Why the future of Science Fiction will be in the Clouds

While Hollywood and the broadcast networks will continue to produce profitable films and television, the most creative and freshest material will be the domain of subscription content distribution services.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
CBS / Paramount

Welcome to another installment of Jason Perlow bites the hand that feeds him.

The response to last week's column Why Star Wars is the last movie I ever want to see in a theater was strong and divisive.

There are clearly many people who still enjoy the theater-going experience, but also many who do not, and have decided that they'd rather stay at home and use video content streaming services instead.

I'm squarely placed within the second camp.

And that's okay. The great thing about having a market economy is that you have choices.

Movie theaters, one of the few remaining institutional anachronisms of the entertainment industry (the intent was to provide cheap air conditioning plus diversion for an entire evening or afternoon during the Depression era) will continue to be popular.

Why? Because Hollywood continues to produce material that the masses want to see and will use it as the primary content distribution medium as long as the theater chains remain healthy from a financial standpoint.

(A controlling stake in ZDNet's parent company, CBS, is owned by National Amusements, a movie theater company.)

If you are a fan of Science Fiction, content oriented towards "the masses" means a lot more Star Wars and a lot more superhero movies. Although this stuff is of a fairly juvenile nature, these are franchises which are near and dear to the American public and are virtually guaranteed to make money.

Disney paid approximately $4B for Lucasfilm, and The Force Awakens has already grossed over a billion dollars in the first two weeks internationally since the film's release.

The Marvel (another $4B Disney deal) and DC (Warner) franchises are also very valuable as well -- if ticket sales of recent superhero films are any indication, both Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are expected to perform extremely well at the box office.

That's without counting all of the franchised merchandise kids and nerds will buy by the truckload for many years to come.

But what if you're sick of Star Wars and superhero movies? I think I just heard an audible gasp.

Some of us would just as easily throw all of those projects on the bonfire, like Darth Vader's corpse, if fresh new Science Fiction and Fantasy content was available instead.

There is a tremendous well of stuff, such as classic Hugo and Nebula award-winning SF novels that have never been adapted. Perhaps six decades worth of original material.

Much of it isn't likely to end up at a Hollywood studio or even on broadcast television because the plots are too complicated, making them too risky to produce or too hard to adapt into film, or are simply just too risqué in nature.

Some of these properties have been optioned for so long that they end up in development hell, jumping from director to director, screenwriter to screenwriter and studio to studio.

One such property is the 1991 uncut version of Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Landwhich is considered to be one of the finest SF works ever written. It had a screenplay done as recently as 1995, and Tom Hanks was associated with the project at one time.

Unfortunately, the uncut version of the novel is a long book with a complex plot, which would make it more ripe for a miniseries than a feature film. The novel also has a lot of adult content which would make it difficult to adapt to mainstream Hollywood or even broadcast television.

There are many others in the same boat, such as Arthur C. Clarke's 1973 novel Rendevous with Ramawhich Morgan Freeman wishes to produce. Or Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, which is now on at least its seventh script draft and had its rights transferred to Warner Brothers in May of 2015.

Not every epic SF or Fantasy novel or series that appeals to a more cerebral fan-base is going to get their break like The Lord of the Rings saga, which arguably needed to have a huge following in order to justify its titanic production expenses.

Michael Moorcock's Elric series, which is one of the best examples of modern fantasy published in the last 40 years, may not ever get the big screen treatment, despite several attempts at adaptation. Chris and Paul Weitz of American Pie fame have expressed their interest in directing it for Universal Pictures, but no news has come out about it since 2007.

It's possible these properties might end up in development hell forever. But there is hope.

There are now new outlets for more sophisticated content that did not even exist a decade ago, in the form of subscription services, via The Cloud.

Who would have thought, for example, that Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle -- a novel about an alternate reality where the United States has been conquered by the Nazis and Imperial Japan -- would ever get adapted to film let alone television successfully?

Amazon has shown that it's quite possible to take something with an extremely complex plot, produce it independently, attract viewership and get people to pay for a yearly/monthly service, provided the content is top quality.

Netflix is doing similar things with Sense8 and Knights of Sidonia, in addition to working on licensed properties such as Marvel's Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

They are also producing sophisticated, excellent non-SF content, such as Marco Polo, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black that would have previously been the sole domain of premium cable like HBO or Showtime.

Speaking of which, both traditional cable-only content providers have seen significant spikes in adoption of their streaming-only services.

The sexually explicit, violent and plot-twisting Game of Thrones is one of the few reasons why many viewers keep HBO around in the first place. They can now subscribe to it seasonally. as you don't even need a cable TV provider to get it via HBO Now.

Viacom's Spike TV recently announced that it will produce an adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy in series form, which will be penned by J, Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame.

It is going to be the most ambitious project for the basic cable content provider yet.

Could this be a prelude to Spike TV offering its own subscription streaming service with more SF series coming? I have no idea. But I like it.

(Viacom, like CBS, is also a subsidiary of National Amusements. which is owned by the Redstone family.)

Finally, there is SyFy. Once the basic cable channel of endless Sharknados and other B-movie material, it is now producing some really high quality programming such as Childhood's End, 12 Monkeys, Dark Matter and The Expanse.

Although SyFy has a streaming app like many other basic cable channels -- which require you still have a cable TV subscription -- here's hoping they give cord cutters an HBO Now-like option in 2016, now that they seem back on track after a decade of malaise. I think many people would pay to watch these shows.

Broadcast television is also branching out into streaming-only content. CBS will be producing a new Star Trek series that will premiere in 2017 on their broadcast affiliates, but it will only be available on CBS All Access after the pilot has aired.

(Okay, I'm still a sucker for Star Trek. I'll make room for one franchise in my guilty pleasures list. But I'm not buying any action figures.)

It's not just higher-quality movies and television that is ending up direct to electronic distribution, though. It's also books, the source material itself. Use the Source, Hollywood.

Over the last year, I've been enjoying a lot of new SF on Amazon's Kindle Unlimited service, which costs $9.99 per month and runs on iOS, Android and of course Kindle devices.

Much of the content is written by new authors that are direct publishing and bypassing legacy publishing houses entirely, who traditionally have been the "gatekeepers" into entering print and electronic media.

While authors can self-publish on Amazon without being included on Kindle Unlimited, and there is some new math to be learned regarding compensation, productive writers can do quite well if they participate in the service.

Prior to electronic distribution many of these authors would have had to play within the traditional legacy publishing system to get their material even considered. And like the movie and television industry, dead tree publishing is also fairly risk averse, as there's a lot of costs associated with book promotion, editing, and printing.

So authors that are producing "riskier" material or are otherwise unproven would have had a hard time getting their foot through the door.

One such SF author, A.G. Riddle, has self-published four novels and has had at least a million copies of his work sold electronically. CBS has also secured the rights to development of his content into a film.

There are other new authors which are doing extremely well due to distribution on e-books.

Jennifer Foehner Wells, who dominated the Space Opera/General SF charts on Amazon in 2014 with her breakout novel Fluency, attributes much of her new-found success to the Kindle and Kindle Unlimited platform.

My career would have been virtually impossible without direct to consumer publishing. Before I published Fluency on my own, I tried the traditional route. I couldn't get anyone to answer my queries (though I carefully jumped through all the hoops). The New York agents that deal in traditionally published science fiction weren't interested. So I turned to Kindle Direct Publishing... most of my sales are electronic. The math works out to less than half a percent are paper sales. Independent publishers can create paperback books--in fact my book is in Powell's Books.

Wells also cites that Print On Demand, which is a relatively new publishing technology, allows authors to do limited or one-off print runs for that small group of readers that desire books on paper, which is still considered prestigious.

She also attributes her success on the Kindle platform as the gateway to being able to secure a book agent -- the very same agent A.G. Riddle uses -- to get additional distribution and translation in markets overseas. Fluency was recently released in Germany and will be in Russia and Japan shortly.

Riddle, who is regarded as the new "indie hero" of direct publishing for SF writers. was able to sell his fourth novel, Departure, to a legacy publishing house due to his success with the Atlantis series. Wells, however, wants to stay independent:

Regarding legacy publishing and my own work--as things stand now, I am determined to stay independent in the United States. That is unlikely to change any time soon. Why would that be? Compensation. A successful indie--even a midlist indie--stands to make a lot more money. It's possible to make a living wage at writing, but only if you take legacy publishing out of the equation, or become as big as Stephan King. Since becoming Stephen King is unlikely to happen to most of us, it makes sense to learn to be a good business person.

Other SF authors who have been successful through the legacy publishing system, such as Rachel Aaron (who published two trilogies before going independent) have been pursuing independent e-books either as their new publishing strategy or as a way to maximize their output, as legacy publishers don't necessarily wish to publish everything even a proven author wishes to produce.

Electronic distribution and independent content creation has provided a means of self-determination for media producers and authors. It has its own challenges, to be sure, but one thing is for certain -- the future of Science Fiction is in the Clouds. And I'm looking forward to it.

How do you feel about independently produced and distributed original Science Fiction? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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