D&D & the Decline of Traditional Media
If you heard a clatter coming from the direction of the west coast earlier this week, it was probably the sound of dozens of studio executives kicking themselves for their own myopia. To understand why, though, we need to back up a few years.
As I’ve written about before here on Cineluxe, one of my favorite TV shows isn’t a TV show at all. It’s Critical Role, a weekly livestream of a Dungeons & Dragons home game, played by eight best friends (shown above) who also happen to be professional voice actors. You may not know all of their faces, but you definitely know their voices, whether you’ve played Overwatch or the most recent Spider-man game on PS4, or perhaps watched Marvel’s current slate of cartoons, or even NBC’s popular crime drama Blindspot.
Their home game started in 2012, and they began streaming it online in 2015, meaning there were three years’ worth of story that we viewers never got to see. So, the cast decided they’d like to adapt some of those early adventures into an animated special.
Honestly, this is the sort of gold mine that any studio exec should have leapt at. It’s hard to pin down exactly how many people watch the show every week, since it streams on
Twitch, then airs on demand on that platform and YouTube. On the latter alone, though, the first episode of the current campaign has been streamed 3.8 million times to date, and that’s not even its primary channel of distribution. Until recently it was also available on Legendary’s Project Alpha streaming service, but when Critical Role severed ties with that corporate entity a few weeks back, the service closed its doors forever.
Collect the numbers from various streaming services, though, and account for the fact that Critical Role’s viewer base is growing every day, and it’s pretty fair to guesstimate that the show’s fan base is at least on par with something like AMC’s The Walking Dead. But for some reason, while TWD is considered as mainstream as mainstream gets, Critical Role is still relegated to geeky niche status, due to the establishment bias that permeates the entertainment industry.
As of this week, though, that perception has to change. Unable to strike a deal with a studio, the cast of Critical Role decide to crowdfund their animated special via Kickstarter.
The goal was $750,000, which they zoomed past in minutes. Only two previous Kickstarters have managed to make it to the $1,000,000 mark faster. And as I write this, on the second day of the campaign, the project has already gathered more than $4,500,000 in pledged funding—six times its original goal. What was planned as a 22-minute special is now a multi-part mini-series. And with 44 days left to go in the campaign, the projections for how much it could raise when all is said and done are mind-bogglingly insane (not to mention highly unlikely, given that many potential funders were sitting on the Kickstarter homepage, F5ing it in anticipation of the project launching).
If this isn’t a massive indication of just how much the media landscape has forever changed, I don’t know what is. We at Cineluxe applaud companies like Netflix and Amazon for taking risks on shows and movies that old corporate media monoliths never would have greenlit, and we’ll continue to do so. But even those streaming platforms are simply tweaking the old studio playbook. And look, I’m not saying that the corporate suits at the big studios should have predicted that a Critical
Role cartoon would be this successful. Even the cast of the show has been stupefied by its success. What I’m saying is that literally anyone paying attention should have known that it would, at the very least, be financially lucrative.
I do have concerns about all of this. For one thing, the history of Kickstarter is littered with scams and failures—projects that were successfully funded and never delivered. I don’t have that worry with Critical Role, but I think this campaign is going to spawn bushels of imitators who have an idea and circumvent the studio system in attempt to get funding, only to find they’ve bitten off more than they can
chew. Or that their idea only sounds good on paper. The gatekeepers of old may have kept audiences from seeing any number of potentially amazing movies and TV shows because they simply didn’t fit inside some preconceived box. On the other hand, they also kept a lot of worthless crap from flooding the airwaves, movie shelves, and online platforms.
So, in the end, despite my excitement for this particular crowdfunding project, I’m not saying that a more decentralized media landscape is necessarily a good thing, nor necessarily a bad one. I’m simply saying that we’re quickly approaching a time in which this sort of thing is the norm. In which the gatekeepers of old have little to no power. In which movie theaters and linear TV channels are a novelty at best. In which we the people have more direct control of what movies and TV shows get produced in the first place.
And the changing nature of entertainment funding is also going to have an impact on how we consume our entertainment. Will this Critical Role cartoon end up UHD Blu-ray? Highly unlikely. Netflix or Amazon Prime? Almost certainly not. Hulu or Vudu? (Shakes Magic 8 Ball.) Outlook not so good. I’m honestly just holding out hope that it’s available in some form via the Roku Ultra streamer in my main media room.
I can say this with some certainty, though: The media room as we know it (or the home theater, or family room, or whatever you want to call it) is going to adapt to this new media landscape, not the other way around. Because there’s no way the cork is going back in this bottle.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.