Imagine you were a genre fan in 1977 and had this conversation.
“You going to see that film Star Wars?”
“Nah, I can’t. We can’t watch Fox films. We can see MGM though, so we got Logan’s Run last year.”
“Sucks that only Warner Bros people will see Superman next year, though, right?”
Fortunately, people weren’t normally denied the opportunity to see big screen films in that fashion, even in the days when movie studios owned theatre chains. But something very like it is happening right now as the future of home entertainment evolves.
There is currently more genre entertainment being made for home viewing than ever before. But it’s going to be very difficult for any one person to keep up with it, unless they are willing to shell out a great deal of money in subscriptions.
Want to see Westworld? You’ll need HBO.
Is The Handmaid’s Tale as good as many people say? You’ll require Hulu to find out.
Stranger Things? That’s Netflix. Curious about Lore? You’ll have to subscribe to Amazon Video.
Meanwhile, Disney is gearing up to use its Disney+ service as a platform for all the properties it has acquired: Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and so on. And the recent announcement of the Apple TV+ service saw Steven Spielberg announcing a new series under the promising title Amazing Stories.
All this is a reminder that genre tales now dominate the entertainment landscape. The people behind all these platforms are fighting to attract the attention of us, the SF, fantasy and horror fandom.
But they are also fighting for our wallets. And while is is technically possible for one household to receive all these services, it is unlikely that very many households could afford to.
Once, producers essentially had two ways of monetising their entertainment. They could charge for it – for movie tickets, videotapes or discs; or they could give it to us via free-to-air television and sell our eyeballs to advertisers.
Now, we have a new eco-system where the producers are charging us, not for individual works, but for whole bundles of content. So we can get the Netflix package, the HBO package or the Hulu package, but not everything.
We have surely never seen quite this kind of competition before. Home video had its format wars, but if 2001: A Space Odyssey was released on Beta, that didn’t mean it would be unavailable on VHS. The entertainment industry worked hard to make sure that kind of costly competition between technologies did not happen again – but the battle of the streaming services could mean large swathes of entertainment being unavailable to those who have not signed up to the relevant digital platform.
At the moment, the competition largely involves new, made-for-TV product. But if streaming replaces physical media, it is not impossible that even landmark genre films from the archives could be denied to those who have the “wrong” subscriptions.
I don’t seek to deny the attraction of streaming. The leading platforms can bring thousands of hours of entertainment into our homes for a monthly subscription that is less than the cost of buying a DVD. But it concerns me that in an entertainment landscape dominated by steaming, SF fandom could splinter into many and smaller factions. If there is no one platform that everybody can access, we could imagine a future where a group of avid genre fans could get together and still have nothing to talk about.
For now, we should probably cherish cinema, the primary means of distribution that is accessible to almost everybody. And we should hesitate to discard physical media just yet.
Otherwise, there could come a day when we see genre fans taking part in cosplay and think: “I wonder who that’s supposed to be.”