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    ethan gilsdorf

    Mergers threaten creativity; indies need to push back

    Istock photo/H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff

    As Hurricane Sandy marched up the coast and destroyed swaths of America last week, another force, more insidious, also crept up and altered our nation’s landscape — of creative expression.

    The announcement of two colossal mergers are shaking the foundations of the media entertainment industry. Two of the so-called “big six” publishers, Penguin and Random House, just declared their alliance. And Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm Ltd., the movie empire of George Lucas, creator of the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” film franchises. Disney immediately announced plans to make three new “Star Wars’’ movies.

    Disney has been hungry. In 2009, the company gobbled up Marvel Entertainment (home of Spider-Man, the X-Men and The Avengers); in 2006, it swallowed Pixar Animation Studios (makers of the “Toy Story” and “Cars” franchises). In 2004, Disney also snarfed up the Muppets.


    As for Random House, it is already the world’s leading trade-book publisher. The Penguin Group is a subsidiary of the world’s largest education publishing and technology company. If the merger is completed, the new beast, to be called Penguin Random House, will control one-quarter of the US book market.

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    Naturally, both deals bode well for investors, who will surely profit. But the mergers are bad news for creative types. The news should also to give pause to consumers.

    If fantasy, superhero, and science-fiction movies full of special effects is your thing, you’ll be seeing more of that from Disney-on-steroids. If you like poorly written, soft-porn novels masquerading as high literary art, this new publishing behemoth will likely churn out more of that, too.

    But if you want a more diverse ecosystem of entertainment options, these developments mean a raw deal. A Penguin Random House and a Mouse/Yoda House mean fewer choices, not more, for those in the checkout or ticket lines, as well as fewer venues for creators to get their works into the marketplace.

    Here in Boston, this is less of an issue. We are blessed with an abundance of independently minded cinemas and bookshops — all of which are not shoving the latest Hollywood tent-pole or “Fifty Shades of Dreck” down our throats. We have a community that champions the indie.


    But such is not the case elsewhere. In much of the nation, books are only purchased at chain stores and movies are consumed at cineplexes or, increasingly, online via Netflix or Amazon. Fewer players means fewer people making decisions about what to sell you. Expect your movies, books, and video games to be less original and less risky, and more safe — and to be more aimed at the mass market. The blockbuster mentality will reign even more supreme.

    It’s not only consumers who will feel their choices narrow. Authors will be hurt, too. Writers fare better when there are more buyers — more publishers — out there bidding against each other, not fewer.

    Consolidation in the film and publishing industries also means layoffs. Employees who remain will likely be asked to work harder for the same pay. Authors already complain that the major houses put their marketing efforts behind a few books groomed for stardom and practically ignore mid-list writers. With skeleton crew publicity departments, the have/have-nots situation will worsen.

    Meanwhile, editors will increasingly pick books with potential for big Hollywood payoffs; in a vicious cycle, more books will have to become blockbusters to pay back blockbuster advances. Expectations will keep rising, yet fewer books will live up to the hype, leaving writers in the lurch.

    For the non-blockbuster writer or filmmaker to succeed in this new climate, the indie spirit must push back even harder. Creatives will have to reach out and cultivate their audiences as never before. To make sure smaller stories are heard and seen, they must train the eyes and ears of the next generation to appreciate what is not embraced by the lowest common denominator.


    One possible silver lining: Lucas has promised to donate the billions from the sale of his company to education. Perhaps he can help teach consumers to understand why challenging, meaningful art is at least as valuable as the next epic franchise, remake, and sequel.

    Or, there’s this only hope: To paraphrase the Empire-defying Princess Leia, “The more you tighten your grip, the more indie artists will slip through your fingers.”

    Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” is on the board of directors at Boston’s Grub Street. He can be reaced at www.ethangilsdorf.com.