The Entertainment Industry is Like the Mortgage Industry: Basically Broken

Last year, Michael and I refinanced our house. We have great credit (scores of 780+), a ton of equity, and decent jobs.

And the process was A COMPLETE AND ABSOLUTE HELL! They had us jumping through hoop after hoop after hoop, and at several points in the process, we were thinking we’d never get financing at all. At many other points, we thought, “To HELL with this! Who CARES if we never get financing?!”

It was obvious why the system had broken down: prior to the recent economic crash, things had become far too lax.

But now they had become much, much, much too extreme. It had swung so far the other direction that the system was basically insane. The only reason the industry persists at all (IMHO) is that people are so highly motivated — people need refinancing! it saved us thousands of dollars a year! — that we’ll put up with the INCREDIBLE AMOUNT OF  BULLSHIT.

I can’t help but think this situation is pretty analogous to the entertainment industry these days.

Getting successfully published by a traditional publisher or getting a movie produced with actual stars isn’t impossible exactly, but in order to do so, you have to put with such an incredible amount of shit that only a very highly motivated person will ever stick through with the process to actually do it.

How did the entertainment industry in particular get so bogged down? Here are the reasons I see:

(1) Word Processors. Starting in the late 1980s, word processors made it so everyone could easily write a book or screenplay. And everyone did! It used to be publishers looked for manuscripts. Then they become overwhelmed, so they fobbed the job off on agents and managers. Then they become overwhelmed. It’s now virtually impossible to land any deal without good representation, and you can only get top representation with (a) a personal connection, (b) a major award, and/or (c) incredible luck.

(2) A Publishing “Industry.” You know where the real money is in publishing and/or movie-making? Selling some product or service to the hordes of people who want to break in! The downside is that there are legions of people, online and elsewhere, telling writers (for a fee) to “keep trying!” and “never give up!” A lot of these wannabees should give up. Basically, they’re cluttering up the system for everyone else. But who am I to tell someone to give up their dream?

(3) Fewer Opportunities. More and more people are writing books, but people are reading less and less (and becoming less and less willing to actually pay for content). So publishers are becoming more discriminating about what they publish, and/or gravitating toward projects with “built-in” audiences (celebrity authors, franchise tie-ins, and blatant rip-offs of popular existing books and genres). More and more people are writing screenplays too, but studios are now even more craven than book publishers, producing mostly sequels, remakes, rip-offs, tie-ins, and projects based on pre-established media properties.

Okay, so now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you…

Keep in mind that the status quo is complicated by changing technologies that have created newer opportunities in entertainment media: indie movies, web series, self-publishing. Alas, the pay for the vast majority of these gigs is very, very low (we hear about the rare exceptions, not the typical experience). Basically, it’s now very easy to publish a book project or produce a film if you finance it all yourself and don’t expect to make any actual money.

The truth is, it’s never been easy to be an artist. No one has a “right” to write, and even Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci needed patrons.

Even so, things are definitely very different now than they were twenty years ago.

The “optimistic” response to all this is to say: Yes, it’s absolutely right that the old entertainment industry is dead or dying. But a new entertainment industry is rising where people create content and promote and distribute it directly to consumers themselves. And a big part of the reason why this new industry is rising is because the old industry has become so incredibly frustrating, inaccessible, and inefficient for everyone except those on top.

In short, the way you break in now isn’t to land an agent or a publishing or movie deal. It’s to create your own content and (MUCH more importantly!) somehow also create a massive audience for that content. Then YOU are a “pre-established media property” and will have access to traditional entertainment distributors — publishers and movie studios. (But of course at that point, at least when it comes to books, you may not need a traditional publisher.)

If all this makes your head hurt, you’re probably over the age of thirty. Anyone under that age accepts that this is simply the way things are now.

Adapt or die.

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7 Responses to “The Entertainment Industry is Like the Mortgage Industry: Basically Broken”

  1. Michael 2 July 2014 at 3:14 am #

    SMH…Damn that's a lot of bullsh*t to go through…and yet, "hope springs eternal" (I know, I know lol). I look at this way (IMHO) if you hadn't worked like a dog and persisted in getting your work published, there would be no Russel Middlebrook series, Shadow Walkers or Grand and Humble (that last one was AMAZING BTW). There has got to be something said for perseverance and tenacity. Giving up is so easy but it sorta comes down to how badly you want it….right? (ok I'm getting off the soapbox now lol). Thanks for staying the course, Brent!…and I mean that.

    • Brent Hartinger 4 July 2014 at 6:25 am #

      Awfully sweet of you to say. In fact, comments like that make any aggravation I've experienced worth it. Seriously.

      Good luck with your own projects!

  2. Tim O'Leary 4 July 2014 at 6:46 pm #

    Well, I need a drink now. Anyone? I'm buyin'.

    • Brent Hartinger 4 July 2014 at 10:38 pm #

      I know you know better than to say that to a group of writers. ;-)

      • Tim O'Leary 9 July 2014 at 3:57 pm #

        Good point.

  3. Thad McIlroy 14 July 2014 at 2:31 am #

    Good post…provocative…I'd not thought about the influence of word processing software on PCs as one of the reasons for the deluge. Yep, it would be interesting to see what would happen to the quantity of self-published books if authors still used typewriters and had to pay for typesetting!

    You write: "More and more people are writing books, but people are reading less and less (and becoming less and less willing to actually pay for content)." I'd direct your attention to the NEA's 2012 report "How a Nation Engages with Art." http://arts.gov/publications/highlights-from-2012

    You'll see that the 45% of adults read at least one book of fiction, the same percentage as 2002. So no decline in the U.S.

    While the explosion in ebooks and online bookselling enables a horde of self publishers, it also enables instant worldwide access to books. The British Council (http://www.britishcouncil.org/learning-faq-the-english-language.htm) estimates that "one out of four of the world's population speak English to some level of competence; demand from the other three-quarters is increasing." This is an enormous opportunity for English-language writers.

    As to "becoming less and less willing to actually pay for content" the numbers for publishing sales don't support that. The industry isn't growing in total sales, but nor is it shrinking.

    • bhartinger 14 July 2014 at 7:32 pm #

      Thanks, Thad. Yeah, I\’m ultimately a HUGE fan of ebooks.

      Part of the problem with looking at those industry numbers (IMHO) is that they don\’t always (or can\’t) reflect what\’s really happening on the ground, which is something of a judgment call. That said, I do think the price pressure on books (at least ebooks) has been in a downward direction — a great thing for readers, obviously, but maybe less so for writers. That\’s what I mean about people being \”less willing to pay for content.\” Yes, in terms of revenue, the fall in prices has been counter-acted by the rise of ebooks in general, but now those trends are colliding.

      As for \”people reading less and less\”, I\’d argue that (despite those survey results) books play an increasingly less important role in public and cultural life. Also, what constitutes a \”book\” is changing too: I\’d argue it\’s more likely now to be a movie or TV tie-in (making it, at least from my POV, less a \”book\” than an extension of another media medium, and less relevant to writers of fiction and to the \”health\” of the overall book culture).

      But yeah, these are just my impressions based on my anecdotal experience. I could be wrong.


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