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Futurist Alvin Toffler Talks With Neal Sperling About The Ever-Changing Hollywood Landscape
Neal Sperling

Future Shock:

An Interview With Alvin Toffler

Futurist Alvin Toffler has made a career of looking into the future and predicting how business trends will unfold.And with his wife, Heidi, he’s co-authored several books on the subject including Future shock, The Third Wave, Power shift, and Creating a New Civilization.The Tofflers foresaw the explosive rise of the computer as far back as the early 1960s and lectured about virtual reality, electronic “agents,” and today’s electronic networks decades before they appeared in the marketplace or the media.

A formidable business thinker, Toffler’s impact comes not simply from spotting changes, but from setting them into a coherent framework, providing both readers and listeners with a powerful tool for thinking about the future.Because of this, Neal Sperling invited Toffler to talk about how he sees the future of the entertainment industry unfolding—especially in light of the current atmosphere of merger mania— and how he thinks the power shift might affect writers.

Neal Sperling:

In your (1988) book, The Third Wave, you talked about the emerging demassi fication of the media.In your follow-up book, Power shift, you talked about how corporations would increasingly focus on niche markets.Noted Hollywood historical writer Neal Gabler has argued that we are now on the cusp of Hollywood’s “third revolutionary cycle,” whereby power has shifted in past decades from exhibitors, to stars, to agencies, and back to studios. And studios are actually now “massi fying” and consolidating their assets—from books to videos, merchandise to theme parks—under one roof, to establish greater “brand awareness” in an increasingly competitive global market.What’s going on here? Why the apparent contradiction?

Alvin Toffler:

One of the key ideas in our theory of The Third Wave is that you can have more than one wave moving through a society or economy at the same time.We believe that the Third Wave is on its way, but that the Second Wave is still playing itself out.[There is now] a giant mass market that is basically taking advantage of this fact, taking advantage of the breakdown of the Soviet bloc and these other new markets that have emerged… What Second Wave companies want to do is sell their existing product to these other parts of the world… As long as [these companies] are essentially selling into the Second Wave, or to The market in industrial regions, they can get away with it.But as countries, in turn, begin to feel the impact of the Third Wave, or information revolution, the markets in them increasingly demand customization.In fact, many of them now are.The Third Wave brings more diversity in everything from manufactured goods to art styles.That’s why no one believes in mass political parties.But instead, we get thousands of single-issue groups.

Do you think, then, that media consolidation is really more of a responsive trend than part of a larger evolutionary cycle?

It’s a backward trend.It’s going to go away.I do understand the idea of spreading a brand name [because] a brand is one of the few intangibles on a balance sheet that accountants will pay attention to.Whereas ideas, and information, are ignored, both by accountants and economists.So that means that companies with a big brand name like Coca-Cola have an enormous intangible asset.But companies that produce software, that produce ideas, may not.Their intangible assets are undervalued.So there is pressure to make the most of a brand.It makes perfectly good sense given today’s accounting.

As to mega mergers, I believe we’re heading into a season, maybe four or five years from now, of divestitures.These big mega media corporations that have tried to take advantage of “synergy”—which is one of the slipperiest concepts in all of business jargon—for the most part are going to be disappointed. What they are doing is vertically integrating at a time when the rest of the economy is moving away from vertical integration.The Second Wave company was probably profitable, and vertically integrating [may have initially] improved its circumstances.However, in today’s world, a vertically integrated company, even where it may gain some synergy, loses ground because it becomes slower to respond to changing market circumstances.It becomes bureaucratic, highly centralized, not very agile.It becomes a sitting duck.A dinosaur.

That’s interesting because there’s a growing concern among writers that the increased concentration of power in the hands of studios and their merchandising departments will essentially sound the death knell for the lower budget, independent film—and that this will ultimately stifle vital reflections of our cultural diversity.I take it you don’t agree.

No, it’s the reverse, depending on what time horizon we use.We’re going to see additional technologies drive the costs of production way, way down.And the more you lower the costs of production, the more variety and diversity the system will generate.The reason you have these gigantic mega deals and mega merchandising deals is because it’s terribly expensive to make films and to make money.And I believe that eventually costs are not going to be cut by 5 percent, or 10 percent, but that they’re going to be cut far more drastically. The day of the star who gets $20 million for crashing through broken glass will never vanish because there will always be a market for that.But I also think such roles will become far less important.And the reason for that is that the star will come into the studio, be told to stand over here, raise an arm, lower a leg, smile, grimace, and go home.And the computer will interpolate all the other motions necessary.So instead of the fervor for homogenization of output, we’re going to see a greater diversification of output.

With respect to that diversification of output—new media,New technologies, CD-ROM, the Internet—in your opinion, where do you think the most promising outlets for writers, both economically and artistically, are likely to emerge within the next 10 years? Where should content creators be focused?

I don’t know the answer to that question anymore than Bill Gates does because things are, in fact, in a period of chaotic growth.So it’s not linear.And little inputs can create huge outputs in what happens down the line.Clearly, the sensible thing to do is to try to produce works that are independent of platform, that are capable of exploitation on any particular technological platform.

The rate of technological change is so rapid, that forecasting the outcome is extremely difficult, if not completely impossible.These giant companies betting billions and merging based on certain assumptions about technology are essentially flying blind.I also think that a lot of these big mergers are essentially ego-driven… My wife and I spend time trying to understand where things are going, but when you’re in the middle of an explosion, it is not linear and a great deal of chance and individual personality play a bigger than usual role.So I would not put billions down to buy some company on the basis of a technological forecast at this moment.

What would you say is the most important point writers and producers need to understand, and perhaps the most important skills they’ll need to develop, if they’re to face the future with confidence?

Well, one set of skills that any writer needs, whether you’re dealing in the past or in the future, is craft skills…And [what with] working collaboratively on multi-zillion dollar products, where everybody is biting their fingernails, and the writer gets pushed aside very often…there are precious few good movies and not a lot of really stylish writing.The point is, there are some really wonderful films that are intellectually impoverished.I’ll give you an example. There was a movie many years ago about the British General Chinese Gordon, who fought fanatic Islamic troops.The movie was beautiful.And the desert scenes were Wonderful Gordon was killed, and for years I wondered what the hell that was all about.Years later, [having read] a biography about Chinese Gordon, I knew that the British were essentially being imperialistic and colonialistic. But there was something I didn’t know.Gordon was there to suppress the slave trade.Now, it would not have taken more than one line to put that whole beautiful piece of work into some kind of perspective.But that line was missing.I assume—not having done movie scripts— that some producer, some studio executive, or whomever, said: “Move it along…we can’t afford that one line.”

Apart from writing skills and a mad “eye,” you obviously also need to be a reasonably good entrepreneur.A business person.Because you’re surrounded by companies. You have to understand deals.You have to understand taxes.There are all kinds of things freelance entrepreneurs need to know.And writers who despise this as mere commerce get eaten for breakfast.That’s even true in book publishing, but it’s got to be especially true in movies and TV where the financial risks on projects are usually far greater.

What about technological skills?

I don’t think you have to be a technologist.I don’t think you should be expected to know all the bits and bytes—the jungle of acronyms and the latest, hottest, coolest software.But you do need a general understanding of what’s possible.The economics you must consider.But if you write a sonnet, and somebody changes a comma, it also changes that whole sonnet.The same is true with technology.All of these individual technical innovations add up to a revolution—a total change.So if I want to forecast where technology is going, I can’t just look at a particular technology.Particular technologies don’t make revolutions.It’s the convergence of technologies that make revolutions.I used to share a platform with a gangly, unknown guy by the name of Ted Turner.And we’d go to cable conventions, tell people that there was going to be cable television.The ad agencies were all saying they would never invest in such a minor medium.What Turner realized is that he could put two technologies together.Once he had the idea to shoot his programs from Atlanta up to a satellite, then back down to cable stations, he opened a fantastic market for himself.

The same is true here.Whether it’s CD-ROM or online games, you have to look at clusters, the convergence of technologies.A lot is going to depend on whether we move more toward the network computer.Are we going to be satisfied to download from central resources? Are we going to insist on having our own applications? How do we solve the encryption problem, which I regard as extremely serious? Anybody who’s not paranoid with respect to their own files is being naive.And then there’s the matter of electronic commerce.How do creators get paid for this stuff?As for myself, I’m interested in interactive public games.Games with some kind of political or intellectual content.

The current buzzword is “edutainment.” It’s one of the few modern catchphrases you didn’t coin.

Yes, and that’s terrific.One ought to look at Glen Jones, at Inter cable, and his Mind Extension University. There’s going to be a tremendous market for writers—if there isn’t already—in training and education.Not just for what will go into our schools, but what will go into our homes.

It’s such a paradox.Because as markets become more fractionalized, they’ll create more opportunities.But the opportunities will pay less because of…

Smaller markets.Yes, that’s generally true.Though not always.In a funny way, the electronic revolution was foreshadowed by what happened in print.You used to have mass magazines.A few of them still survive.But now you’ve got more and more special interest magazines, thousands and thousands of new publications, which cater to smaller markets.And if you write for some highly specialized magazine, chances are you’re not going to get the same amount as if you were to write for, say, Reader’s Digest.

Writers in particular have long complained about the lack of respect they feel they’ve gotten from the business powers that have acquired control of the industry.Do you feel that this fraction alization may create more opportunities for recognition and respect for those writers who successfully demonstrate their talents?

We’re going to have fewer mass celebrities and more niche celebrities. I don’t know who the world’s greatest surfer is, but every surfer in the world knows him.This will increasingly apply to writers as well.There’s a wonderful book by Arthur C. Clarke, which came out in the ’60s, called Profiles of the Future. In his opening chapter, Clarke says that whenever a distinguished gray-haired scientist says that something is impossible, don’t you believe it.
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