Last night my wife and I watched an interesting documentary called Side by Side about what the digital age has been doing to the film industry since its appearance on the scene a few decades back. The film was released last year and is produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves. It takes an in-depth look at the evolution of digital photography, editing, and distribution and leaves you with a keener sense of how the film industry is in the process of going through this major sea change as both an art form and a business.
And it got me thinking…
Years ago I wrote a book (actually a rewritten version of my doctoral dissertation) on what happened to the entertainment industry almost exactly one hundred years ago when another revolutionary invention made its way into the mainstream. The book is called Broadway and Hollywood: A History of Economic Interaction (published by Arno Press way back in 1974 and long out of print although used copies are still available for purchase). The book documents what happened to the national entertainment business when feature films first hit the scene in the early 1910s and then follows the repercussions up through and including a second shock wave when television took the country by storm in the 1950s and 1960s.
With all of us in the midst of our current digital upheaval, sometimes it’s informative to take a look at what’s happened in the past when technological advances sent shock waves through the industry and changed the way the world consumed its entertainment. Way back in the last century the changes were profound and they vastly influenced the kinds of stories being written and produced.
At the dawn of the Twentieth Century the theatre ruled the entertainment business. Hundreds of stage productions were touring the country every week through circuits of interconnected theatre chains. The theatre was the entertainment industry. But then in 1912 the first feature or multi-reel film was screened with enormous success in New York City and within a handful of years feature films completely took over supplying the lowest common denominator fare for the national audience with its insatiable appetite for entertaining stories.
As a result, the theatre turned in on itself and began producing far more sophisticated plays for a far more sophisticated New York City audience. Suddenly playwrights were liberated and the towering talents of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and many others gave birth to modern American dramatic literature. The Dramatist Guild was formed and playwrights organized to protect themselves and their work from the much more powerful and well heeled Hollywood studios that were constantly on the prowl for new material and were trying to make the theatre into a script mill for their west coast film factories.
And then a second revolution hit in the 1950s as television began taking the country by storm and this time the film business had to make a major adjustment as to the kinds of movies people were still willing to go out of their homes and into theatres to experience. Hence the advent of much more sophisticated and daring films in the 1960s. And look what’s been happening to television over the last two decades as cable networks have been increasingly taking over…
Of course, none of these movements happened overnight, but it’s clear by looking to our past that the ongoing technological advances in the industry have played a huge role in the kinds of stories being produced in each medium as audiences have become increasingly specialized and fragmented.
And today we’re in the middle of yet another sea change. The digital age is having and will continue to have a profound influence not only on how work is produced, but also on the kinds of stories being put out there.
But, in the end, it’s all just part of the ongoing evolution of the entertainment industry.