Diversity and Digital Distribution

[Originally published May 5, 2016]

Both movies and video games are in the throes of a battle over diversity. In a wash of white everymen, minority protagonists struggle to find a voice. Games have gotten much better about this. Drasticallybetter. This year’s E3 featured a strong showing from female protags and speakers. Mirror’s Edge 2: Catalyst features the return of its predecessor’s Asian lead. Overwatch’s marketing prominently featureswomen and minorities. Gaming is changing for the better. I truly believe this.

Movies, on the other hand… not so much.

Maybe you saw the story Variety ran with recently, in which producer Heather Rae – among others – spoke to the difficulties of acquiring funding for female-led movies. For the finer points, I would recommend you read the excellent original article, but I’ll boil it down for you:

Producers and studios – the people who fund the creation of films – don’t believe that female made/led movies are profitable, and are therefore far less likely to fund them. We see a similar attitude taken towards casting minorities: Max Landis recently made an informative video regarding the motivations for casting the Caucasian Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi – the Asian female protag from Ghost in the Shell. Again, producers and studios fear that minorities won’t be profitable, and therefore whitewash roles by casting box office draws like Johansson to ‘guarantee’ profitability. You can see the logic.

Even if it’s wrong.

Blizzard’s Overwatch. Arkane’s Dishonored 2. DICE’s Mirror’s Edge 2. All games featuring female protags. All games that are almost sure to be profitable. My god – just look at how well Overwatch is doing. Even the digital store can’t keep up with the demand. Female leads are not a turn off. Minority leads are not a turn off. We know this. Games prove this. So what’s the difference?

Digital Distribution, plain and simple.

Early on in the life cycle of online connectivity, games embraced digital release platforms. Steam. The Xbox Live Marketplace. The Playstation Network. Even Nintendo – the last bastion of exclusively physical retail – has now cracked under the profit potential of the online market. Digital markets aren’t some perfect, end-all-be-all of equal opportunity consumer capitalism, but they do level the playing field a bit. Indie titles likeGone Home can get front-page features alongside AAA titles like Call of Duty. Steam Greenlight – while flawed – has opened the door to many up-and-comers, allowing them publicity and profits that they otherwise wouldn’t get. Many of these alternative development scenes feature characters and narratives not found in the mainstream space, and their increased visibility affords consumers the opportunities to find and purchase these games. Audiences get to vote with their wallets on a better and broader scale. Their capital has acted as proof that customers enjoy and desire new stories with fresh characters. Digital distribution may not be perfect, but it’s helped sway the funding mentalities of major game publishers and developers. It is part of the reason our industry has begun make social progress, and will continue to do so.

Compare that with cinema. Hollywood has fought digital distribution tooth and nail. Many years ago, Netflix attempted to push the market towards a stream-heavy method of viewing and distribution. Major studios responded by pulling their movie rights out from underneath Netflix. Netflix’s stock dropped drastically, and they came close to shutting their doors. It was, frankly, a dangerous time for the future of film, but – fortunately – Netflix survived. While Netflix continued to operate, the financial stability of the movie industry continued to unravel. It became riskier for films to get funded, as the profitable blockbuster seemingly disappeared. Many feared the Hollywood bubble would burst, and we would enter a dark ages – a collapse of the film industry. The financial obstacles of cinema could have likely been avoided – or, at the very least, mitigated – via digital distribution. Gamers and publishers all know how important digital retail is for profit – it’s a literal given at this point. Could you imagine a PC game that wasn’t sold on Steam? No, you can’t, and neither can publishers. It is beyond ludicrous that Hollywood hadn’t followed suit, yet they still continued to bank the majority of their profits off of box office sales.

Fortunately, before Hollywood had to face the consequences of their poor capitalism, Marvel showed up. Marvel – and now, by extension, Disney – saved their bacon. Like mana from heaven, The Avengersprovided sustenance and profit to an emaciated industry. The blockbuster was revitalized, and the movie industry bought itself some time. Though film is no longer teetering on the edge of collapse, the ghost of the near-death of the industry continues to haunt Hollywood’s business practices – resulting in the fear-driven funding of movies about White Dudes.

This too shall pass. I hope.

I bring up Disney, not only for acting as the saving grace of the box office, but also for recently striking a game-changing deal with Netflix. I’m sure you’ve read about it, but Disney gave Netflix the streaming rights to all of its major studios – Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar. Disney owns some of the hottest properties in all of media right now – this is fact – and that’s sure to result in big dividends on the streaming side of things. If there’s anything following games has taught me, it’s that studios emulate other profitable studios. Lots of films now emulate the Marvel narrative/structural formula, and – if Disney’s deal pays off – we’ll hopefully begin to see Hollywood soften its stance on digital distribution.

Maybe we’ll see more diversity in turn.

 

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