Yes, my blog is still on hiatus and I’m not covering any new movies in solidarity with the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes. But no way could I possibly stay quiet about this.
In 1948, the United States filed an antitrust lawsuit against Paramount Pictures. Long story short, the final SCOTUS decision resulted in the “Paramount Consent Decree”, preventing any one company from owning both the means to produce films and the means to distribute them. What followed were several decades in which the movie studios (Disney, WB, Paramount, etc.) had the movie distributors (Regal, Cinemark, AMC, etc.) over a barrel, taking increasingly more of the ticket sales until the theaters were left with close to nothing. By the 21st century, movie theaters had turned into glorified candy stores because they could only make a profit by selling concessions.
Then came 2020. COVID-19 had everyone stuck at home and away from theaters, demand for online streaming was at an all-time high, and the studios wanted to bring their content directly to the viewer through their own streaming platforms. Trouble is, Disney and WBD couldn’t distribute the media they produced without violating the Paramount Consent Decree. So the Department of Justice simply decided to scrap it. What followed was a veritable boom for the streaming platforms. Even as COVID-19 paranoia started winding down, the media conglomerates were still raking in cash while movie theater chains declared bankruptcy and insolvency en masse.
Flash forward to 2023. People are now able to leave their homes and find other things to do. Streaming platforms are shoving in more advertisements, jacking up the subscription rates, enacting draconian anti-piracy measures, and canceling or outright deleting exclusive media for no apparent reason except for tax write-offs. All of this to bring the streaming revenue back to pandemic-era numbers, which of course has the opposite effect by driving away end users in droves. Meanwhile, local theater chains are still struggling to remain profitable because of course they’re still getting squeezed by the conglomerates just like always.
Enter Taylor Swift.
Leaving aside the atrocities of Cats and Amsterdam (both of which failed for manifold reasons that Swift had nothing to do with, let’s be real), the past few years have been exceedingly good for Swift. I can’t even begin to catalogue all the accomplishments claimed and the records broken by her albums released in 2020 and 2022, to say nothing of her world-conquering Eras Tour earlier this year. That’s not even getting started on her beef with TicketMaster, near-singlehandedly catapulting inflated ticket prices and the monopoly of the ticket sales industry into prominent issues worthy of mainstream headline news and the halls of government.
In the midst of all this, Swift and her team shot a concert film cataloguing the Eras Tour. Every major studio in Hollywood had the chance to release a guaranteed smash hit, working directly with Taylor Swift at the peak of her cultural power, releasing a film that had already been made at no cost to them. And being the stingy short-sighted slimeballs they are, the studio execs weren’t willing to offer a number that Swift and her team were happy with. They made two huge mistakes here.
First of all, though I am not a fan of Taylor Swift by any means, I am very much a fan of Todd in the Shadows. And of the many, many things he’s taught me in the appreciation and assessment of media, he made it perfectly clear that you do not fuck with Taylor Swift.
Secondly, the studios made the same mistake we all did when the Paramount Consent Decree was repealed. Even at the time, we all knew this was a gift to the media conglomerates and one more means of taking over all media on the planet. But we never stopped to consider the possibility that this arrangement could potentially go both ways.
But what are the chances, right? The theater chains have been limping to the grave for years now. They’re billions of dollars in debt, they’re fundamentally incapable of capitalizing on the streaming trend, they’ll be going the way of Blockbuster any day now. They can barely find the money to keep their venues open, much less fund their own billion-dollar world-conquering spectacular.
Not unless a world-conquering celebrity drops a movie right at their doorstep. One already funded and printed for them. And the theater chains are so desperate that they’ll scrape together enough for a short-term loss if it means long-term fortunes and they’ve got nothing to lose anyway.
So here comes the announcement right out of nowhere that AMC is independently distributing Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, in exchange for a near-60/40 split of the box office receipts favoring Swift. By comparison, the ticket sales for an MCU flick would typically be a 70/30 split favoring Disney. Tickets are already on sale for an October 13th premiere.
The timing could not have been more perfect. Consider that Barbie was recently made into a historic billion-dollar smash by the exact same demographics who would likely go see Swift in concert onscreen. Furthermore, consider that the Eras Tour made roughly $4.6 billion worldwide (incidentally, almost the same amount as AMC’s reported debt), even without everyone out there who couldn’t get in to the live show but could probably afford a movie ticket. And now consider that by mid-October, Barbie will have run its course and those exact same demographics will be ready for another experience with their friends at a movie theater. Shelling out money hand over fist for IMAX premiums and collector popcorn buckets on top of the $19.89 ticket price.
On top of all that, the movie studios will have delayed most of their high-profile late-year offerings into 2024 to stretch out what they have for the duration of the strike, so there won’t be anything else in theaters during mid-October. And if the strike is still going into those dark and rainy autumn months (and let’s be real, the strike is probably going into next year with the way things are going), people will be stuck indoors with no new TV or streaming or anything else to do. Of course, people could always stay at home and play video games, OH WAIT.
There’s no two ways about it, this should absolutely be the last nail for the AMPTP holdout. Pay the writers and actors whatever they want and give up on the AI issue altogether, this is a much, MUCH bigger existential crisis to the studios than anything the unions could threaten. Because no way is this going to stop with Taylor Swift and it’s not going to stop with AMC.
Regal and Cinemark will want in on this action, just as Beyonce and Ed Sheeran and Lady Gaga and some K-Pop artists will want to get their concerts in front of eyeballs. At a time when the MCU is waning and the megafranchise model is buckling under its own weight, everyone in the cinema industry has been desperate to find the next big thing, and this could be it. Yes, the theater chains will inevitably drive this trend into the ground through oversaturation — by that point, they’ll have gotten so many big returns for such low expenses that they’ll have the cash to fund their own movies. At which point, writers and directors and producers and actors can go directly to the distributors instead of the studios.
On top of all that, let’s bring it back to Barbie. Mattel and all the major studios saw that major success and their takeaway was “We need to make more movies about toys.” But everyone on the ground — who actually went to see the damn movie — knew that Barbie was such a massive hit because it was a movie that people (mostly women and girls) could go dress up for and see together and make an experience out of it. And it’s not like this is a new phenomenon — why do you think The Rocky Horror Picture Show is still running after all these decades?
Trouble is, the studios took the wrong lesson because they’re not in a position to capitalize on the ground floor experience. Not like the actual theaters can.
At this point, I see two possible outcomes. Down one road, the studios fight this by bringing back the Paramount Consent Decree and shooting their own streaming platforms right between the eyes. Down the other road, the studios fight this by building their own movie theaters. They might even buy some failing venues from Regal or Cinemark, if they don’t buy the chains outright. Thus the studios exert even greater control over the box office revenue and the consumer experience while tightening their grip on global media. Of course my cynical ass thinks the latter scenario is more probable, but a lot will depend on who’s in political office and how serious they are about cracking down on corporate monopolies.
Either way, nothing will be the same after this. And it’s all thanks to Taylor Goddamn Swift.