The Long Journey Home
A Look at the Content Business’s Journey to a New Normal After an Aggressive Virus Turned Everyday Life into a Horror Film
Inky darkness wrapped its chilly arms around me. I was about halfway through my drive back to Northern California. Back home.
For those that know California intimately, who have called this state home, you understand that the drive from So-Cal to Nor-Cal is a journey of 1000 miles. Well, nearly 400. Still, it will take you no less than 6 hours to make the journey, anything less and you deserve a speeding ticket. No, that is a statement, not a suggestion.
So, at hour 3, knowing full well I have at least another 3 hours (more if I hit construction, or bizarre traffic on Highway 5), I settled in, tried to stretch my limbs as much as my car would let me, and put up the volume on my radio.
It was 11 pm, the sun had since set and it was hard not to feel like this trip was akin to walking back with my tail between my legs. Somehow, after years of succeeding, with all the external markers for success, I was walking away from it all.
I have been obsessed with creativity since I was a child. When my parents and I immigrated to the U.S., I began second grade and immediately was reading middle school books. For fun, my Dad and I would turn my very juvenile poetry and short stories into homebound books to submit to the Young Author’s competition. Every year, I would win a little prize and my Dad, beaming with pride, would have another year during which he could say his daughter was an award-winning author.
As I got older, my passion didn’t diminish, it evolved. I founded my high school’s Multicultural Club - its focus? Cook or bake foods from different cultures and sell or give them away at school to bring awareness to all the amazing cultures we had represented on our campus. Then, for whatever reason, my little band of friends would choreograph a dance to perform for the whole school. One very memorable year we found a way to combine Latin-inspired dancing from Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights with West African dancing. It made sense to our teenage minds at the time.
As part of my Senior Project, a high school graduation requirement, my partner Stephanie and I put on a West African inspired variety show, complete with speakers from UCSF’s Africa disease prevention division, a non-profit founder, and a poet, all to raise funds for UNICEF’s work with children affected by HIV/AIDS on the continent of Africa. When I got to college, I planned the Night of Mystique, as the student government event planner. Inspired by Cirque du Soleil this show doubled as the student launch event for our university’s new Student Commons.
At the stroke of 8 pm, the entire building came alive like a delicate unfurling. Contortionists lit on a podium began performing, stilt walkers meandered through the halls, magicians mesmerized audiences in the ballroom while students milled around interacting with activities tucked throughout the building. The Night of Mystique broke attendance records for student programming at our small university and helped us reimagine what is possible.
To me, there had never been any doubt that creativity had a powerful connection to awareness, community building, and empowerment. Creativity always felt like a powerful tool for advocacy work because it got people to stop, listen, and consider things they may not have before. When I got into law school, I had every intention of becoming an entertainment attorney because I believed that creatives at all levels deserved not only to be paid well but to have their work respected.
Now, nearly a decade out of law school and over 5 years as a practicing attorney, having wandered far from my roots, far from the creators who made all that magic possible, I found myself making a pilgrimage back to the place where many of those dreams began.
It’s just that I am now a much different person.
Similarly, the industries that have brought us joy, made us laugh, brought tears to our eyes, made us rage against the machine, or lulled us to a place of peace are themselves looking to return to a sense of normalcy. With the chaos of 2020, there were definitely some winners, some losers, and everything in between.
The unique thing about being on any part of the spectrum is that no one knows if these changes will stick, whether life will revert to normal (whatever that is), or if this chasm, this brief moment in time is exactly what we need to reevaluate our systems, to examine the assumptions we have been operating under, and call to question how we will move forward tell the stories of humanity.
It is time to consider what the long road home looks like for everyone to decide how much of who we were will be incorporated into who and what we are becoming.
When Cinemas Catch COVID
Right off the bat, when word of COVID reached a fever pitch, the world shut down most face-to-face experiences. What was first thought to be a short term panacea, i.e. a few weeks of isolation, turned into a long term regulated isolation for many around the world. In reality, that meant mega-events like Austin’s SXSW, San Diego, and New York’s Comic Cons, France’s Cannes Film Festival, were all canceled or reimagined as virtual events. With these large functions also went theater shutdowns, restaurants adapting their menus for a predominantly delivery experience, and tourist destinations shuttering or fortifying their resorts, activities, and adventures.
Seemingly overnight, the industries that developed to provide a bit of sparkle to everyday life were thrown to the ropes. While the news had us largely focused on the lives being lost, businesses were also dealing with their own COVID symptoms. Now, after nearly a year of shutdowns, revised regulations, and protocols- where do we stand?
In the cinematic exhibition space, we have seen a rapid acceleration of a trend that was emerging before COVID. With the increased popularity of streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and, the most recent entrant, Disney+, consumers have more than enough platforms to consume media. With that comes a cost-benefit analysis between getting dressed and driving to the movie theater to buy a ticket at $10+ a person plus the big bucket of extra butter popcorn and drink to wash it all down, and propping your feet up in your living room with your entire fridge and watching at home. More and more, consumers were being intentional about the films they would elect to see in theaters. That being said, this behavior change made studios more judicious about the films they send to exhibition, but what happens when that isn’t an option?
One of the oldest franchises, James Bond, was one of the first titles to punt their exhibition date. As of today, the next Bond film, No Time to Die, is slated to premiere on October 8, 2021. Disney’s live-action Mulan was meant to be a major hit for the Chinese box office and take advantage of the robust movie-going community in the #2 global box office but had to completely revise their strategy. Global distribution of the film occurred through Disney+ at a Premium Video on Demand (PVOD) pricing of $37, with a later wider release for Disney+ subscribers. The next major upset to the exhibition industry was WarnerMedia’s decision to shatter the theatrical window all together opting instead to release a slate of 17 films on HBO Max on the same day as they go live in theaters. A shocking move that will definitely upset theater exhibitioners.
So far, theaters have found innovative ways to keep the lights on and the rent paid. Drive-Ins have come back into popularity given the built-in socially distanced nature of the medium. For theaters that shuttered, some hosted virtual screenings, where patrons participate in a live-streamed movie party sometimes complete with discussion following the film. Some theaters have even gotten into selling concession bundles for in-home screenings to help consumers take the moviegoing experience home with them.
For those who didn’t have the capacity to build out new experiences, they partnered with local organizations to support fundraising efforts or policy changes that support the arts. Now, more than ever, people are realizing the value of the arts and the intense impact of not having an active and thriving arts community.
In the wake of the vaccine announcement, we are seeing some optimism in the film space. Many of the films that were slated for early 2021 are being shifted to late summer and on, well into 2022. As someone who braved the fear, anxiety, and weirdness for 2 hours and 30 minutes of delicious escapism with John David Washington and the full Tenet cast, many of us miss the cinema desperately and are ready to come back.
In the end, the global box office for 2020 was a devastating $12.4B following a record-setting $44.5B just the year before. That’s a 71% drop in one year. Projections are that it may take the film industry about 5 years to recover from COVID, but moviegoing is one of the communal activities we have as a global community for which we really have no alternative yet. While the medium was deeply slashed across the board this past year, there were some international wins worth mentioning.
Several international market box offices were led by local blockbusters, like China’s The Eight Hundred, or Padre No Hay Mas Que Uno 2 in Spain. The major winner and record-breaker for 2020 was Japan’s Demon Slayer. The title, produced by Aniplex, a subsidiary of Sony Corp, brought in $313 million as of late December. Released in October of 2020, more than 24 million braved the climates to watch the animated feature, pushing it to surpass Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Japan’s highest-grossing animated film, and Japan’s highest-grossing film of all time.
If nothing else, 2021 was a year to honor and respect the local language films, they felt like home, they were able to intimately connect to their communities and perhaps bring a sense of comfort during this time of turmoil. I hope that audiences remember how much they love their local fare enough to push them up and out into the global market so that the rest of the world can enjoy all that local magic.
E-Sports, Listening for Fun, and the Future of Audio
Not everyone was a loser in the great 2020 debacle. Just like all significant experiences, some break us down, some build us up. For gaming, a sector that was already seeing significant gains and a growing and more diverse consumer base, 2020 was like pouring gasoline on the fire.
This space is of particular interest to me as someone who grew up reading books, playing a PC game called Fate into the wee hours of the night. So let’s dive into gaming first. Before COVID-19, the video game industry was already experiencing some significant changes that really set it up to explode in 2020. Two major shifts ramped up that acceleration, first was an increased entry of women into the video game space. In 2019 approximately 46% of all gamers were women. That number dipped a bit in 2020 to 41%. It is estimated that there are over 2 billion gamers in the world, which means about 1 in 4 people play video games. That is a significant audience!
In addition to the increasing number of women who play video games, there is a widening expectation that video games represent more diversity. I anticipate that the call for diversity that happened in front and behind the camera in Hollywood is making its way into the video game industry. Which, honestly, is about time. From a gender perspective, 21% of the people behind the scenes building video games identify as women. If we were to dig into the numbers a bit more, we would likely find even more disparity in an industry that has for too long been the domain of white men.
While the industry is projected to be worth a whopping $151 billion in 2019 and growing at a rate of 12.9%, there is still value in diversifying video games especially as we see the value of localized content in other media verticals, that trend is likely to emerge sooner than later in gaming. To sweeten the pot a bit, esports is the only global sport that conditioned its fans, and audience to virtual tournaments. While, certainly, competitions were held in massive stadiums before COVID-19, the virtual nature of an esports competition lends itself more than any other sport to transition to a virtual experience. As if to prove it, a recent report by Business Insider sets esports on track to cross the $1 billion mark, with advertising revenue jumping from $143 million in 2016 to $196 million in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic.
For the video game industry, growth is undoubtedly going to continue. Given the global direction esports is heading, the pressure is on for curators, video game publishing houses, and developers to stay ahead of consumers’ expectations. What worked once in the closed world of video games will not succeed. One way for the corporate publishing houses and developers to keep track of what’s going on is to keep one eye on the indie market.
Roblox, a platform that combines game development tools with game distribution is poised to take the indie market to the next level. Roblox boasts an audience of 150 million users eager to test out indie titles. The ability to build a game and receive valuable instant feedback allows creators the chance to iterate their games from a large user base. This is the kind of democratized technology that will change the face of video game development and storytelling. For those keeping track, Roblox filed in November of 2020 to go public.
Similarly, audio-based platforms saw a significant increase in 2020. Right off the bat, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) issued a mid-year report showing that despite the pandemic, revenue for recorded music grew by 5.6%. According to the same report, 24% growth in streaming subscriptions and a 14% boost in streaming revenue offset revenue declines in other areas of the market.
Deepening the power of audio the realization that 2020 was the year podcasting went mainstream. From the early days when audio storytelling was a niche space driven by ambitious productions like Serial, which launched in 2014, this particular medium has come a long way. So far, in fact, the Serial Production team that developed and aired the story of Adnan Syed was purchased by the New York Times in July of 2020. This purchase expands the Times production into the audio storytelling space and establishes a unique relationship with another pillar of the podcast storytelling space, Ira Glasses’ This American Life.
2020 was also the year that Spotify made its position crystal clear. Following the 2019 acquisitions of Gimlet Media and Parcast, the streaming platform signed a mega deal to turn the Joe Rogan show into a Spotify exclusive. In one deal, the platform has shifted the deal-making landscape for the podcast universe. We have transitioned from an era where podcasts were on as many platforms as they could get distributed to exclusive, platform-specific programming.
On the heels of the Joe Rogan deal came other Spotify exclusives including Ava Duvernay, DC Comics, Kim Kardashian West, Michelle Obama, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Outside of traditional celebrities, the platform is also welcoming social media influencers like Rickey Thompson and Denzel Dion, TikTok dancer Addison Rae and singer Lele Pons to their roster of exclusive creators. In a lot of ways, Spotify’s aggressive exclusive content strategy feels like Netflix’s approach to bringing in proven talent and creators. Time will tell if the dividends will pay off for the audio-only platform the way it did for the streaming platform. What I can say for now is that by aggressively investing in creativity and production in the realm of podcasting, we are likely to see a lot of experiments come out of this space soon.
Just like cinema, there are core elements of audio storytelling and video games that will remain the same, but we can see in 2020 that the landscape for both industries is shifting. More and more creators are coming to these mediums excited to leave their mark. With the right support and a clear understanding of the contributions that they are bringing to these industries, there are more opportunities for micro-creators to broaden their reach and their influence. Given how influencer marketing is crossing over into so many mediums, it is a matter of time before those strategies become mainstream in podcasting and esports.
No matter which direction we look in, the content business is reshaping itself, contorting, twisting, and turning. The world has changed so much every industry is searching for a good fit. The best way to rise from the rubble of 2020 shaking off the trauma, or holding on to the gains. Whether the lessons are in balancing the at-home experience with the theater experience, or the leaps and bounds seen in video games, music, and audio storytelling generally, there is a lot to integrate before we can settle into our new normal. But it will be an interesting ride, that will bring more influencers, creatives, and micro-creators, and influencers opportunities that never existed before.
The Long Journey Home
As I descended the final hill, and the once-familiar landscape rose to meet me, I realized that so much had changed, both for me and the little town to which I was returning. Over there was a new Walgreens, to the right was a gas station where the empty lot had been. Further on the horizon were a few new buildings, some storefronts bore new signs for businesses that had always been there, while other storefronts boasted new entrants to the terrain.
All around me was a thrilling mix of familiar and different. Within me, I realized that I, too, was different. I was not the young idealist who left home for college. The world was not my oyster. I could not do anything I put my mind to. Everyone was not rooting for me. I had gone through the fire of life, but like my little town, the wounds had scarred over, telling beautiful new stories.
I had learned that the world was where I found my purpose, the reason I chose to serve. That purpose is my oyster. No, I couldn’t do anything I put my mind to, because when I put my mind to too many things I did none of them well. Instead, I learned the value of focus. Now, it is about doing less with more heart. Finally, and most importantly, I didn’t need everyone to root for me. The most important vote, the most valuable validation, is my own.
My love of the arts, my dedication to the written word, my childlike thrill at seeing another person’s dreams come to life are no dimmer, or worse for wear after my encounters with life’s challenges. Instead, who I am, at my core is more luminous than it has ever been. I am simply more intentional about where I beam that light.
As the content space continues to heal, adjust, shift, and change, there will be elements that cannot be erased. There are characteristics of each industry, each business, that heal, scar over, but remain the same. They, too, will learn to focus their light in particular directions, and particular efforts. What comes to the surface at the end of chaos, when turmoil recedes, is a return to the core, and radical acceptance of what must evolve. It is at that intersection that all these disciplines will find their new due north.
On this journey north many will be carrying new passengers. Marketing, Sales, and Advertising will look more to the influencer space because trust is currency bought with intimate moments. More and more we will witness the rise of the micro creator. The TikTok dancer, the Youtube animation star, the self-published success transitioning, growing or partnering with brands and businesses that may never have considered them before because micro creators are masters at building communities. As we know a rising tide lifts all boats, so we rise. The poet, the songwriter, the novelist, the calligrapher, all manner of creators in all industries are finding their way into the traditional industries because the world stopped producing work long enough for everyone to recognize all this creative genius floating around.
Sure, the content business has always been unpredictable, but now, it stands to change form and shape in some deeply unexpected ways. As micro-creators meld and merge with corporate creativity, not only will the content evolve, but so will the business. It will be more important than ever before that creators have access to quality counsel to help them navigate the legal landscape of the creative business. It is no longer just about the deal in front of you, but the deals that are soon to come. It is no longer about what are my rights today, but what legal systems and strategies am I developing for tomorrow? The creative middle class is coming, and they are bringing change with them.
As for me, I begin my journey as a business owner, an entrepreneur. To meet these creators where they are, to support their growth and their evolution into this space, as a guide, educator, and advocate, I am taking a step back in time to take a step forward.
Today, I officially open the doors to Ohanele Law Firm. With this decision, I take responsibility for my little patch of the universe. I dedicate myself to providing high-quality legal services to communities that seek to be heard, whose creative genius birth cultures, whose power is in elevating voices and stories that have been silent for too long.
Together, we will make magic.
Content Biz Bailout
Indie game developers should keep an eye on this platform, Roblox because it is doing for gaming what the Internet has done for production and distribution. Democratization is a big word, but when you don’t have a million-dollar budget to build a game and more money to test it to perfection, but you’ve got an idea that won’t let you go...this may be your solution.
Youneek Studios signs a majorly important deal with Dark Horse, a deal constructed by Punuka Solicitors and Associates. This is a republication deal certainly, but it is also a fact-finding mission. With this partnership, budding comic book studios like Youneek, Comic Republic, Kola Nut, and others will soon wade into more developed waters to explore adaptations, create new titles, and begin to explore other mediums. I believe that West Africa has the storytelling machine to bring about an award-winning animated feature with the right relationships- this is just further evidence that I’m 100% right.
Learn more about Japan’s chart-topping animated feature Demon Slayer, based on a popular manga, and the first major animated blockbuster that did not come out of Hayo Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Demonstrating that Japan’s unique power with animated storytelling might truly be a very unique cultural storytelling asset.
For a comprehensive list of release dates for films previously slated for 2020, check out this article to see if anything catches your eye. I, for one, have several films on my calendar and would happily jump in a hazmat suit for a few blissful hours in the dark theater.