Welcome to TheGrill 2022: When Change in Hollywood Is a Permanent State, Only the Bravest Survive

Our annual conference convenes as the entertainment industry reels from constant disruption

sharon waxman
Getty Images

It’s hard to recognize the entertainment industry of 2022 from the business that it was 20 years ago – which was when I began covering Hollywood. 

Back then, the DVD industry floated billions of dollars in free cash to the major studios. Tech companies were recovering from a burst bubble and geeky Silicon Valley was not yet cool. International box office had overtaken domestic box office by a lot – and this little video-by-mail distributor Netflix was five years old. We all stared at it with curiosity. 

Fast-forward to now: Netflix rose and rose, and now it has stalled, even though everyone copied what it created. Streaming is the new model, but everyone is nervous that it won’t last — at least with as many players as have dived into the fray. Tech companies from Amazon to Apple have overtaken Hollywood, even as some of them (Meta, looking at you) are being overtaken by younger upstarts like TikTok. And many things that seemed quite permanent are no more: Time Warner (sold and sold again). Viacom (unmerged, merged, renamed). And Harvey Weinstein. 

And a lot of us are stuck with a mountain of DVDs that we want to get rid of. 

It’s become axiomatic at our annual Grill conference to step back and examine the scope and velocity of change in entertainment and media. This year, like last year, change came fast and furious. The market’s appetite for mergers has not let up even as Wall Street lost its faith in the new streaming religion. Billions of dollars in value have been sucked from the entertainment conglomerates. And in the trenches of the work force, job cuts continue without a visible path to reverse the trend.

At TheGrill on Tuesday and Wednesday, we will be talking about those things with the experts in their fields, including with Kevin Mayer, the former top strategist at Disney who led a spectacular number of acquisitions (Marvel, Lucasfilm) and is now acquiring companies himself with his partner Tom Staggs — the closest thing I’ve seen to a from the ground-up potential new entertainment major. 

We will be exploring this strange new planet called the metaverse, and whether NFTs have a viable future. (Did we learn nothing about the irrational exuberance of a generation ago?) The state of live entertainment is on the schedule, as is the rise of podcasting. 

Meanwhile, producers — who will debate business issues at a round table on Wednesday — are laboring under the dictatorship of the “cost-plus” model, squeezing incentives in that creative class. But that too might be about to change. 

As I say, change is the one constant these days.

And in truth, we may well observe that what is true in media is the same for our entire society – it’s changing fast before our eyes: climate disruption, civil rights rollbacks, democracy in a vise led by the erosion of trust enabled by technology.

Recently, I attended the memorial to a monument in the entertainment business of the past 50 years, attorney Bert Fields. Those who spoke of him from the stage were among the power players of that time: Michael Ovitz, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dustin Hoffman. They reigned for decades. Of these, only Hoffman is still really in Hollywood. Much – some would say too much – has changed. 

“It’s a completely different entertainment business,” one retired executive told me at the memorial, a man who once presided over billions of DVD revenue a year for his studio. 

I’ll leave that determination up to the experts. For the next two days, our job is to sort the signal from the deafening noise of change. We hope you enjoy the journey. 

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