The entertainment industry has always suffered from a host of personality issues — self-aggrandizement, an unhealthy obsession with youth and beauty, a chronic repetitive disorder — but in 2016 it experienced a full-on existential crisis.
Beset by changes internal and external, social and technological, film, television and music were forced to move beyond the traditional ponderings of “how do we do better work?” or “how do we make more money?” to far deeper questions:
In the age of multiple, portable screens and increasingly universal streaming, how do you define a movie, or a television series, or an album?
With fans able to register their reactions in real time, and often directly to creators, what part should the audience play in the artistic process?
Why, when our platforms continue to multiply, have our artists and narratives remained so overwhelmingly white, male and monolithic?
Can the forces of art, profit and democracy ever work together?
Who are we, the creators of entertainment collectively wondered in the face of #OscarsSoWhite, day-and-date releases and hits born solely from streaming. What are we? Is there a larger purpose, and are we constitutionally obligated to nominate Meryl Streep for an Oscar, Emmy or Grammy each and every year?
OK, maybe not that last, but certainly the rest. Confronted with the inevitabilities of change, Hollywood and the recording industries cast desperate, loving glances at the past — the return of O.J., Winona Ryder, the big romantic musical, portable turntables — but in the end the future won.
Diversity went from suggestion to directive. A second year of #OscarsSoWhite forced the film academy to make changes to its overwhelmingly white male membership and urged studios and tastemakers to expand their gaze beyond traditional choices.
Television congratulated itself for its inclusivity only to be reminded, by the 2016 presidential election, that its depictions of region and class remain inexplicably narrow.
Age became an issue, as the baby boomers began loosening their grip. Bob Dylan won the Nobel and the inaugural Desert Trip music festival was aptly tagged “Oldchella,” but the kids and their social tolerance, smartphones, binge habits and geek love are the new demographic of record.
While film, music and television grappled with demands for a broader and more inclusive spectrum of artistry, delivery systems continued to multiply and meld, blurring the borders between genres.
The documentary series OJ: Made in America debuted its first episode in theaters before moving to ABC and ESPN. Beyonce announced her new album Lemonade with both a Super Bowl performance and an HBO film. Other pop music artists like Chance became stars without ever making a CD, never mind a record.
On streaming services, subscribers can now binge-watch both film franchises and television series with equal abandon. Cancellation became a relative term as shows axed from broadcast lineups found homes on Hulu.
Netflix offered sequels to decades’ old favorites like Full House and Gilmore Girls and even encroached on PBS territory with the critically acclaimed The Crown. Marvel continued to crisscross every screen imaginable with its multi-story, super-hero epics — and film trailers, long their own art form, dropped in near daily installments, driving traffic on social and traditional media.
This never-ending blur of entertainment, available on a dizzying assortment of devices, reinvigorates all the art forms while shaking up many of the traditional citadels — networks struggle to leverage the digital world, the cineplex adds Barcaloungers and wine bars, vinyl records make a comeback.
The resolution of any good existential crisis is surrender. To both the inarguable outside forces that shape us and our ability to shape them right back. Streaming is not just service, it’s a mind-set. The future and the past may appear to pull us in different directions, but that tension, between one direction and another, is the eternal force of creation.
Blurred or un-blurred, entertainment distracts, informs, outrages and confounds. It steps back sometimes, or flounders. And then it moves forward. On smartphones, flat screens, in virtual-reality goggles and wireless earbuds downloading Spotify.
What is film, television or music? They are whatever happens next.