Against Content

Impassioned Odin O’Sullivan discusses the perils of considering all media, and in particular all cinema, as ‘content’

Martin Scorsese, besides being one of the worlds greatest living filmmakers, is nothing if not a loving devotee to the craft. This man loves cinema more than anything and has done innumerable things in the support of the art form. Due to this, he often comes into conflict with those who would rather consider cinema and media more generally as something simply to be consumed or as something to be acquired, something defined by its monetary value. Last year when he said the Marvel movies were “not cinema” it outraged a number of people (whose personalities are inextricably tied to watching a bunch of millionaires in tight spandex suits jumping around in three-hour-long commercials for the US Military). But the man does not miss, and recently he decried the designation of all media, cinema included, as “content.” In this article, I intend to take up where good ol’ Uncle Marty left off and flesh out why the use of the term content is so damaging to cinema and media more generally.

There have been a number of linguistic developments in the life of film, television and media. From movies to pictures, to films, from Cinema with a capital C to entertainment, and escapism, all are terms that have come to designate and describe film and television. Alongside linguistic developments, there have also been developments in form and distribution. For what is often termed the world's youngest art form, cinema, and visual media more generally, has truly gone through an extraordinary number of shifts, the largest of which is probably the rise of video on-demand, streaming services, and the internet. What was once restricted solely to the cinema became a standard of the home; first as home media (VHS, Laserdisc, DVD) and later, as a more individualised and personalised form of media consumption, the streaming service. This is not an article to decry the rise of streaming - I would see that as largely a positive development if it did not mean the destruction of brick and mortar cinemas - but instead to decry something which both streaming and internet video production has created through its homogenization; the term 'content'.

Once used in serious film studies circles, the term “content” would often be contrasted against “form” when discussing a film. Such debates still take place but it is often boiled down to the rather dismissive “all style no substance” line. The term content has since been taken up by the business world and the corporations and companies who acquired or built media empires. It has become a dehumanising catchall for the media/art/music/cinema that they own or are about to acquire. As Martin Scorsese states in his article for Harper’s Bazaar “content [has become] a business term for all moving images” and what was once used in Netflix board meetings to describe what they hosted on their site has now been quickly taken up by the general public.

One of the many corporate-speak phrases which has permeated our lives, 'content' arose in the popular lexicon as posting videos on sites like Youtube began to become a viable career path, and even served to make some people extremely wealthy. The term 'content' became a useful catch-all term for that which was not cinema and not television but instead videos posted to these sites. Often branching across the entertainment spectrum from vlogs to instructional videos to sketches, the mediascape on Youtube became so varied so quickly that a term like 'content' allowed for an easy, if simplistic, way to designate it. From this sprung the term 'content creator' the job title which came to replace the semi-childish sounding 'YouTuber'. 'Content creator' was vague enough to encompass everyone from teen Vine stars (remember Vine?) to old woodworkers giving tutorials from their garden. Its lack of specificity is a direct import from the corporate world, their insidious business-speak often working to give you the least amount of information while sounding as important as possible. 

Although the term allows for a convenient catchall, content is now such a widely used phrase that it has become the standard when discussing everything from video essays and vlogs to cinema. This collapsing of artistic designations into one formless homogenous blob of ‘content’ is something that should be resisted - not because to associate cinema with vlogging is wrong, but because they each have their own merits and exist as their own form. The forms can collide or oppose but they are different. The difference is a good thing and designating all moving image-based media as ‘content’ is an attack on the different. Streaming service giants like Netflix seem to provide access to a wide array of 'different'. Reality television series sit next to documentaries and children’s television in the “recent releases” section. But the truth is in compiling all of this media together and feeding our own tastes back to us in an algorithmic loop not only narrows the media we can watch but also lends itself to categorize it all as content. When the service provides you with a “stuff you might like” list, often replete with their own original productions which you have no real interest in, the active aspect of viewing diminishes. We are more likely to just click what is put in front of us than engage in the search for a film or show which we actually will enjoy or will challenge us. After all, if it’s all content, it's all the same, right?

Referring to all media as content systematically devalues art and the labour it took to produce it. They are reduced to commodities to be bought, traded, streamed, consumed and deleted. They become nothing more than something to pass the time with while you eat your lunch or something to put on in the background while hoovering the floors. All art has value beyond the monetary and to refer to it as content, a word so far removed from its original meaning that it might as well mean gruel, is to treat it as if it is a byproduct of corporate media giants and their mergers and acquisitions, and not something created by artists.

The branding of all media as 'content' is one of the key factors in the rise and consolidation of Disney’s near-monopoly on contemporary media. Once a company with a very specific brand and ethic (not to be confused with ethics, of which they have none) Disney has since expanded to absorb as much ‘content’ as possible like the shapeless and faceless villain it is. The designating of all media as content allows Disney to shift its focus, away from family films and animation towards anything and everything as a ‘content provider’ and streaming service. 

As the pandemic drags on and cinema’s face extends to closure, I encourage the use of streaming service, but also that you are aware of the algorithmic loop which recommends that which you’ve already seen. Wade into the wilds of Netflix and find something new and strange. Watch it actively and think about its value as cinema. Refuse to think of it as a piece of content indistinguishable from the suggestion beside it.