The Silo Effect
What happens when movies become content? Their audience splinters, if they have any audience at all.
Back in January 2020, the documentary Boys State emerged from the Sundance Film Festival with the top prize in the nonfiction competition and a $12 million with Apple TV+, which had just launched its service two months before. No one had ever paid that much for a documentary before—it bested another political doc, Knock Down the House, which Netflix bought for $10 million on the rising-star status of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—and for sensible reasons. If you look at the top-grossing documentaries of all time, only 31 have made more than $12 million at the box office and that’s after marketing costs and other expenses. (Many of the biggest grossers are Disneynature docs, too, which are a category all their own.) Under normal circumstances, no sane executive could expect nonfiction to do blockbuster numbers unless it’s some odd cultural phenomenon, like monogamous penguins or a PowerPoint presentation on climate change. You make modest bets and hope for the occasional breakthrough.
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies. While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability
When I finally caught up with Boys State at the True/False Film Festival that March, the gamble seemed a little less ridiculous. I saw it at the festival’s largest venue, the Missouri Theater, and even in a slightly-less-packed house than usual—the coming pandemic had scared a sliver of attendees aways—the response to the film was electric. Within this portrait of the Texas Boys State camp, a week-long workshop where a thousand teenage boys model a representative government from scratch, you could witness the primordial stew of American politics, animated by idealism, opportunism, and raw masculinity. With the presidential election coming later in the year, the film seemed like a vital conversation piece, and certain figures from it, like Steven Garza, a soft-spoken and even-tempered progressive with subtle political talent, looked destined to become stars.
It didn’t happen. The pandemic scuttled whatever plans Apple might have had to give Boys State some theatrical life, but that was never the point of overbidding that much on the film. It was about populating the platform with content. All of those words make me shudder with recognition a bit: The content maw on media sites like the two I used to help edit, The A.V. Club and The Dissolve, is like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, endless in its appetite for more fresh blood. At the beginning of a site or platform’s existence, especially, there needs to be enough of a catalog to lure subscribers—and Apple, not having a Disney or Warner Brothers archive to plunder, had to open up its bottomless wallet. Boys State was a foundational piece of its business model: Apple TV+ may have far fewer titles than its competitors, but it would be carefully curated.
But what does that mean for Boys State? It means it virtually doesn’t exist.
I’ve thought about Boys State a lot during election seasons and political events since. When the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, for example, the sentiments I expressed in this Letterboxd capsule came to mind again:
What I kept thinking about, as I watched these boys fold politics into displays of unfettered masculinity, is the issue of reproductive rights. Such decisions get made easily and thoughtlessly without women in the room.
But nothing happened when Boys State came out, other than it appearing on Apple TV+, where you can currently visit it for $4.99 a month or $6.99 a month starting in early December. Last year’s Best Picture winner CODA is there, too, along with Sofia Coppola film On the Rocks, which also more or less doesn’t exist. (I’m a Coppola fan, and find that film a low-key pleasure, but I still had to look up the title.)
That’s the grim reality we occupy now, when films are made or acquired, then placed in these silos that some can access and many don’t. The good news for independent filmmakers is that it’s the new gold rush, the biggest boon for Sundance since the explosion of pseudo-indie “boutique” labels like Fox Searchlight and (my favorite) Warner Independent Pictures in the mid-‘90s. Then as now, we can sense that these are unsustainable business models—a boom that will eventually go bust—but at least in the past, there would be a motive to give the films themselves some kind of robust theatrical life. You would at least know that they existed, even if they fell short of the exorbitant cash spent during a bidding war.
There was a time I wished the obsession with box office reporting would go away—or at least fuck off to the business section—but that wish has been granted on a monkey’s paw. We don’t have any idea what constitutes “success.” Platforms rarely release their streaming numbers and when they do, it’s only to trumpet the films that are a hit with subscribers. Even then, what does it mean when millions of people stream (or partially stream) a title on a service they’re already paying for—perhaps an increase in new subscribers, but that can be hard to quantify, too. When films get folded into an overall business strategy—such as populating a new platform or expanding one like the Roku Channel—they become content. And on the web, content quickly turns ephemeral.
And those are just the high-profile titles. It’s easy to pick on Apple TV+, because it’s relatively small, but there’s a level of care that goes into selecting and marketing their films that’s nonexistent on a site like Netflix, which is a weekly firehose of content. For every The Gray Man or Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, there are dozens of low-investment, niche-driven titles that are so haphazardly released that you have to do a search for them on their virtual opening day. There was a time when I was writing “streaming reviews” for The New York Times, and it took a surprising amount of effort just to get access to the smaller films Netflix was acquiring, which isn’t typically an issue with the Times. The best film I ever reviewed for them, a first-time feature from Germany called Alles Ist Gut (“All is Well”), might have triggered a critical conversation about living with sexual assault, but it made so small an impression that its Rotten Tomatoes page is a 404 error and it has a grand total of two user ratings on Google. (It’s still here if you want to see it.)
Currently, filmmakers have to accept the devil’s bargain of securing distribution from platforms that toss their work into the daily churn and viewers have to choose which silos they can afford to visit. Even then, it can be hard even to know that a great film like Alles Ist Gut is sitting in the deep recesses of a behemoth like Netflix, which could barely be bothered to return an email request for The New York Times to review it. Everything is decentralized and discombobulated, and there’s no evidence that the model even works for the corporations themselves. For now, Boys State is left to a strange target audience: People who just bought a new Apple product and have a free half-year subscription to it. The rest will have to manage their budget.
I wonder if this only gets worse as streaming platforms crack down on password sharing. I currently have access to almost all major platforms through a patchwork of friend/family wheeling and dealing ("ok, I'll pay for Netflix and share my login, you pay for HBO and share yours..."). If I had to limit myself to services I'm actually willing to pay for personally, about half of those disappear. Or I need to start more aggressively rotating every 3-6 months, ugh.
IMO a huge part of Apple's problem is that they want to be the platform where you buy/rent media, so it's weirdly difficult to sift out what's free vs paid. Their free options are limited in comparison to almost all the other platforms, so it's often a very frustrating experience to find their content- much as I've enjoyed many of their shows (Loot, so charming! Bad Sisters, so well done! Physical, occasionally grueling but finding its footing!).
I keep wondering if this is the future of all types of media. The Internet was supposed to mean having everything imaginable at one’s fingertips, but now (unless you have the budget not to be choosy) it just means taking a stab at guessing which firehose will have the water most worth drinking. Awful for creators and awful for their potential audiences.