Even a casual observer of the entertainment industry knows that Hollywood is hooked on established intellectual property at the expense of original ideas and awash in more money than it knows how to sensibly spend. But three stories about the business of pop culture that broke this week illustrate just how dull American entertainment has become and how hard it is for even the most brilliant creators or innovative companies to escape the undertow.
Warner Bros. Pictures announced that Lana Wachowski would return to write and direct a fourth installment in The Matrix franchise and that Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss would return as Neo and Trinity, despite their characters’ seeming deaths in “The Matrix Revolutions.”
That news came immediately after reports that because Sony and Marvel had been unable to agree on financial terms for their partnership, Marvel will not be involved in future Spider-Man movies. Peter Parker, currently played by Tom Holland, will likely vanish from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And in the story that kicked things off, the Financial Times reported that Apple is spending as much as $6 billion on original programming for its Apple TV+ streaming service, set to launch in November. That number is contested, but it’s clear that Apple is splashing fantastic sums on programming such as “The Morning Show,” which stars Jennifer Aniston as the anchor of TV program in turmoil, and which might cost more per episode than HBO paid to produce the later seasons of “Game of Thrones.”
Taken together, these reports represent a kind of unholy trinity of depressing Hollywood news.
Word that Wachowski is returning to The Matrix is a particularly dispiriting reminder that Hollywood’s fear of risking money on any idea that viewers haven’t already embraced means the industry has gone all-in on recycling, and not in a good way. And it’s especially grim given both how wildly original “The Matrix” felt when it was released in 1999 and how resolute Lana Wachowski and her co-director and sister Lilly have been in their past opposition to sequels. In a rare 2015 interview, Lana Wachowski expressed her distaste for critics who are “obsessed with sequels and derivative material. They wildly crave it. That kind of environment is hostile to originality.” At the time, Lilly Wachowski dismissed the possibility of new “Matrix” movies as “particularly repelling.”
Perhaps Lana Wachowski has a fresh story she’d like to tell in the rich and unsettling universe the sisters created together. Still, after a series of stunning but underperforming projects, including “Speed Racer,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Jupiter Ascending” and the Netflix series “Sense8,” it appears that at least one Wachowski, unlike her most famous creation, has given in rather than continuing the fight.
The Sony-Marvel impasse represents a second stage in the drawn-out death of Hollywood creativity: Business models don’t just determine what movies get made, they increasingly determine how they’re told. Marvel has long argued that the interconnected stories its movies are telling makes its franchise distinct. But if Spider-Man is expendable, so is the marketing pretense that sprawling serial storytelling elevated Marvel movies above their competitors — as are the rising indie directors who Marvel brings in to lend a gloss of credibility to the franchise.
And whatever Apple is actually spending on content, it’s clear that the vast sums of cash sloshing around the streaming ecosystem have created more, and more expensive, content. But more expensive does not necessarily mean better. Good for Aniston for landing herself a $1.1 million per-episode salary for “The Morning Show,” even if she did so more on the continuing strength of “Friends” as a draw for streaming customers than on anything she has done in the 15 years since the show went off the air. Maybe even good for Martin Scorsese for getting Netflix to drop $159 million so he could tart up a movie about Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa with anti-aging technology. But it turns out that when cultural programmers turn to computer programmers for insight about what to make, the reward audiences get for binging on comfort fare is an eight-picture Netflix deal for Adam Sandler.
Maybe it’s fitting that Lana Wachowski is heading back into the world of machines at a moment when it feels as though our entertainment is more engineered than ever before. Whether the machines in question are cash registers or viewer algorithms, it’s hard to see how we’ll find our way out of this era of illusion. Too many of us are content to be sedated and to pay for our anesthetics.