Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I'm Totally Against Killing Hollywood

I've worked in Hollywood, and Y Combinator made me laugh. They've got great companies under their belt, and I even know some of the founders they've helped make wealthy, but Hacker News devolved into farce, even more so than usual, following Paul Graham's request for startups to kill Hollywood.

While the move represents terrific social media marketing on Y Combinator's part, and reflects an admirable committment to the hacker community and to the idea of solving problems with new businesses, the announcement featured weak logic, unexamined assumptions, and a total obliviousness to the realities of filmmaking. Some members of the Hacker News community fixed the filmmaking ignorance part of the equation in the ensuing discussion of the piece, and subsequent discussions of related links, but most made the problem worse, and none did anything to repair the impaired reasoning and unfounded assumptions. The site's silly, half-baked discussions provided such hilarious, nonsensical entertainment that I immediately turned off my iPad and went to a theater so I could instead watch a beautiful woman dressed entirely in skintight black leather shoot the ever-living fuck out of some werewolves.

It was awesome. When only 27% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes like a movie, but 80% of the audience does, you know you're in for a terrific evening's demented idiocy. It was also nice to follow one form of demented idiocy with another. In some ways, the only difference between Underworld: Awakening and Hacker News is that the Underworld series can recognize its own silliness and enjoy it. The other difference, of course, would be the beautiful woman in skintight black leather shooting the ever-living fuck out of some werewolves. I think it's obvious Hacker News would be better if it had that element.

Although there are definitely merits to Y Combinator's request, the most obvious implementation of the request would be to travel backwards in time and invest in YouTube and Netflix. Since that implementation requires the existence of such phenomenal tech it would make any VC wet their pants, let's look into less naive implementations. To do that, unfortunately, we have to look at the request in detail, and the devil is in the details.

Paul Graham starts out with a bold and unexplained assertion:

Hollywood appears to have peaked.

Considering that Hollywood nearly single-handedly destroyed the Internet, this is kind of like saying Darth Vader has peaked. You could get away with saying that if you just blew up the Death Star, and I imagine a lot of people felt that way after defeating SOPA, but the question is whether SOPA was in fact the Death Star. I don't think so. I think their Death Star is Chris Dodd, who boldly threatened to stop giving Congresspeople money if they continued failing to pass the laws he demanded and, apparently, paid for:

Those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake

Chris Dodd is one hell of a Death Star. He survived numerous ethics committee investigations while in Congress, swore never to become a lobbyist after leaving office, but became a very well-paid lobbyist for the MPAA immediately after leaving office, and boasts a history of corruption and graft which is almost legendary, and which also appears to be family tradition. His father Thomas Dodd was one of the only Senators in the 20th Century to be censured and removed from office, and that happened because of ethics violations.

I think that Death Star is still locked and fucking loaded. Despite the naked corruption in Dodd's statement, Federal law enforcement agencies are not going after him for bribery, or racketeering, or money laundering -- despite filing charges of bribery and money laundering against the file-sharing web site Megaupload:

The Justice Department's tactics, including accusing a file-sharing website of racketeering, money laundering, in addition to copyright violations, has some U.S. legal experts asking whether the case would stand up in court. "These actions, more suitable to the type of steps that the government takes against an organized-crime enterprise dedicated to murder, theft, and racketeering, are astonishing," said Jeff Ifrah, an attorney who co-chairs the American Bar Association's criminal justice section and committee on white collar crime, via phone...

...the government's racketeering charge--typically only used for mob cases involving drugs or gambling--suggests to Ifrah that prosecutors are overreaching. "The allegations here are very similar to the allegations that were made in the YouTube case," in which Viacom accused the video-sharing site of hosting almost 160,000 unauthorized pieces of content, he said. "Certainly no one accused YouTube of having mob-like activities."

I'm not even going to go into the fucked-up-ed-ness of racketeering and money laundering charges against Megaupload when there aren't racketeering or money laundering charges for the banks following the 2008 financial crisis. I bring this up purely to point out that "Hollywood appears to have peaked" is a bolder statement than Paul Graham gave himself credit for making, a controversial idea to address in detail rather than to gloss over in passing.

He finally substantiates it a little further down:

SOPA brought it to our attention that Hollywood is dying. They must be dying if they're resorting to such tactics. If movies and TV were growing rapidly, that growth would take up all their attention. When a striker is fouled in the penalty area, he doesn't stop as long as he still has control of the ball; it's only when he's beaten that he turns to appeal to the ref. SOPA shows Hollywood is beaten.

If evidence of political corruption, racketeering, and attempts to control the marketplace through government activity reveal dying industries, then real estate is a dying industry too, as well as high finance and numerous others. Considering how pervasive political corruption is in the United States today, almost every single industry in the American economy is dying by Paul Graham's reasoning, except for those few industries which are so new that legislation does not yet exist for them. Agriculture has been dying, by this metric, for at least a hundred years.

Speaking of historical perspective, the Catholic Church experienced a period of extraordinary corruption more than five hundred years ago, during which time popes waged wars, had mistresses, and in some cases even died from sexual exhaustion in the beds of married women. Logically, if political corruption and government thuggery are hallmarks of dying institutions, the Catholic Church must be a historical relic that ceased to exist shortly after this period. However, it kept going another 500 years, and in fact still seems to be around. Not only that, it built nearly every hospital and orphanage in Europe in a period which followed after its apex of corruption. There's a good chance that when humanity colonizes Mars, there's going to be a Martian archdiocese. This is just one of countless examples of an institution which failed to collapse under the weight of its own corruption.

Graham's argument doesn't just operate in defiance of historical precedent, but also in defiance of easily obtainable facts. Studios are seeing tremendous growth today; even though American audiences are shrinking, audiences worldwide are booming. Globalization has been very, very good to Hollywood. Many movies don't even premiere in the United States any more. And as for history, the studios have always been brutally dominant, cynically exploitative, and extremely corrupt, and, despite Graham's argument, were so even during their periods of greatest growth. Why else would writers and actors have unions?

(Tangent: One of the bizarre ironies of the way geeks seem to see Hollywood is that you can frequently see the same people who disparage the studios for their abuse of capital and the political process also disparaging actors and writers for belonging to unions. I can understand the first part of this -- the idea that using power and money like a sword makes you a dickhead -- but it's an utter mystery to me how people get from there to the conclusion that carrying around a big iron shield makes you a fool. The argument seems to be that unions are bureaucratic, but guess what? Big iron shields are heavy and clunky. They still beat getting stabbed.)

Anyway, this all started with Paul Graham's first sentence, "Hollywood appears to have peaked." That is, at best, debatable. Let's look at sentence number two:

If [Hollywood] were an ordinary industry (film cameras, say, or typewriters), it could look forward to a couple decades of peaceful decline.

It's a little odd to see this only days after Kodak files for bankruptcy. Film cameras have actually seen a pretty rapid and intense decline.

Anyway, I'm not going to do any more line-by-line bullshit detection here, because it would take way too long, and because I think you have to take it with a grain of salt whenever Silicon Valley claims it's about to kill Hollywood. I first heard that in 1995 or so, in the pages of Wired magazine, and I have a feeling we'll all still be hearing it in 2025 and 2035 as well.

I lived in San Francisco during the late 90s, and during that time, I was acutely aware of a perceived rivalry between San Francisco and Los Angeles -- but when I moved to Los Angeles in 2007, I discovered that nobody in LA had ever even heard of this rivalry. An acute one-sided rivalry is not a rivalry at all; it's just a sad case of jealousy. I think Y Combinator's presence in Silicon Valley, although obviously advantageous for many other reasons, may have tainted its perception of Hollywood in the same way.

Y Combinator and Paul Graham both actually do pretty awesome things from time to time, and I think the general idea of technology transforming Hollywood, and changing its power structure, is absolutely worth thinking about. I've worked for companies in this space, and although I can't reveal any details, I can say that filmmakers and storytellers make a lot of fucking money on YouTube these days without any participation in what Paul Graham means by "Hollywood" (he appears to be referring only to studios and distributors, as opposed to creative talent or production crews). I can also say that there's plenty of creative talent which was absolutely on the right side of the fight against SOPA -- for example, actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rosario Dawson, and screenwriter John August.

These are just randomly selected Hollywood creatives who I follow on Twitter. There are plenty more who feel the same way.

The Y Combinator announcement does contain one remaining piece of what is, I am sure, entirely accidental bullshit, which I do want to attack:

at this level, technological progress is probably predetermined...

Whatever people are going to do for fun in 20 years is probably predetermined. Winning is more a matter of discovering it than making it happen. In this respect at least, you can't push history off its course.

It's hard to understand this argument without A) believing in God and B) believing God favors Paul Graham. I'm British, so I don't discuss my religious beliefs in public, but I would like to point out that Graham does not furnish any particular reason for his faith in destiny or the chosen course of history.

I'd especially like to highlight this sentence:

Winning is more a matter of discovering [whatever people are going to do for fun in 20 years] than making it happen.

Let's see what Steve Jobs thinks about that:

This contrast is actually really easy to understand. Steve Jobs built Apple around creating cool stuff, while Paul Graham built Y Combinator around finding other people who were probably going to build cool stuff whether or not he came along. So Steve Jobs believed that winning was about making the future happen, and Paul Graham believes it's about finding the future before it happens. I'm not trying to shit all over Paul Graham here, I know people who've done well in Y Combinator startups and I wish him the best, but I think his question is just lame. He asked the startup and hacker communities what the predetermined answer to Hollywood will be; Steve Jobs would ask what future we want to create. That's just a much cooler question.

Personally, I am a programmer, an actor, and a musician. I want to write code, make music, and make movies, so the future I want to create is a future in which I do those things. In the past I've made most of my money from programming and a little bit from making videos and selling them on my blog. Although I didn't even realize it at the time, I was technically, while making a living selling videos on my blog, a working filmmaker, in the same sense that Geoffrey Grosenbach, Gary Bernhardt, and Ryan Bates are all technically working filmmakers.

I liked that. It was cool! So the immediate future I'm working to create is one where I make my living by making and selling videos about how to make music by writing code. I've built a terrific new video along these lines and am in the process of creating more. Hollywood represents no threat to me, helped me learn the skills to make this possible, and presents terrific opportunities for me in all three of these interests. The long-term future I'm working to create involves seizing those other opportunities. Hollywood's a great place to be for this.

I don't need or want Hollywood to die. As an actor, I got a part in a web series the other day; my friend who's producing and writing it hopes to sell it to Hollywood, and I hope he succeeds. I also know we can put it on YouTube and potentially see it succeed with or without Hollywood's involvement. At the same time, I'm lucky enough to know filmmakers and actors who are doing awesome things in Hollywood, and I want them to keep on doing that. There's certainly corruption and dickheadishness at the top end of Hollywood's money and power pyramids, but that wouldn't be a problem at all if we didn't have such a corrupt lawmaking process in the United States. If we're going to kill anything, let's kill the lobbying industry and replace it with a morally defensible process we don't have to be ashamed of whenever we talk to people who live in functioning democracies.

Y Combinator's anger makes sense, but their target is the wrong target, and I could have spotted the holes in their strategic analysis back when I was twelve.