Filmmaker and comic author Hugh Hancock here again. Charlie's in mid-flight over the Atlantic at present, so I'm here to entertain you in his stead. And I brought statistics.
How many notable feature films can you think of that came out last year? Really good, solid movies?
Take a moment. Count. Maybe make a list.
How about really good TV shows, or computer games? Again, make a quick list.
I'll explain why we're doing all this list-making in a minute.
I've been considering the state of storytelling media in 2015 for a little while now, and one thing keeps cropping up in my personal media consumption: I'm consuming more media that wasn't released in the last year than ever before.
Indeed, my default reaction to something interesting arriving has become "I'll get around to it in a year or so".
So I started digging to find out why.
How Many GOOD Stories Are Being Released?
It's become a truism to say that there is a lot stories - in every storytelling artform - being created than has ever been the case before.
But the sheer scale of the influx is still pretty astonishing.
Since this time last year:
- 9,992 new feature films have been completed, according to IMDB.
- 5,000 new seasons of TV shows have been released. It's hard to figure out how many of them are fiction, but it's almost certainly over 1,000.
- 5250 games were released on Steam alone last year. Across all platforms there wasn't a single month where less than 1,000 games were released, according to Metacritic.
- 4,445 books were released on Amazon in the SF&F genre alone. Across all fictional genres, 36,099 novels were released since this time last year.
To put it in perspective, assuming 8 hours a novel, you'd need 32 years reading non-stop - no sleep, no food, no toilet breaks - to read this year's output of fiction alone.
Now, my default assumption is that nearly all of those releases are crap. After all, they must be, right? If they were really good, I'd have heard of them.
Fortunately, it's very easy to check that, as all the outlets above have ratings.
I defined "crap" pretty harshly - anything that got less than a 70% rating:
- 1,374 of the feature films released last year scored above 70%.
- 208 of the 600 "Drama" TV series scored above 70%. That implies at least 333 fiction TV series scored over that number.
- 877 of the computer games listed on Metacritic scored over 70%.
- Amazon's advanced search only shows 100 pages of results: at page 99, all the SF books were still listed with well over a 70% score. So that's over 1,200 novels in SF&F
Even excluding the last one, which looks a bit dubious, those are some remarkable results. 877 games in the last year that are at least worth a look? Over a thousand feature films?
OK, let's get harsh about this. How many of these are really
notable? I reset the search results to anything getting above 8.5 / 85%, and tried again:
- 72 feature films released in 2015 are rated above 8.5 on IMDB. That's not just blockbusters with massive fan communities, either - fan favourites like Age Of Ultron often scored less than 8.5.
- 35 drama series were rated above 8.5. Of the ones I've watched, all seem to be appropriately rated - I might not like "Mr Robot", but it's pretty clear it's universally acclaimed.
- 114 games were rated above 85 on Metacritic. A couple of those look dubious (Arkham Knight? Really?), but most of them clearly deserve to be there: Pillars Of Eternity, Kerbal Space Program, et al.
- And finally, approximately 300 SF&F books are rated above 4.5 - actually closer to 90% - from this year's crop.
And this is why I asked you to make a list at the start.
Those numbers are way higher than expected. Not the number of storytelling projects that are coming out - we know that there are tons of those, and we know why
- but the number that are actually incredibly good.
There are at least three seperate fields that I've heard being referred to as being in a "golden age" right now - books, TV and games. (That's from the perspective of the consumer, not the creator.).
And this is where my perception that I'm consuming more of "last year's media" comes in.
A Growing Tidal Wave
So how does a narratophile - someone who loves stories - react to this?
Well, let's do some crude modelling. Surveys put an American's total leisure time per day at 4.09 hours
Let's assume that our narratophilic exemplar spends fully 50% of that leisure time doing nothing but consuming media. Let's further assume that she doesn't bother with anything created before 2015, or puts her "older media" consumption into the other half of her time.
In 2015, she has 750 hours. She's very picky, so she only bothers with media that fits our "truly excellent" criterion. And even then, she only fancies playing/watching/reading a small percentage of those admittedly excellent stories - let's say 35%. And furthermore, let's say she's a hardcore sci-fi fan, and simply isn't interested in reading any books outside the SF&F genre.
Given all of that, in 2015 she has:
- 49hrs of feature films, assuming 2hr average runtime.
- 437hr of TV, assuming 10 hr for an average series.
- 798hr of gaming, assuming 20hr of play time, on average, per excellent game. (It actually may be far longer, but we're being conservative here.)
- 840hr of books, assuming 8 hours a book.
That's a total of 2124hr of entertainment
to get through in one year.
So what does she do? Well, she reads/watches/plays some of it, but she puts much of it on a list of things she'd like to read/watch/play in future.
And then in 2016, assuming the same amount of output, she splits her choices between the stuff she has left over from 2015, and the new hotness in 2016. And in 2017, the same. And so on.
Here's how that looks:
- Year 1: 49 hr of feature films. 437hr of TV. 798hr of games. 840hr of books. 2124hr total. Has 750hr free time. Leaves 1374hr worth of consumption.
- Year 2: 2124hr of new stuff + 1374hr of "leftover" from last year. Buys approx 3/5 as much new storytelling this year as last . At the end of the year, has 2748hr of media in her backlog.
- Year 3: 2124hr of new stuff + 2748hr of leftover. Spends approx 2/5 as much on new stuff this year. Leaves 4122hr.
- Year 4: 2124hr new, 4122hr leftover. Spends approx 1/3 as much on new stuff this year. Leaves 5496hr.
- Year 5: 2124hr new, 5496hr leftover. Spends approx 1/4 as much on new stuff this year.
And that pattern's repeated over virtually all consumers. Sure, one person might be more into TV than games - but that just means that maybe they consume the top 60% of TV shows. Another's a gamer who doesn't care about all that "old media" - but they play all the top games.
And all of this is complicated further by the fact that the number of shows, games, novels and films that we can consider "elegible" to be viewed is far greater than just the top-reviewed ones.
The top-grossing films of the year so far - Jurassic World and Age of Ultron - were rated at 7.3 and 7.8 respectively on IMDB. Of the top-viewed TV shows, only one - Big Bang Theory - was at or above 85%. And the top-selling novels of the year so far are Go Set A Watchman (average review 3.6) and The Girl On The Train (4.0). Only in games were the two top-selling titles also top-reviewed - Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain and Grand Theft Auto V.
It's pretty clear that what the average viewer - or even a narratophile like me - considers viewable, playable or readable is considerably wider than just the top-reviewed offerings.
There's a massive, growing tidal wave of amazing content for all of us to consume. So what effects can we expect that to have?
The Impact Of The Awesome
Well, the first thing is obvious. Given this data, there's absolutely no question that there are hidden gems aplenty out there - games, films and TV shows which are good, but which aren't getting anywhere near mass exposure.
We might assume that getting a really positive response from consumers will still lift you above the masses - indeed, I've heard the argument time and time again that no really good
games, films, books, etc are being ignored.
But a very brief look through the lists of media I've found above puts the lie to that. For example, how many of us have watched The Algerian
, a massively-acclaimed, complex international spy thriller with a string of film festival awards? It's right up my alley and I'd never heard of it.
What about Over The Garden Wall
, a dark animated series in the style of "Adventure Time", starring the voices of Elijah Wood and Christopher Lloyd amongst others? Reviews are dribblingly enthusiastic, with an average rating of 9.2.
Or Tomb Of Tyrants
, a fascinating pattern-match / strategy cross-over game with 98% positive reviews on Steam and a small but very dedicated community? (EDITED - Juan Raigada pointed out my original example was flawed - thanks, Juan!)
The backlog of genuinely fantastic storytelling that you've never heard of - and often no-one really heard of - and so quite often the creator's no longer creating or unable to get funding - is only going to grow, and it'll grow fast.
So what does let stories succeed? Well, I've written about the power of modern-day myths before, and that's a large part of it. Note that of the best-selling stories I mention above, 5 out of 7 are sequels. And obviously, marketing is a large part of it.
Another way that games creators, novelists, and no doubt soon filmmakers are trying to cut through the noise and get noticed is by being featured in sales or bundle packages - Humble Bundle, Steam Sale, and so on. But the sheer volume of content means that consumers are increasingly arbitraging their purchases to get the sale price. There's a subreddit called Patient Gamers
, with 60,000 current subscribers, devoted to just this phenomenon - gamers who wait until games become cheap, because they "just haven't had the time to keep up with the latest releases."
That has a double-whammy effect. Not only are your sales likely to be delayed, but where you might have originally expected to take in a $15 or $30 purchase price, you're now getting $5, $10 or less.
So how are readers, watchers and gamers reacting to this? Well, we might expect that with the deluge of new material, we'd start to see people individualising their purchases more, heading into sub-sub-genres that better fit their tastes. But that doesn't seem to be happening. It's easiest to see this in films, where peak box office numbers remain as high as ever. It's the middle tier of filmmaking that has been hollowed out in the last couple of decades, not the top: 4 of the top 10 box office numbers of all time have happened in the last 5 years, and it's 5 out of 10 if we extend to 2009 and "Avatar".
My theory - and it's only a theory - is that the deluge, plus the incorrect assumption that most of what's being created is now terrible, is meaning that people are actually sticking tighter to what they know. If there are only 20 SF novels a year from new authors, most SF fans will be willing to try a few of them. If there are 20,000 new SF novels, paradoxically, the sheer volume of choice and difficulty of knowing what to pick means that we just say "screw it" and re-read Accelerando instead.
What's The Future Of Abundant Stories?
So what's going to happen? Well, in the near future, it'll be ever harder for new voices to break in. As my fictional narratophile above shows, after 5 years of this sort of output even people who do consume new authors or directors will be spending 1/4 of what they normally would.
On the upside, if you can hang in there for a few years as a new creator you'll see sales start to rise, even of your older stuff. It's absolutely no longer the case that 75% of the people who would ever buy your Thing will do so in the first year.
More optimistically, I expect to see some sort of breakthrough on discovery in the near future. As I've demonstrated above, at this point it's trivial to find and recommend really great material that your audience may not have heard of. This is already, to a certain extent, the model that's keeping games blogs like Rock, Paper, Shotgun
in business, and I can see it extending to other media. (It's notable that of my examples above, the unknown movie has about 50 votes. The unknown game has 4,000. The games world is genuinely already better at discovery, even if it still has a long way to go.)
Unfortunately, for film and TV any kind of revolution in discovery will be incumbent on solving the entire distribution mess that's currently festering. Currently, as I've mentioned before, all the credible marketplaces for film and TV are a nightmare to get into. I couldn't even tell you how to watch "The Algerian", short of "Pirate Bay and hope". But sooner or later a big player is going to pull a Steam or a Kindle and just throw open the doors of a trusted platform to all comers in film or TV - and they'll make an absolute killing.
And I suspect we'll see an increased segmentation in the landscape, but not along more narrowly-defined genre lines. People will be looking for fault-lines between which to pitch their own personal fan tents, and ways to differentiate the media they do want to consume from the media they don't. We're already seeing genres segment along political lines, of course. In film some of the most successful indie directors are those serving niche communities that don't get much love from the mainstream - faith-based, LGBT, etc.
Rather than a sub-nicheing, I think we'll see more of this sort of segmentation, both around core values like sexuality, religion and politics, and around practical issues like income, available time, and multiplayer preference. There's already effectively a "job simulator" genre in gaming - EVE Online, grindy MMOs, etc - and a rapidly growing "I have 15 minutes and I want to play a quick game of something" genre too. Hundreds more "practical genres" like that are waiting to be created.
And in the long term? In the long term, we're going to be in a weird place. There will be more active storytellers producing media per head of the population than there have been for a few hundred years - arguably since the age of the Skald or the bards. We're already at a point where - just looking at the stats above - there is about one working novelist per 20,000 people in the English-speaking world, and about one game developer and one filmmaker per 60,000. Those numbers aren't going down, despite the difficulty of finding an audience.
We might end up with a society where one in a thousand people is producing professional-quality, professional-length art of one kind or another. If we get Universal Basic Income
, that'll put a rocket under the entire process.
At that point, we really will be back to bards and skalds. With an average audience of about 500 people each, the obvious way for our future-storytellers to differentiate themselves will be by personalising their stories to their tiny audience - which is small enough for them to know each member by name.
That might be tremendously freeing in some ways. As a roleplaying GM of 30+ years experience as well as a filmmaker, the personal nature of roleplaying is one of the things that keeps me in the hobby. It's far easier to design a story for a small group of people whom you know than a large, impersonal mass. And for those who want to sit at the fire and hear these stories, rather than craft them, it's going to be an unprecedented age of having narrative tailored specifically for you. Imagine an MMORPG with only 300 players, for example, or a feature film series that reflects all your preferences and concerns. It won't be a case of boggling when a TV show manages to get the basics of hacking right - there'll be an entire canon of drama series focused around Stallmanesque characters fighting for freedom of software, tailored specifically for people who really care about those issues.
(You might be wondering how artists get paid enough to live in this model. My answer is "Other than UBI, no real idea". However, it's worth noting that the cost
of producing any storytelling medium except books is currently plunging downward phenomenally fast.)
I hope that's the direction we're going in, anyway. Because the alternative's not too pleasant - a world where 99.99% of all artistic creation is unpaid, often expensive, and where most art is created by patronage or by people wealthy enough to not need to worry about their expenses. Or a world where somehow a Guild Of Storytellers manages to shove the genie back in the bottle, and contain the number of people who make stories, regardless of how many could
, down to a managable level.
What do you think? Where's storytelling headed in the next 10, 20, 50 years?
If you'd like to read more of my insane predictions, you can find me at @hughhancock on Twitter, read my blog or follow my current projects via email.