Disney, Hulu, and the Death of the Soviet Superstars

In 1965, 69.6 million people saw a single movie: Operation Y. I’ve seen Operation Y, and it’s not very good. It had its moments, but overall it’s nothing special.

What is special is the scope. It was the biggest-budget movie in Russia, and their cinema system was not exactly designed to accommodate lots of independent studios pushing edgy new stuff. So Operation Y, a not especially great movie, turned into a Russian cultural touchstone, because nobody in Russia could avoid the movie, or avoid people who had seen the movie and hadn’t seen anything better in a long, long time.

Every time I see a new, big-budget movie, or read a long feature article in a magazine, I think about Operation Y. That kind of breadth and ubiquity is only possible with captive markets and monopolistic pricing. Whoever made the one huge movie in Russia that year could make it as grandiose as he wanted — the budget basically rounded up to the nearest infinity.

American studios don’t have that, but they have something close: with high upfront costs, byzantine distribution, and tough IP laws, they had the same power to be dull and extravagant.

We’ve been drifting away from that for a long time, as it gets harder and harder for studios to capture a set number of dollars for every viewer. As the economics of the business deteriorate, they have to focus less on the brassy, bombastic hits, and more on fare with a narrower appeal. One result is that the average movie watcher will be happier. Another is that some day surprisingly soon, big-budget movies will look as anachronistic as leather-bound books.

The news that Disney is taking a stake in Hulu is a reminder that our own Operation Y days are over. Disney is funding a company that will push Disney’s own content, for much less than Disney would otherwise make on it. Hulu doesn’t just undersell Disney: it lets viewers change their habits, in a way that will kill Disney’s revenue. This kind of deal might be the only way they can survive, but if they do, they’ll be unrecognizable.

Goodbye, giant budgets.

Goodbye, lowering the lowest common denominator.

Kiss Big Ugly Media goodbye: Operation Y

(Incidentally, Operation Y had an even more popular sequel, about marriage by capture, also known as bridal kidnapping, also known as rape plus a get-out-of-jail-free-and-get-a-wife-too card. It’s a comedy.)