The Next Big Thing…

…is never the Last Big Thing.

Hollywood is a place that monetizes imagination. Which makes one wonder why at the very highest levels, imagination is always in such short supply.

As the Last Big Thing wrapped up at HBO right before the pandemic, it was with predictable ineptness that every big streamer and studio tried to find a knockoff that would never see the same level of success. Amazon paid ridiculous sums for a sliver of Tolkien’s world. HBO looked to GoT’s past for its financial future. Meanwhile, a former comedy writer and script doctor, who had most recently blown away viewers and critics with his reenactment of the Chernobyl disaster, was quietly working on what would become the Next Big Thing.

THE LAST OF US is a triumph of storytelling, acting, production, design, costume, makeup, art, everything. It’s the rare show that I’m watching for a second time before the finale even airs. It’s generating memes galore, has us in love not just with its protagonists but also its side characters, and it’s doing it against all trends. Videogame adaptations have never been media darlings. Fantasy is where all the viewers were supposed to be. What’s predictable is this: studios will look to other game franchises and horror backgrounds, and they’ll miss the Next Big Thing while overpaying for the Last Big Thing. It’s always been this way.

My writing partner and I talked about this a year ago, while we were creating a new show for AMC. The big genre hits are cyclical. Fantasy will be king again, and probably in another cycle or two. But as much as we love whatever is huge in the moment, we need a breather. A big science fiction epic will probably be next (and no, I’m not talking about SILO, which is more post-apocalyptic than sci-fi). I’m thinking something more like LOST or THE EXPANSE. I’d put a big bet on something with a Western vibe (though maybe YELLOWSTONE just burned through the demand there).

If studios were smart, they’d stop chasing and overpaying for what’s popular NOW and look back ten or twenty years. What was a big hit that has worn off? There are new viewers around now who missed that experience, and old viewers have shuffled off or grown nostalgic. Does SUCCESSION have some of what made THE SOPRANOS so good? Is SEVERENCE tapping into the mystery of LOST?

Publishers often make the same mistake of thinking a sub-genre is “dead” when it’s really in hibernation. I remember when urban fantasy was considered a goner, but tell that to readers of the genre today who continue to gobble it up. What’s popular is often like a bitten bystander in Last of Us: it’ll look dead, but only for a moment. Then it’s back up and moving faster than ever.

The problem with studios and publishers is they are impatient in the wrong ways, unable to see the cyclical nature of what readers and viewers want. They are also unimaginative in the worst ways, assuming that what’s popular today will be what we crave tomorrow. The truth is that we are predictable … but we need a break. When Hollywood figures this out, we’ll get more of what we love without it feeling like the same thing, over and over. And they’ll get to pay a lot less for it.

8 responses to “The Next Big Thing…”

  1. I love this perspective. It certainly works with regard to books as well as screen success. Applies to some degree in music as well. “Everything old is new again.”

  2. Totally spot on. The Last of Us is sooo freaking good. Whereas Rings of Power brought me to tears of laughter… I didn’t realize Tolkien had made a comedy.

  3. Hugh, I agree with your analysis of the general entertainment industry at large… film, tv, books, scripts, etc…
    For an industry that purportedly thrives on presenting “creative & imaginative” new avenues for entertainment, the industry’s so-called purveyors are incredibly myopic and unimaginative. That said, I also understand that with the financial hurdles required to produce and market a top level show, there is very little room, or tolerance, for experimental failures.

  4. Reading your post is gratifying to at least one person who has contempt for fashion and trends, i.e., the next new new big big thing.

  5. Beautifully written (as ever of course). Not seen The Last of Us yet but I definitely will now. Same with Succession.
    I totally agree with what you say about the need for commissioners to look back at the forgotten nuggets of two generations ago. Keep their eyes open beyond the latest fads.
    Two of my favourite shows for watching on gruelling night shifts (as a prison officer in the U.K.) were The Shield, and The Sopranos.
    Simple concepts, complex character relationships, unpredictability as to the outcome of any violent scenes – characters suddenly being killed off. Intertwined storylines. Ambiguity as to the natural reaction expected as a reader/viewer of any scene – think of the way the character of Villanelle in Killing Eve was so cleverly crafted that everyone is essentially in love with her and wants the best for her regardless of the number of brutal slayings we have witnessed her carry out.
    Same with Happy Vallley on BBC in U.K., give us the scope as consumers to think as well as watch.

  6. Hal Jay Greene Avatar

    I wish I’d written this but I didn’t, I copied out of “Entertainment Weekly” almost 25 years ago. But I loved it so much I have kept the text on my computer in one form or another ever since. Enjoy.

    They wanted a sketch show, but edgy and new, meaning no television parodies, which led to the notion that perhaps it should be all television parodies, or maybe just a parody of a sitcom, though what if it was really a sitcom, only edgy and new? It was, everyone agreed, a productive meeting.

    Sleeping on it, they realized they missed the sketch show, and wondered couldn’t it be both, a sitcom and a sketch show? With young people?

    What I cobbled together, some half-dozen years ago, was this: a bunch of loser 20-somethings share a scary Lower East Side flat in which the television set is always on. Their lives are interlaced with parodies from a 500-channel television universe — performed by the same 20-something actors. Also, and I’m not proud of this, the TV set talks.

    This lumbering Franken-concept was paraded before the studio executive who had to approve before someone higher up at the studio could give the go-ahead to bring it to the network and whichever under- and upperlings might happen to it there.

    The executive listened, then mulled.

    “What,” finger to gravid lips, “if we set it in outer space?”

    Everybody’s boss is an idiot, the comic strips teach us, so it’s unremarkable that every television writer has an executive story. Mine isn’t even particularly fresh; for the past couple of years I’ve been happily ensconced on a long-running hit show at an employment level at which my sole contact with executives is being occasionally re-introduced to them. But there is something new, and telling, to report about the state of television-executive stories: they’re not fun anymore.

    Where once the television executive was a figure of perverse quirk or sublime stupidity, he or she has become a faceless, charmless “they.” The executive is now a room lined with executives, and the punch lines are unfunny and repetitive. “Can we start the story sooner?” “Can we raise the stakes?” “Can we make the lead more rootable?” they ask interchangeably, not moron so much as joylessly correct automaton. The nutty executive has been replaced by coldblooded execution en masse.

    There are any number of logical theories to explain the bureaucratic swarming — Chinese-box conglomeration, network ownership by parts manufacturers, panic, the standard disease model — but still, it’s an amazing thing to see. It is not unusual these days for a television series creator to have to answer to 10 or more executives — from both the studio that owns the series and the network that is buying it — each of whom, in Hollywood’s selective egalitarianism, have equally valid opinions. These come in a flurry of “notes,” pointing out where the writer might have accidentally done something that hasn’t already been proved to work or forgotten to do something that has. We just don’t want you, the executive squad must patiently explain each time, to make a mistake. This is what is known as the Process, and has much the same effect it has on cheese.

    Blaspheme it at your peril. Last month the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors, an ad hoc group of mostly old-guard producers, complained that network executives were overmanaging, down to dictating which cameramen to hire and what music cues to play. One network executive, appropriately anonymous, responded that the caucus members were just upset that “we’re not buying enough of their ideas.”

    Perhaps it is just sour grapes, and you’ve got enough problems with your own boss to worry about the whining of the overpaid. Though it might be worth thinking about when you sit down in front of the TV after work and can’t figure out if you’re watching “Jesse” or “Maggie Winters,” or if the black couple in a suburban cul de sac is the same one you saw last week, or where this new Seinfeld Jr. came from and what happened to all the old people, or why it is becoming increasingly hard to say what’s wrong with what you’re watching other than that you don’t want to watch it. You might find yourself flipping through the channels, at one perfectly professional entertainment after another, and hoping someone, somewhere, has made a mistake.

  7. Nicole Friedrich Avatar
    Nicole Friedrich

    I’ve been thinking about how much I loved Six Feet Under…

  8. Well said! Thank you!

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