Year in Review

The Year That Broke Hollywood

Dual strikes, layoffs, and budget cuts made for a tough 2023. Can Hollywood rebuild for a more sustainable future?
The Year That Broke Hollywood
Photos from Getty Images.

“I don’t know if I’m gonna make any more money ever again,” a veteran writer told me this past winter. For the past two decades, the writer had enjoyed the spoils of an industry that rewarded hard work and talent. But, like many of his peers, he was starting to question whether Hollywood’s old models of success could sustain the next chapter of his career.

He had good reason to be worried. Moviegoing had waned during the pandemic and cable TV ratings were continuing their decline. Streaming was supposed to be Hollywood’s silver bullet. Instead, it created even more chaos. And so, on May 2, this writer and more than 11,000 other scribes began what we all now know would become the second-longest strike in the history of the Writers Guild of America. When the actors followed, they plunged the industry into a near complete shutdown, the effects of which are still being felt more than a month after that strike’s end.

It’s not a coincidence, of course, that the first dual strike in over 60 years happened in the same year that entertainment’s biggest companies laid off thousands of workers, rethought their streaming strategies, and slashed their programming budgets. These moves were all symptoms of a course correction that the industry has been hurtling toward for years.

When the sun rises on the New Year and people stumble back to their offices after winter breaks spent skiing in Aspen, they’ll be returning to a very different Hollywood, one that’s a little smaller, more budget conscious, and less willing to take risks. Disney has already said it plans to cut its content budget by $2 billion in 2024, and early indications suggest that the total number of scripted shows released during the year will be down significantly from their peak of 599 in 2022. Even a top TV agent who tends to be preternaturally optimistic couldn’t entirely paper over the bad news, telling me, “It’s a necessary setback to reset for the next chapter.”

Not long ago Hollywood felt like it was in an era of endless possibility. The tech giants washed up on Southern California’s gleaming shores with so much cash and such an insatiable hunger for star power that it birthed a creative renaissance. Suddenly a website best-known for cheap, fast toilet paper delivery was producing smart, provocative shows like Fleabag. And the company that made us all iPhone addicts was encouraging us to question our devotion to work with Severance.

But the streaming gold rush ended. Saddled with debt thanks in part to their gargantuan investments into platforms like Max, Disney+, and Paramount+, the legacy studios are now removing once popular shows from their services, relying on broadcast hits to boost streaming viewership, and even licensing classics to their rivals. First, HBO sci-fi epic Westworld began streaming on Tubi and Roku. Now, Disney has said it’ll give This Is Us, Lost, and ESPN’s 30 for 30 series to Netflix.

As much a result of the strikes as a pullback in spending that began earlier, this was also the year that audiences likely got a taste of Hollywood’s new reality. Tentpole and Oscar movies alike became more sparse, and it felt like we went weeks between buzzy new releases. Instead, viewers flocked to old episodes of Suits on Netflix. And when insiders start talking about what television will look like in the future, they tend to use buzzwords like “fiscal rigor” and “elevated popcorn.” On the surface, those don’t sound like terrible things, but as showrunner Andy Greenwald said in a recent episode of his television podcast, The Watch, “I’m worried that we broke something.” He points out that the shows that defined the golden age of TV—the one directly before streaming crashed the party—like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and even Game of Thrones “don’t fit any algorithmic box. They don’t scratch some corporate itch. They don’t come without risk or a little bit of fear about whether this is going to work or not.”

Sure, there have been promising signs of life in Hollywood this year. Barbenheimer became the phenomenon that the movie business needed it to be. The writers’ and actors’ long fights ultimately resulted in important pay raises, the promise of more success-based streaming payments, and protections around the use of AI. And there were a delirious few weeks of dealmaking after the strikes ended. “I am very much looking forward to what is to come and feeling extremely bullish,” says the TV agent, underscoring what I’ve heard many others in the industry say: that perhaps it’s okay for there to be fewer but better shows in the marketplace. “I’ve begun to feel that the winnowing and the contraction that’s obviously underway is probably necessary.”

The best indication yet that everything might, in fact, turn out alright is Netflix, which after a rough early 2022 that sent the whole streaming industry into turmoil, rebounded this year, adding nearly 8.8 million global subscribers during the otherwise dismal strike-plagued third quarter. Even Bob Iger, who’s had a particularly rough year, struck an optimistic tone about 2024 in a town hall with Disney employees in November, telling them, “I feel that we’ve just emerged from a period of a lot of fixing to one of building again.”

But it’s hard not to look back on this year and feel like Hollywood, adrift without the mooring of the systems that worked for so many decades, has lost its sense of direction. The agent tells me that he hopes the industry is experiencing “a sort of breaking down that results in a new formation.” And while it’s true that Hollywood does need to rebuild itself for a more sustainable future, here’s hoping it doesn’t lose sight of its North Star: that audiences don’t care what the data says, they just want good stories.