The same old story? Huck’s March Newsletter

The same old story? Huck’s March Newsletter
Emma Garland welcomes the long overdue return of original storytelling - and perhaps the death of the endless sequel and reboot era.

Hi, I’m Emma Garland, former Digital Editor of Huck and current writer about town. In this monthly digest I’ll be dealing with some of the biggest cultural issues of the moment – from the flailing state of the creative industries and how they’re being reshaped by technology, to the relationship between art and activism in an age when everything is politics. Let’s have it.

Emma Garland

Are we approaching a turning point for cultural storytelling? A few signs point to ‘possibly.’ After a solid decade of reboots, franchise repeats, and, most incomprehensibly of all, musical adaptations, audiences have reached their limit. Of course people who sincerely enjoy things like ‘watching TV’ and ‘going to the cinema’ have been saying this for years – the tipping point arriving somewhere between the release of female Ghostbusters and Shrek 5 – but now execs’ ears might actually be open because it’s been confirmed by market research.

A recent study commissioned by the streaming service Tubi found that the vast majority of Millennials and Gen-Z want more original TV shows from “independent and small-time creators.” This follows box office trends that have seen audiences for art house films both growing and skewing younger, with ticket sales for The Iron Claw, Poor Things, and The Holdovers coming predominantly from under-35s. The same survey also found that viewers value legacy sitcoms like Friends, which could be seen as conflicting, but probably says more about the endurance of shows that have a singular vision and committed writing built into them from the start (as opposed to the current prevalence of minimum wage mini-rooms and characters that are focus-grouped to death). Plus there’s the fact that as long as there are 19-year-olds on comedowns, there will be a demand for easy viewing with that soft ‘90s lighting that slides off your eyeballs like butter on a baby potato.

This isn’t just a trend among younger people. Blockbuster originals like Barbie, Oppenheimer and Sound of Freedom are regularly outperforming long-running series’ like Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Apple TV+ has ushered in a banner era for what GQ has dubbed “prestige dad TV” with war and espionage shows like Masters of the Air, Slow Horses, and Hijack. Even academy judges seem to be rewarding the unexpected this year. Da’Vine Joy Randolph took home Best Supporting Actress for Christmas indie The Holdovers at both the Oscars and the BAFTAS. At the Golden Globes, French legal drama Anatomy of a Fall beat Barbie and Oppenheimer for Best Screenplay. In an industry afraid to take risks, one of this year’s biggest success stories has turned out to be Poor Things – a Frankenstein spin about a wacky sex baby. And I think that’s beautiful.

There’s a pervasive belief that Gen-Z and Millennials are hard demographics to crack. A large part of it comes down to money. Struggling studios over-strategize to make sure they get a bang for their buck, taking a ‘tick box’ approach that produces nothing of resonance but makes bigots cry that everything has “gone woke!” because they brought back Gladiators without the cheerleaders and made the Power Rangers gay. The other side of it is more generational. Since the upper-echelons of the entertainment industry are filled with freaks still refusing to retire at 80, there’s a serious lack of awareness around how people who grew up with the internet consume things. Have you ever had a family member or colleague over the age of 55 catch you listening to Phil Collins or something, and they will furrow their brow and say to you with genuine shock and confusion – almost accusatory – “how do you know about this???” It’s like that on a mass scale. Decision-makers still seriously underestimate how much cultural information young people raised online are exposed to. So while it’s a nice idea to ‘introduce’ new audiences to films like The Crow by updating them with modern signifiers, it doesn’t work because the zeitgeist – which hasn’t been confined to its own time period for decades – has long been flooded with references to the 1994 original.

“Slowly but surely we’re remembering that authenticity is something people can feel, and its absence is overwhelming.”

Emma Garland

Even if Brandon Lee as The Crow wasn’t a long-time Tumblr, Pinterest board and fancam staple, the marketing for the Rupert Sanders version is less than compelling. The trailer is being aggressively downvoted on YouTube partly because it's coarse to re-do a film that Brandon Lee famously died making, and partly because they turned Eric Draven into a Soundcloud rapper – and very few people want to root for that guy. The same goes for Doug Liman’s new Road House, which trades ‘80s family action barbs (“prepare to die”) and honkytonk bar fights for high-speed yacht chases and a professional UFC ring. It’s also worth remembering that neither Road House or The Crow got their cult status from being good, per se. They’re beloved for their 0-100 plot escalations, solid aesthetic (middle-American sleaze and industrial goth, respectively), and stereotypical underdog leads with bad dialogue and a compelling quest for vengeance. Cut to Patrick Swayze earnestly doing Tai-Chi in the whitest pants ever woven, or Draven soothing his pain by epically shredding on the roof. Abandon all that for CGI lighting and contemporary self-awareness and all you have is a charmless action film in 4K.

Slowly but surely we’re remembering that authenticity is something people can feel, and its absence is overwhelming. You can't just chuck it about as a marketing tool and expect audiences to respond like they’ve just seen The Craft for the first time. People don’t want remakes with women and minorities shoehorned into someone else's story. They want things they can believe in. They want shit that feels honest, even if it’s not that great, see: The Crow (1994). There’s a similar ethos emerging in music, with James Blake railing against the way the industry is organised around tech platforms rather than artists that populate them. In response, he’s pushing for a model driven less by viral moments and streaming numbers – something anti-algorithmic.

Rediscovering the organic means making room for the risk of failure again, which is bad news for big businesses but feels like an inevitability. Real authenticity will be rewarded, and become an even more valuable currency, the more we’re force-fed the algorithmically dominant and AI-generated. In fact, I think that’s already starting to happen. Anecdotally, The Zone of Interest is doing so well it’s prompting art house cinemas to do extended runs. The usually paint-by-numbers BRITs threw a curveball this year when CASISDEAD (who we’ve shouted out on this newsletter before) won Best Hip-Hop / Rap / Grime Act. This comes despite his deliberate avoidance of press and having way lower streaming numbers than other acts in his category (which included Dave and Central Cee), instead gearing his marketing towards music videos, satirical websites and immersive events that play into his album’s worldbuilding. In short: it’s a strategy that caters to the fans, not the industry. Since the BRITs introduced audience voting in certain categories this year, some have taken CAS’s win as proof that even in an age of “stats” hardcore fanbases still hold the true power.

I’m inclined to agree. Indeed, what better example of this than the fact that Criterion, after a long and hard-won campaign by film enthusiasts, has just added Freddy Got Fingered to its collection.

I’ve been banging on about the culture industries in this newsletter, but arguably the sector most in need of original storytelling right now is journalism. In that spirit, I want to shout out three independent media platforms that are doing great work in spite of, you know, fucking everything. The first is 404 Media, a worker-owned publication focussed on technology and the internet. It delivers the kind of whip-smart, anti-sensational reporting on things like porn and e-commerce that you simply won’t get from broadsheets catering to boomers who still text with their index finger. The second is Away Days, a docu-series covering underground subcultures and fringe communities around the world – no rules bare knuckle fight clubs, drug gangs in Brazil’s favelas, that sort of thing. It doesn’t launch until the summer but it’s from the team behind the influential modern warfare platform Popular Front, so I feel confident in saying that it will slap. The third is filmmaker Abubakar Finiin, who moved back to Somaliland from London earlier this year where he’s producing a docu-series about life on the ground in “Africa’s hidden nation” – the first is about the growing football scene.

So there you go. Less complaining about how The Mainstream Media Isn’t Talking About This, more supporting the grassroots journalists who literally are.

We want our Artist-in-Residence to expand your minds, so here are some cultural things Blindboy Boatclub recommends you should explore:

Film: There’s a film on YouTube called The Grasser. It’s an amateur action film, made in my home town of Limerick some time in the early 2000s. It’s effectively a load of middle-aged men, completely unscripted, playing with toy guns in a forest. I wouldn’t say it’s enjoyable. But it has the energy I look for in Harmony Korine’s films or Werner Herzog.

Music: The last song that really blew my head off was this one called ‘Attachment Style’ by an artist called Kavari, who is from Scotland I think. It’s like jungle music played through a pig’s arse. It sounds like someone who is terrified of jungle music, describing what jungle music sounds like. I love it.

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