the rollout of their Oscar-winning animated film Pinocchio, they simultaneously laid off 30 people in their animation division.

The present contraction has not only slowed down the cultural assembly line but also led to the erasure of the product itself. The issue isn’t just the boom-and-bust cycle of film and TV production that determines how much the studios can produce in a year. When Paramount+ simply expunges whole series for tax breaks, questions of preservation come into play. The Library of Congress considers 75 percent of silent films lost forever. Very little video of The Tonight Show’s early days with Jack Paar (1957–62) or Johnny Carson’s great years (1962–71) exists, because NBC recorded over the original tapes of those live broadcasts for subsequent shows. At the time, someone decided that saving money on blank videotape was more important than preserving Carson’s monologues from the 1960s, and now that decision looks like burning a pop culture Bible.

Can TCM survive with such deep personnel cuts? It’s not a streaming service where you rent one of thousands of movies for $1.99; it’s a specialized, curated viewing experience that presents biographies of filmmakers and performers and historical insights from its hosts on the shifts in the industry’s priorities and sensibilities. That’s the sell, as much as the movies. When WB Discovery’s streaming platform Max debuted (as HBO Max) in 2020, its vast library included Gone With the Wind, which the company advertised on billboards in Los Angeles. Screenwriter John Ridley, who won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about his disgust at seeing a movie glorifying slavery presented so proudly by this new platform. As HBO Max launched, a critical question emerged: Should it alter its library for every offended viewer of every movie it owns? Or should it shrug off Gone With the Wind’s false history, one still believed by some today, because of the film’s fan base and status as iconic nostalgia?

HBO Max brought in professor Jacqueline Stewart to host TCM’s presentation of the movie with a new introduction  that put its romanticized, dishonest view of the slave era in a proper historical perspective. Thanks to TCM’s recognized ability to air historic films in full critical context, it was able to douse a potentially permanent, brand-damaging fire for HBO Max rather quickly—and allowed the company to keep a responsibly curated version of Gone With the Wind on its platform. That episode is just one reminder of the sort of work that TCM does on a daily basis. It keeps a film library (and a revenue stream) alive for culturally complicated movies that do not always age well. Given the culture-war skirmishes seen everywhere from beer-can models to school libraries, this is exactly the sort of interpretive work we need to expand, not slash, across the culture industry.

It’s not just the corporations in contraction. The Mark Taper Forum isn’t a global media empire. Nor is the American Film Institute (AFI), which last fall canceled its annual AFI Docs festival in Washington, D.C., folding it into its AFI fest in Los Angeles. During the pandemic, the AFI went online—and today, it’s recalibrating its audience’s level of interest in the indie and investigative works traditionally featured at AFI Docs. In addition to seeing that marquee event fall to the cultural recession, the documentary film world also lost Full Frame, a festival with a 25-year-history, as its sponsor, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, takes stock of its resources. The DocYard series in Cambridge, Mass., has suspended its programming, as has the Maryland Film Festival.

This year at the Sundance Film Festival, not one of the 12 documentary films in competition sold. A few years earlier, streamers bought at exorbitant prices. This year, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and Hulu did not buy a single documentary. Instead, as they continued to expand in every department, they decided to forgo the headaches and happenstance of festival bidding and instead produced their own documentaries to fit their subscriber base. Peter Broderick, an expert in distribution and indie film marketing, notes that the platform-produced documentary fare at Sundance focused on celebrities, true crime, or music—together with what he calls an “amorphous category,” documentaries with “global appeal.” This year at Sundance the streamers brought star-heavy lineup: Still: A Michael J. Fox Story (Apple TV+), Stephen Curry: Underrated (Apple TV+), Judy Blume Forever (Amazon Prime Video), and Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields (Hulu via ABC News).

If the infrastructure has rusted and collapsed, what remains is the audience. We still want to see stuff. As the entertainment corporations and cultural institutions sift their own rubble, a DIY, grassroots effort has emerged. Two D.C. locals, Jamie Shor and Sky Sitney, who worked with AFI as a PR consultant and a festival director, respectively, saw that while the institutional support for the work they promoted evaporated, an audience remained. So they organized a four-day fest, DC/DOX, which featured 40 feature films and documentary shorts that veer sharply from the current streamer fare. They range from Kokomo City, a film about Black transwomen sex workers in New York and Georgia by a Black transwoman, D. Smith, to Margie Soudek’s Salt and Pepper Shakers, about how the 94-year-old Soudek connected with her granddaughter through her 73 years of collecting obsessively stockpiled kitchen tchotchkes.

In Los Angeles, the city has seen a resurgence of revival houses and film institutions to fill a gap for filmgoers interested in something besides superheroes or low-budget horror. The American Cinematheque has theaters in Santa Monica and Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino is expanding his role as owner and programmer of the New Beverly Cinema to include the historic Vista, which first opened in 1923. In June, Vidiots, a former video store, resurrected a theater in the Eagle Rock section of LA as a revival house that will have two screens and a DVD rental shop.

Why rental? Netflix recently canceled its vast DVD-by-mail reserve, leaving millions of their customers without access to movies no one streams. As with the music industry, which lost its CD business to digital distribution, physical media in the form of DVDs and Blu-rays faded out with the rise of streaming. Given how often a film you thought you paid for in your platform subscription simply disappears, the importance of boutique Blu-ray labels like Arrow, Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, the British Film Institute, Eureka, Second Sight, and Criterion has only grown. They curate lines of obscure movies or neglected filmmakers with cleaned-up prints, deluxe cases, audio commentaries, and extras. The appeal is easy to understand: With physical media, once you buy it, you own it. You don’t get an e-mail that says, “Hurry and watch your Blu-rays because half of them are leaving your bookshelf at the end of the month.”

There is at least one late-breaking ray of sunlight on the corporate horizon. Public pressure on David Zaslav got him to hire back veteran TCM programmer Charles Tabesh. Scorsese, Spielberg, and Anderson will also play an advisory role. That won’t make up for the dozens of people fired, but for now, it’s all we’ve got.

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