Welcome back! It’s been a hot second, so to recap: The Sabotaging Storytelling series is a critical examination of startling trends in big-budget entertainment productions occurring with an alarming frequency during the late 2010’s. The series began by shining a spotlight on recent productions that seemed to form a disturbing pattern. These productions include two recent Star Wars films, The Last Jedi (2017), and The Rise of Skywalker (2019), as well as the final season of the critically acclaimed HBO drama, Game of Thrones, released in spring 2019. Despite both franchises garnering critical acclaim and mass interest, the eventual story-lines in all three broke the fundamental elements of storytelling and were received with a divided and distraught audience reaction. Part 1 identifies and describes this pattern of manufacturing shock by purposely disjointing the setup and payoff principle in storytelling. Part 2 explores factors driving the uptick in cases contributing to the pattern: namely, the external factors that are unique to late stage capitalism. The third part of the series begins here, amidst the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will project where the entertainment industry has to go from here, as well as what will be lost if it reaches that point.
While it is too early to determine whether the pattern of subverting storytelling means for sure that a new norm taking shape in entertainment, these cases do form an illustrative image of what the future could hold. The disappointment experienced by audiences for the final season of Game of Thrones may also have set the stage for what consumers will be pushed to expect from their media experience in the future. And should that be the case, it would be an indication of even more changes to come. Changes regarding the very relationship of power between consumers which would challenge the old adage, ‘the customer is always right,’ as well as the critical role consumer demand plays in the market.
In early 2018, following the release of The Last Jedi, Fangirl Blog editor B.J. Priester wrote of the relationship between audiences and the entertainment market,
“The tension between directors and studios, authors and publishing houses, can be difficult to reconcile, each side blaming the other when a project underperforms.
“But the industry only exists at all because of a third interest: the paying audience. What do they want? Entertainment, and they have more access to more forms and venues of entertainment than ever before. Specifically, though, customers want to get what they believed they were paying for. With so many options to choose from, there is no need to waste money on something that doesn’t give you the entertainment experience you wanted. While sometimes a surprise twist or unexpected turn can be delightful, generally the customers want their expectations met – they want their entertainment dollars to be well spent on entertainment they enjoyed, not something that left them disappointed, even angry” (Priester, 2018).
Priester’s excerpt is notable because it is discussing a truism about the industry that has been self-evident for decades. As dramatic as power struggles can become between creators and executives, at the end of the day, the customer has always been king. Because no matter how powerful an executive may be, if their product doesn’t sell, then that’s the end of the line for any given project. The basis of this relationship is so entrenched in the norms of entertainment that it has become regarded as something inherent, naturally evident, and permanent. So naturally, no one would ever expect it to ever change. That is, until now.
What these recent cases suggest about the future of entertainment is that the importance of consumer demand could not only become less important, but could become something short of irrelevant. As outlandish as that may sound, it’s exactly what mass media scholars Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) theorized about where the entertainment market would eventually lead. They posited that as the market progressed and grew more consolidated over time, at a certain point the free market, known for it’s endless variety of choices and field of competition for consumer attention, would shift towards more singular and consolidated markets. Media conglomerates would no longer feel the pressure to appeal to audience demand because the field would essentially be wiped out of all other competitors.
As a result of this process of consolidation, the goals of executives shift from persuading audiences to consume their product over the competitors into simply persuading people to consume generally. It doesn’t matter what–anything available is likely owned by the conglomerate to begin with. Adorno explains that this shift will be most visible in advertising and marketing, as the goals of each will move from public demand into public obedience. Advertising will less often be about informing the public about what is available, and more in urging people to comply. The activity is no longer, ‘what feature will I watch today,’ and simply becomes, ‘I will watch.’ The act of consumption becomes compulsory, and the messaging of advertising shifts to reflect that.
The act of sabotaging storytelling to manufacture cheap and efficient audience shock ties directly into the industry move toward compliance. Tastes of it were evident, most obviously with The Last Jedi, but also visible with Game of Thrones and The Rise of Skywalker as well. As discussed in Part 2, the shock caused by sabotaging all of the story setups in its precursor, The Force Awakens, was explicitly used as a central marketing campaign for the film. From TV Ad spots that told viewers, “Don’t let anyone spoil this,” to advertisements posted on the home page of YouTube telling users to not spoil the film before watching, the message Disney pushed with regards to the film was essentially: you will consume this film. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to consume it, you should consume it first and make your own judgements about it. The option of not consuming it is removed entirely and the goal of the messaging is about making the audience comply.
To make matters even worse, while marketing is moving towards pressuring audiences to comply, the actual content produced within an oligopolized market changes as well, and not for the better. In a diverse and competitive economic market, there is always a push towards the new. Audiences are always looking for fresh new ways of experiencing a story, and creators simultaneously push themselves to create that novelty. Within a centralized market, however, with the fall of audience demand also crushes new content along with it. When an oligopolized power is looking to increase their profits, they naturally look to increase their consumer base. When the conglomerate is so big to control a majority of the market, that consumer base grows to include practically everyone.
And the way to make sure everyone goes to see a production is to make sure nothing about it is found offensive to anyone. Things that are new naturally make lots of people uncomfortable–after all, they’re new and foreign. Therefore, the industry drive towards novelty is replaced with an eternal sameness of the status quo. The trend of industries to rely more heavily on previously established properties, discussed in Part 2 with the resurgence of live-action remakes and reboots, comes into play again here as well. As a media conglomerate continues to grow and consolidate, their profits and risks grow with them. This means that risk fundamentally changes within an oligopoly as well to become unimaginably huge. Practically anything and everything becomes a risk: especially anything new.
Considered together, these two factors, diminished importance of audience demand and increased aversion to risks represented by novelty, combine to create a bleak future for entertainment media. Such a prediction means that not only will future productions be less driven by quality and innovation, but also that when audiences are underwhelmed by a production their dissatisfaction will no longer be valuable to the executives in charge. What little influence and power the media consumer once had will disappear within an instant. After all, what can a consumer do in this scenario? Take their money elsewhere? To where? The effects of late-capitalism on the entertainment market pushes these principles to their extremes, including the options afforded audiences: they will be forced to make a choice between those two ends: decide to not consume entertainment media at all, or give in to compulsory media consumption.
Originally, this series was intended to end here, at a bleak and dystopian forecast of a mass media market to come. It wasn’t an encouraging image, and the larger point of why the Sabotaging Storytelling series was important continued to get lost in the debris. That was, until the COVID-19 Pandemic affected the entire world and caused immediate mass changes to the lives of everyone, as well as the systems they live in. For this reason, the series will continue with an addendum, covering the effects of the pandemic and what the current crisis reveals about the importance of setup, payoff, and other storytelling mechanisms.
Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (1944). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. Dialectic of Enlightenment, 94-136.
Priester, B. J. (2018, February 11). Skywalker At Risk: Serial Storytelling and Brand Value . In FanGirl Blog. Retrieved from http://fangirlblog.com/2018/02/skywalker-at-risk-serial-storytelling-and-brand-value/
Wilkinson, A. (2020, April 8). How the coronavirus outbreak is roiling the film and entertainment industries. In Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/3/10/21173376/coronavirus-cancel-delay-disney-mcu-broadway