A few days ago, the Internet giants finally joined Hollywood’s elite when Transparent became the first show distributed solely by a tech company — in this case, Amazon — to win Best Series at a major award show — in this case, the Golden Globes. It was a triumph not just for Amazon, and not just for the larger community of disruptive newcomers to television, which includes Netflix and Hulu. It was, quite frankly, a triumph for great, risky, and challenging popular art.
Transparent is no riproaring cop drama. It doesn’t even have a brooding morally-suspect male anti-hero! Instead it’s a slow-moving yet astoundingly rewarding series about somebody who is biologically a man, but who comes out to his three grown children as a transgender woman. You will probably cry watching it, which is impressive considering there’s no big terminal illnesses or war wounds which OF COURSE everybody cries at. There’s just emotional devastation and — sometimes — redemption.
It falls in line with Amazon Studios head Roy Price’s philosophy that, instead of making shows that 80 percent of viewers like, he’d rather make shows that 30 percent of viewers love.
“For every single one of them, they’re going to watch every single episode and they love it,” Price says.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said something similar at last year’s Code conference, when talking about House of Cards. Hastings saw a huge drop in viewers during the brutal dog-killing scene in the opening episode. That data is valuable, but not for the reason a traditional studio exec might think. As Pando editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy wrote, “Data shouldn’t serve to make content that absolutely everyone will love. It should be used to find the exact people that an excellent — even offensive or edgy — piece of content will love.”
These are great strategies for producing television shows which, ideally, last for six-plus seasons and hook viewers in for hours upon hours of viewing time.
But what about films? Amazon recently announced a push into releasing films at the same time as theaters. Netflix already announced a similar deal around the sequel to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. (Incidentally, did you notice I’m talking about Amazon’s and Netflix’s original content offerings in the same breath? That would have never happened before Transparent and particularly not before the show won two Golden Globes).
But unlike television, a film can’t slowly sneak its way into an audience’s heart over the course of many episodes. Nor can it reap the prolonged benefits of capturing a small, committed audience. These true believers may evangelize the film. They may even watch the film twice — three times! But they won’t spend hours upon hours watching one film like they would a television show. Nor will they wait patiently — all while keeping their subscription active — for the next season. People may have loyalty to a specific director or actor, but generally not to a specific studio.
This is all a long way of saying that film is going to be a lot harder to tackle than television for these Internet giants. But hey, after the phenomenally entertaining House of Cards and Transparent, I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]