Darling. You have Hsueh. Hey, Sway, listeners, welcome to a bonus episode with New York Times media columnist Ben Smith here to talk about my latest interview with Jason Cayler. If you haven't heard the episode, what's wrong with you? Go back and listen. It's right behind this one in your podcast app anyway. Ben Smith, hello. Hi. We've known each other a zillion years. I've been covering this area for a long time, you and I, meaning to say we're old.
So early this week, I spoke to Jason Cayler. He's the new water media CEO who just killed movie theaters by making more of it than it is, but by moving waters whole 2021 slate to streaming. What do you think of it?
I mean, it's funny because I think the people in Hollywood are losing their minds, in part because many of them, like Lin, Manuel Miranda, are going to lose a lot of money from this good reason to lose your mind. He's he is in the Heights, is going to be streaming. People in Silicon Valley are cheering because you all just like to break things recklessly. And so, of course, you love it. And I think those of us in New York who have a kind of like balanced and sane view of the world.
Oh, yeah, I think so. I think I feel like an inevitable move. Somebody had to do it. It's sort of it's good or bad, but it's the way of the future. But I'm not sure the person who does it gets rewarded for doing it. I think there's going to be a lot of pressure on Warner Media to make up to Hollywood by ultimately delivering them Jason's head on a platter. Really?
I don't think so. I think here's the deal. This windowing thing has been going on since I was covering Napster, like this idea of windowing. And by the way, Jason, for those who don't know, it was head of Hulu. And of course, he had this issues way back when. And not just Jason, but a lot of people have had a problem with windowing. This is this way of putting out movies where it goes to theaters first and there's an exclusive period and then not what is right with an exclusive pair like this.
Yeah, I mean, I think I think the vision that he lays out, which is that, you know, you make different deals for different movies, maybe sometimes it's exclusively in theaters. And by the way, the theaters are not like sticky floored, rat infested hellholes, but they're beautiful experiences that you go to, not grudgingly, because it's the only place to see the new Marvel movie. But like, you're really psyched because you can, you know, get drunk on, you know, rum infused milkshakes.
Right. While watching, like, whatever happens to be on the screen. I think that's a really I love that vision and I think it's likely going to be a big part of the future. That said, the movie business is a simple, relationship driven business. These apps on which they are delivering movies are not some, you know, incredible feat of technology. They're very, very simple video players. Yeah, and a huge piece of the studio business in a foreigner's business are these relationships with directors who they just burn the hell out of.
All right. We talk about why it took so long, because I think we both realized this was coming. And by the way, we'll get to movie theaters in a minute. But the lack of innovation there has been startling in terms of what's happening even as digital has grown. Movie theater experience is except for some, you know, bright lights like Alamo Drafthouse, et cetera, have not got better. But from the Hollywood perspective, why would be so mad about something that was so inevitable?
Well, I mean, you know, it is perhaps inevitable that The New York Times won't be printed and, you know, at some point in the future. But if tomorrow they were like, hey, Carrie, your column is not running in print anymore, sorry that something is inevitable doesn't mean that if you felt you had, if not a contract, at least kind of an understanding that you were going to get that kind of promotion, OK. Oh, and by the way, you were getting back end on it.
Like, of course, you're going to be annoyed. All right.
But consumers like the app, the consumer, you know, you're showing data that they like it better. This is a better way to get their experience. Why does it matter what Chris Nolan thinks? Well, consumers like the app.
They don't really care which app they're watching the Chris Nolan movie. And they want to watch the movie. Yeah, but they don't want the print version.
They don't necessarily want to go. They want a choice, is what I'm saying. Right.
They want a choice. But ultimately, if you decide to go to subsect, they'll follow you to substract. And if the reason you went with some kind of petty pick on The New York Times is part and they screwed up the relationship and didn't handle you correctly, it's still bad for them that you left for Substory, even if they were kind of right in some sort of like progressive history, Marxist principle.
Sure. But maybe there are not not getting these movies. They're releasing them simultaneously, so they're required to compete. I mean, what is the problem with that? If they're not saying we're just giving it to HBO, Macs and theaters will get it later. They're getting the movies right.
They thought they had a deal. The terms of the deal are getting worse. Of course, they're upset about it. And then, you know, ultimately, the people who make that town work, which are the stars and the directors aren't happy about it because they're going to, at least in this round of deals, make less money. I can't I don't really see why you'd expect them to be pleased about it.
No, I don't mean to be cliche, but the ideas of what they're talking about, this idea of a romantic silver screen experience is not what most people have. Do you think movie theaters are done?
I think that what Jason said to you is really interesting, which is that so much of the world has moved toward this kind of experiential retail and, you know, big stores have and they're all sorts of experiences that people pay for in movie theaters, which are sort of the original retail experience, you know, are horrible and are run by these kind of generic chains. I don't think anybody has any real loyalty to Regal versus AMC. And there is sort of persistent chatter, right, that Disney or Apple or somebody else whose great experiences could pick them up and transform them into something and gosh, I mean, I think that, you know, if they told me that I could go to the movies next May.
Yeah. Like, I think there's a really good shot. That windowing or not, you're going to see the biggest box office ever next summer.
Yeah, 100 percent. But I'm talking about what they have not done. I mean, when I talk to the head of a movie chain who was mad at me, you know, for my column, they were like we had soft chairs and I was like, I'm hanging on right now. This is when I'm hanging up on you, because I don't, you know, and we're better we're doing better imaging. I'm like, you have to do better.
That's sort of like the lowest bar to have to jump on imaging. I would expect it. And I don't want to hear about it. Seats where their innovation comfy seats, which I was not moved by. Right.
And they've relied on having this kind of exclusive relationship with the producers of movies, which they get because movies have continued to make most of their money in theaters. Most movies, Netflix is a more complicated situation, but basically they're saying, sorry, this disgusting hotdog stand is the only place you can watch the Marvel movie so we can save money on everything else. And that's what they've been doing for so long that they are in a hole that it's very hard to see those companies getting out of.
Now, when the decision was made, in part because of the criticism of HBO, Max not having a much original content, talk a little bit about the various services because Disney is sort of put their foot in this with Millán and different things. Obviously, Netflix will get to in a second. It's a whole nother discussion. But do you think this is why? Because makes you a max didn't have much original content. It was sort of a clumsy and sloppy rollout.
And this was Pregerson Cuyler. This had happened.
Yeah. HBO Max, which if you were sort of stuck on a desert island with only one service, you might choose HBO. Max, it has everything that was ever on HBO. It has Alfred Hitchcock. It has incredible depth of content that isn't particularly coherent. Right. Like nobody was going out saying, I want to see a Warner Brothers movie. Right. You know, the way Disney has a clear brand, but it's just full of great stuff, but without a kind of single defining show.
And it rolled out in a very confusing way. It's still not available on Roku. It has, you know, and so different names, different names. So it's you know, it's just incredibly important bet for that company and for the notion that that company will remain a functioning operating unit of AT&T. And so in some sense, they're just throwing everything they've got and it makes sense for them to throw everything they've got at HBO, Max, even if that has short term costs and that's literally they have a bunch of movies on the shelf, they're going to throw those into the service.
I do think the thing about it, as opposed to many other apps that people try to get you to download, is it really does have you know, it really does like, you know, Game of Thrones is a pretty good show.
They have Game of Thrones and they're doing this drag and show, this prequel Dragon show and things like that. And then they're going back and redoing Gossip Girl and they're doing they're trying to come up with all kinds of new content. They have a whole bunch of new things. How difficult is that going to be to different? Because everyone's going to be on their own service and there's not a central place like a Comcast where it all eventually did come together in cable.
Yeah, we're all we're all going to kind of starting to miss the cable bundle. And I do think that people are a lot of programmers and, you know, show runners and things that are starting to feel like, you know what, there's no such thing as a Netflix show versus an HBO show versus an Apple show, you know, and that people are subscribing and subscribing to these services because they want to watch a show, not because they feel sort of a profound loyalty to HBO, Max.
And that's not exactly the world I think that the creators of those platforms want or envisioned. And you see, like Disney is just trickling out one new thing every, you know. Thirty three days that might just be enough to keep you subscribing. You know, none of these services have made themselves totally, totally vital, but also a lot of them have made themselves things that you want bits and pieces of. And a lot of people are subscribing to large numbers of them.
And so far so good. You know, there's a lot of people watching a lot of TV in this country.
Well, what's interesting is that you you did that with theaters and you didn't know that studios excuse me, and didn't know what some students were up. Some was more pronounced when you had a big TV networks like I watched NBC is ahead because you wanted to friends bundle essentially. So I don't think it's that it's a question of whether they're paying. Do you think people will get subscription fatigue? You know, I don't know.
I mean, I think that's an empirical question. People have been predicting it for a while and we haven't really seen it. I think to the degree to which people are getting subscription fatigue is still outweighed by the number of new people cutting the cord and subscribing. And so there's still just tons of room for growth.
I actually have bought them all because I want to watch different shows. I want to watch Wonderwoman 1984. I want to watch one no matter what. And I what I'm paying is not more than I pay in a movie theater for one. Yeah. I mean, I think I wouldn't mind if Congress said that these things had to ask me every month, do what do you still want to say subscribe to this for.
Yes, that's a fair point. So could HBO Max ever Keller compete with Netflix? Is there going to be a winner of a streaming war? And I want you to talk a little bit about Netflix. Do you think they've done right because they were widely pilloried by Warner calling them the Albanian army many years ago.
That was Jeff Bewkes.
Yeah, I mean, right. I mean, that's right. Netflix is an amazing company, has done, you know, just kind of really knew what they were doing and didn't have any of the kind of trade offs that these studios have where they're worrying, hey, if we release this here, we can't make money on it over there. And so it just built this enormous lead. Sometimes people, I think, particularly people who come out of the tech industry and others like sort of overcomplicate the movie business, it really is a business about making good movies that people want to watch and then they pay you.
And I don't know, Netflix is starting to lose things, you know, some of its beloved content that it licenses from elsewhere and maybe it won't have a hit for a year and it doesn't have a hit for a year and somebody else is a hit. People are going to go over there. I think Netflix has enormous momentum and lots of great content. People watch forever. But I think the notion that that nobody can enter. You think they can be beaten?
Yeah. It's a culture industry that's about hits. It's not some kind of mechanistic, data driven business. And Netflix used to pretend they were data driven. I think they've even stop pretending.
Yeah. So Christopher Nolan, again, the most famous directors in Hollywood, was really enraged by the decision. But he's not a rage at Netflix, which is that no one's ever really now speaking out against Netflix among these groups. Let me read you what he told The Hollywood Reporter. Some of the industry's biggest filmmakers, the most important movie stars, went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they're working for the worst streaming service.
So something like, you know, yeah, actually people and if people want to sort of understand the outlines of this, they should read Kim Masters and they should read Kara Swisher. And those are like to me, the two polls and I agree with you both.
OK, so did she is she against angriness?
I feel like Kim is the voice of I mean, in that column you quoted is sort of the voice of the Hollywood community.
So what what do you think of that? And do you think the filmmakers are going to stop working with Cuyler and Mörner?
I mean, you know, I mean, I think that a lot of filmmakers are more likely to work with a place that promises them a theatrical release. Warner can make those deals. And I mean, it's going to be a deal by deal. Anybody can make those deals. And I think ultimately those blistering statements were partly aimed at gaining leverage in what are now going to be a series of really intense conversations that are going to dial back some of what Jason announced, I suspect.
Well, I don't think they're dialing back at all. I think they're not. I think they'll just make deals. They'll make better deals for these different people, depending on who's a good filmmaker.
They'll make better financial deals or they're they'll figure out some kind of windowing thing and maybe they'll get sued and there will be settlements. I mean, I think, you know, he decided to sort of cut the Gordian knot rather than go deal by deal and keep people come.
Right. Were you surprised he did that? You think he's going to have his head on a pike, so to speak, Game of Thrones style?
I mean, I think it makes him a target, right? I mean, it means that if this thing is still a garbage fire in six months and there are lawsuits and it's not going well, that AT&T management has the option of coming to the Hollywood community with his head on a platter as a peace offering, like he certainly made himself the target.
But they don't seem to want to make peace offerings. AT&T, I mean, not right now. He wouldn't he wouldn't have done this without the full backing of AT&T.
Oh, of course. Not for sure. So why would they give in? If you have to finally make the shift, why would you give in?
I mean I mean, I think it's just let's see if it works, right. If it turns out that they don't gain subscribers from the billions of revenue or hundreds of millions of revenue they're giving up, this won't look like such a good move.
And this idea of relationships, I think a lot of this is sort of this fuzzy Quentin Tarantino is kind of like I love the look of the Silvis. You know, that's I don't think consumers care for most movies right now.
There's an older generation of directors who just literally grew up in these movie theaters and the younger generation of directors less so. Right. So I think that, you know, Scorsese or something like that, who got a better win deal from Netflix in terms of window Scorseses on that?
Right, right, and he negotiated a deal with Netflix where it opened in theaters. I mean, I do think there's there's more flexibility in here sort of movie by movie than than the kind of really stark headlines suggest. But also, you know, Netflix won some bidding wars for huge television show runners and huge deals with Shonda Rhimes and Kanye West and Ryan Murphy, none of which have really panned out.
Well, I have a feeling Brigger is going to be gone. This is the Shonda Rhimes one.
Maybe we'll look back and say, oh, actually, it took a few years, but that was a great deal. But I don't think anybody at Netflix is now saying, hey, that was a great move. Let's go find some more.
So is Cuyler. I have a couple more questions. Is Cayler the right guy for this job? I think he's wanted to do this forever. I mean, somebody had to do this thing right? Like somebody like it didn't it just didn't seem like there was going to be a gentle way to make what is really a very dramatic break with these kind of embattled low quality theater companies that are fighting like hell. And so he did it. I think there's a question of whether the person who the first one over the wall is actually rewarded for that, or do he and Warner kind of get punished for fighting the first battle and then everybody else gets rewarded for their hard work?
Do you suffer for doing the thing that where everything's going?
You know, I'm not sure like the first legacy company to get on the Internet, but was the winner, right? I mean, I think it's I think, in fact, the company I'm actually thinking of the newspaper business, which, you know, we've both worked in a lot of our careers. The New York Times was incredibly slow and allowed everybody else to make every mistake and very cautiously figured out what was working and followed, whereas the Washington Post sort of blundered over the wall and like, you know, drove itself into the ground.
And so I think that I think the legacy company that is the one that pulls the report isn't always the one that benefits from that. That would be what I would be worried about for Warner.
All right. Is there anything I missed in my conversation with Jason? Should I have been more Kim Masters?
I felt like you got him to really express really, really clearly what he's trying to do. And I think that they are acting with real clarity and a kind of interesting way and kind of amazing that, like the studio that invented Hollywood is the one doing that.
When you think of where this is going to be in a year, who do you think is going to follow him? Do you think the other streaming services will? You know, I think this opens the door for every streaming service to be negotiating more aggressively around windows with these theaters. I also think it just puts more pressure on the theaters to sell themselves to somebody with the cash, to reinvent them or to reinvent themselves or, you know, I think Disney and Apple or both.
You could imagine getting into that business in a really big way. And I think the future where movie theaters are incredible experiences is a pretty cool one.
Do you see any of the tech companies getting into creative roles at all, or is it is is the new creativity, this idea, tick tock and things like that?
I mean, they have all so far resisted the impulse to buy movie studios, which I think is something that was really thought about at various times. You know, if I think if Jason's experiment fails and we'll know pretty soon, though, that that studio will be on the market and, you know, maybe a tech company will be tempted to buy it. Who like who? I mean, Apple does seem like the obvious one.
If they were to get serious about it and you think they would want to, most of them tell me they don't want to deal with the difficulties of Chris Nolan.
Seems like it seems like seems like a terrible idea, honestly. Yeah, that's my guess, is that they're really rightly scared of the culture wars because the culture wars are, in fact, terrifying in that regard.
How do you think these techies have done with media in general? Laurene Jobs has won. Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos.
I mean, to the degree that they've poured in money and kept their hands off, it's been great, right? I mean, I think business has done a really great job with The Washington Post. The Atlantic is killing it right now. Time is better than it's been in years. I mean, hard to complain. I think, you know, media, you've got to be worried about the most powerful people in the world personally owning the most powerful media outlets in the world.
And you'd be an idiot not to imagine that those things aren't going to wind up sort of gradually becoming the voices of their worldview.
What do you think the biggest story this year going into the next year is? I know we've had this everything's been skewed by the pandemic. But from your perspective in media, what what are you looking at?
Yeah, I mean, you know, I feel like there were these sort of three crises in the media world. And I mean, they weren't crises on the same scale, but they all that media is a little corner of the universe. And obviously the pandemic, you know, the election and its aftermath and Trump's continued attempt to overturn it and then this racial reckoning around newsrooms. And it does seem to me that there's so much unfinished business with the third and the question of like, OK, that there was all this conversation about how the industry should change over the summer.
And I think it's not clear how much it has, how much it will.
Is media going get boring now that Trump's gone? I mean, I saw that Joe Biden is a big reader of Apple News, and I think that's all you need to know.
He's not going to be that interesting on Twitter. Trump was an interesting, but he certainly was riveting. All right.
Who should you think I should have on my show then in the media space or anywhere else? Ben, if you have interests, other places, I don't know. Are we still on air? Yeah, we're still on a different list of. If it's secret, I want the secret list. Tell the people, you know, I guess I have found somewhat to my surprise that the people remain like very interested in the people who run big legacy news organizations.
I mean, that's one of the big stories, right? As it turns out, The New York Times and CNN are still relevant. So you should get, you know, our Boston back and Jeff Zucker before they ride into the sunset.
Yeah, Zucker is a good a good point because after he's already smooth, is a smooth guy. So very diplomatic. He's very diplomatic. Zucker I think I could break, so to speak.
I mean, it's dangerous to break your employer. Oh, he's not my employer. I don't work for you. Right.
You don't work for him as I'm being much more diplomatic. You do.
I do now. I can break him. I can't break him. No, he's too smooth. He's too smart in my time here.
All right. Don't say anything. All right? Those two people like Jeff Zucker, anyone else?
I mean, I do think that, you know, the government is going to run off Capitol Hill. Mitch McConnell is going to be a very important guy. Mitch McConnell.
Excellent. Ben, I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for coming on. And everyone should read Ben's columns. They're amazing. They are must reads for me and many, many other people. Thank you. Here, I'm gonna put that on my Twitter bio. Don't. Please don't.