Can we stop calling films ‘content’ now?

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A plea to stop talking about films and TV shows in corporatespeak.

In 1887, the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh completed the first in his series of still life paintings that go by the name Sunflowers. A year later, he’d finish the second of the two series.

When he did so, the paintings became regarded over time as spectacular pieces of art. That said, it’s hard not to imagine if he presented said work today, there’d be someone in a decent suit somewhere who would congratulate him on his work, sign his freelance invoice, and leave him to fend for himself. They wouldn’t be pictures. They’d be creative collateral, or an impressive paint/canvas interface. Or, shudder: they’d be content.

That word, after all, is permeating. It’s infecting lots of areas of life, movies and TV in particular.

Netflix, for instance, doesn’t say is has a large collection of films and TV shows to choose from. It has “an extensive global content library”. Disney boss Bob Iger, when contrasting the difference between his incoming Disney+ service and Netflix told Vanity Fair that “what Netflix is doing is making content to support a platform, we’re making content to tell great stories”.

Content. When have we allowed this word to take such hold. People working for magazines and website now don’t write articles or write reviews. They create “content”. People seem to be making fewer and fewer films, and more and more “content”. If you make several films, then congratulations: you’re making “greater volume”, not ‘more movies’.

It’s little secret that Hollywood and the movies underwent changes as the 70s went into the 80s. That studios that were once run by traditional moguls who were invested in the movies found themselves increasingly part of global conglomerates who wanted a movie studio on their asset books. The filmmakers were being taken away from the top jobs, in favour of big business executives.

That’s where we are today, and the cliché is that movie executives as a consequence are less interested in movies than ever before. Certainly the days of a filmmaker heading up a major studio – as director Joe Roth did with Disney as recently as the late 90s – look set never to return.

But there are movie executives who clearly love films, even if lots of them give the perception that they seem to have to spend half their time in Excel spreadsheets. That notwithstanding, there are movie executives fighting for stories and projects they believe in every single day. It’s easy to overlook that.

Yet still, there’s a corporate culture that’s firmly seeped into the world of film. That, in turn, has brought corporate language with it, and I think this is a backwards step.

When did it become not just respectful, but the norm, to describe a film or TV show as a piece of content? Where did a term enter the lexicon that’s so reductive to what’s being made? You may think it’s pretentious twaddle to describe even massive blockbuster films as art, but I’d content they are. They’re labours of love for someone, and they’re being reduced to business doublespeak on a press release.

Looking to this winter, would anyone dare call Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, a piece of digital content? You’d think not. But then Netflix’s umbrella – as per its own corporatespeak – is just that. A library of content. Not a library of films and TV shows.

Director Brad Bird’s Twitter bio explains that “I love all the arts, but I love movies most because they combine so many of them”. That’s not a man who’s making a piece of content. He’s making a film, that combines the talents of many people, to turn it into a story that he and those involved hope will be watched and enjoyed. I’ve heard filmmakers and writers use the word ‘content’ to describe their work when they’re making a cutting point. I’ve met few who believe that’s actually what they’re making.

Enough now. I have no power in the world, I accept that. But imagine going to an art gallery, and the advert promising you ‘compelling analogue content’, with no irony or twist to it at all? That’s just what we’re doing with screen entertainment now, and I think it all deserves better.

I do accept, of course, that there are very real problems in the world, and I fully accept the material in this short piece isn’t that high up the list. But still, just to be on the safe side I Googled ‘people who say literally when they mean figuratively’ and that threw up 14 million results.

I figure one person fighting against the word ‘content’ won’t hurt. Hence, this. I thank you for reading.

Lead image: BigStock

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