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5 Lessons From TheGrill 2020: Gaming Is the New Social Network and Diversity Isn’t Optional


The first all-virtual Grill conference wrapped up this week, with three days full of conversations about the future of entertainment and media. My brain is bursting with all the insights that these thought leaders offered.

If there’s an overall message from a conference about disruption that is taking place in the most disrupted time in recent history, it is this: The changes that have been accelerated during the pandemic of 2020 are here to stay. There is no going back to the way things were — either in movie windowing, or working from home, or the rise in gaming’s market share, or breaking open participation in our popular culture to wider representation.

These changes are here to stay, in one form or another. The first panel, in which I spoke to uber-journalists Kara Swisher and Ben Smith and the super-thoughtful showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, left no disagreement among a highly opinionated group: Get used to the new normal.

Kara Swisher, Ben Smith and Cheo Hodari Coker on How the Coronavirus ‘Accelerated’ Changes in Media (Video)

As if to underscore that the disruption in our industry continued apace even during the conference itself, news came that the two legacy trade publications that compete with TheWrap — Variety and The Hollywood Reporter — have merged under the control of Penske Media.

So here are my takeaways from TheGrill:

1. Movie theaters need reimagining

The filmmakers themselves who love the theatrical experience say that movie theaters need a reboot. (Kara Swisher was less diplomatic: “It’s a s—ty product,” she said.) Brad Bird, the legendary writer and director of “The Incredibles” and other Pixar films, was unequivocal: “The industry is hiding under a rock right now,” he said. “Nobody knows the shape of the future. There are all these unknowns.”

But as an advocate for theaters, Bird observed that innovation is just plain lacking. “Steve Jobs — when he returned to running Apple, he hated the way the products were displayed. He raged about (it)… he said ‘There’s nothing enticing about the experience.’ So when he announced getting into Apple stores, everyone told him he was insane. Now Apple is one of the biggest companies in the world. People love the stores.” Similarly, he said, “We’ve got to make going to the movies an enticing experience. At Pixar we put a star field on the ceiling of theaters. And when the lights went down, a shooting star would go across. It started to make the theater a place of dreams — we need to go toward that. We need to separate it from the home.”

2. We still want film festivals

In a world where live events have been canceled, what happens to film festivals? They get reinvented. It was incredibly cool to hear from Jane Rosenthal of Tribeca and Tabitha Jackson of Sundance talk about how they embraced the challenge of remaking festivals rather than just canceling them, as has been the case with most live events like Coachella and others. Jane spoke touchingly about how lonely it felt to cope until she reached out to colleagues.

But it was Sony Picture Classic co-chairman Michael Barker who pointed out that film festivals are the essential stuff of life to the industry and must go on. For decades, he has used festivals to launch art-house or foreign films that need nurturing and care and attention, and has attended festivals to find gems that he would go on to release to great success.

“Film festivals more important than ever,” Barker said. “Here we have a crisis that’s way beyond the pale.” He referenced the lost opportunity for young filmmakers, and the commitments made by festivals to the filmmakers who count on the opportunity to meet distributors and other buyers. A virtual festival like the Toronto International Film Festival just pulled off is not optional, he said.

“The fact of the matter is, this adaptation is just vital,” he said. “And we will find new information going forward.”

Diversity and inclusion roundtable at TheGrill 2020

3. Diversity and inclusion are not optional, people.

We always convene a conversation around expanding the voices of underrepresented groups at TheGrill. Those conversations are always packed. This year, there were so many people passionate about speaking on the issue that we had to break them into two groups — one focused on the movement toward change and the others featuring people who are using their own platforms to foment change.

Throughout, the conversation had moved from “How do we achieve change?” to “How do we make sure this change we are seeing is permanent?”

Cheo Hodari Coker, the creator of “Luke Cage,” noted the slow path to change since his start in the business. From 1994 to 1996, he was a journalist at the Los Angeles Times — which was still predominantly white at the time (and remains so). “The first full time Black reporter came during the Watts riots — because they couldn’t send anyone else to report because they were worried about safety,” he said. “Society has to fall apart for a brother or sister to get a break?

“That’s how I feel now, everyone is, ‘Oh, my God,’ in light of all the things that have happened in this COVID craziness, where we’ve lived 1968 in the last two and a half, three months. Everyone is clamoring for Black voices, Black voices that have been around for a while, trying to push through. Now the question is, OK, what’s going to happen now? The answer is — there always should have been diversity of voices. Can that be maintained?”

Kara Swisher, Ben Smith and Cheo Hodari Coker on How the Coronavirus ‘Accelerated’ Changes in Media (Video)

4. Gaming is the new social media

For those who are not focused on gaming, listen up: YOU NEED TO FOCUS ON GAMING. This industry has exploded during COVID and according to the research presented by IDG’s Yoshio Osaki at TheGrill, will be a $250 billion industry this year. That’s right. By contrast, the music industry is estimated to be an $11 billion annual business. Look it up.

Why has gaming become so appealing? Because gaming companies have made the experience — from “Fortnite” to Twitch to “Call of Duty” and the esports leagues — communal and interactive. Gaming is no longer just for antisocial guys with headsets in their basements. Now, gaming offers a place (often virtual) to meet friends, to play with others and to network around the world. As Ross Gerber on our gaming panel pointed out, there are safeguards in place in many gaming environments that don’t exist on social media platforms (more on this later).  It’s also multiplatform and what some people like to call “relatable.”

So you now have hundreds of millions of people per month meeting one another on gaming platforms. And billions of dollars being made by the gaming companies.

“Gaming is the new social media,” Gerber predicted.

Jeff Orlowski and Sharon Waxman at TheGrill 2020

5. Social media is the Borg

On a related topic, social media and the rise of data collection by technology giants is a scourge to our democracy that we all need to be worrying about.

That’s what I learned from an enlightening conversation with Jeff Orlowski, the writer and director of “The Social Dilemma,” a new documentary on Netflix that gives voice to a dozen former tech designers, engineers and executives who raise the alarm about what social media is doing to us.

“The tech industry found this amazing way to connect everybody and to not charge anything and ‘Look at this advertising business model, it seems to good to be true,’” he said. “And years later, we’re sort of realizing this is too good to be true.”

He went on: “There are consequences — that the incentive and the power that an algorithm can have to both grow the system and then to figure out how to get you to stay on and figure out how to get you to come back. All of the aspects of what this entire incentive structure demands and necessitates for consistent growth has negative consequences on our society.”

Orlowski concluded that the only way to address this is to bring massive public pressure on the technology platforms — notably by former insiders — or to hope that the government will finally regulate the sprawling power that they have amassed. Either way, this is an urgent issue impacting our daily lives, our relatioships and our ability to think critically — that cannot wait.

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This content was originally published here.

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