Should movies be seen in theaters, at least in their first runs, or are they just as good when they premiere on the home screen? To put that question in business jargon terms, should movies continue to be bundled to theaters, or should they be unbundled to appear anywhere—even on a tiny-screened smart phone?
That’s the big fight in Hollywood right now: to bundle or not to bundle? It’s a question that has implications for just about everything, including politics.
In Hollywood, the torch of bundled traditionalism is being upheld by Steven Spielberg. The filmmaking legend was triggered when Roma, a movie from Netflix, the Internet streaming company, won three Oscars, including for best director.
Spielberg, upholding a new kind of cultural conservatism, maintains that Netflix movies should not be eligible for the annual awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As one of his flacks put it, “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation.”
Of course, as observers have pointed out, the idea of a motion picture has always been in, well, motion. That is, from amateurish shorts made for storefront nickelodeons, to dream factory productions premiering in luxurious movie palaces, to made-for-TV movies, to direct-to-video VCRs and DVDs, and now to streaming networks capable of greenlighting nine-figure movies, the only constant has been the desire to be entertained.
So we can see: over the last 120 years, motion pictures have been bundled into many different distribution platforms, only then to be unbundled—and then bundled into new kinds of platforms. It’s a seesaw, as new technologies tip the balance back and forth, from bundling to unbundling.
Back in the ’90s, Internet venture capitalist Jim Barksdale made the point that the bundling-unbundling continuum serves as a kind of schematic template for just about every business process. As he said, “There’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling.”
To illustrate Barksdale’s point, we can observe that computers started out, in the mid-20th century, as bundled; that is, IBM bundled both hardware and software into its computers. Then came Microsoft, which unbundled: you would buy your computer hardware from, say, Dell, but you would buy your software from Bill Gates.
Meanwhile, there was Apple, which had always insisted on bundling its hardware and software into a proprietary closed system. Then Apple chose to unbundle. It developed the iPhone, including the App Store, which was unbundling to the max—and thereby opened itself up to thousands, even millions, of companies, each with its own software that could be loaded onto a smartphone.
Indeed, we can apply Barksdale’s concept of bundling and unbundling to just about everything in business. At any given time, companies and industries are either consolidating or unconsolidating, gobbling up or spinning off. It’s a process right out of Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season…a time to break down, and a time to build up.”
Thus there can never be a right answer to the bundling-unbundling question; it’s better thought of as a never-ending game of leapfrog. One moment, the bundlers are in the ascendancy; the next, the unbundlers have the edge.
So now to politics, which sees the same back-and-forth. In the sub-world of campaign finance, “bundlers” are well known as those fundraisers who gather up campaign contributions and give them to candidates in bulk so as to maximize the impact—and to maximize the credit given to the bundler.
Yet more broadly, political coalitions are also all about bundling and unbundling. For instance, once upon a time, the Democratic Party was an odd bundle of Southern white Protestants and Northern Catholics. The issues dividing the two groups were profound, including Prohibition: the Southerners were mostly “dry,” while the Northerners were mostly “wet.” About the only thing the two factions could agree upon was that they both liked the Republicans less. And so through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Democrats’ improbable bundle stayed bundled.
Of course, one could make the same point about the old Republican Party: it was also a strange bedfellows bundle, including railroad tycoons and poor blacks.
Yet by the 1960s, the two political bundles were unbundling themselves. Broadly speaking, over the last half-century, the Old Right has become the New Left, while the Old Left has become the New Right. Thus, New England, once the citadel of Yankee Republicanism, is now the home of multicultural progressivism. And the working class precincts of the Midwest and South, the former heart of the New Deal, have gone Trumpy.
Once again, this process of bundling and unbundling is never-ending. Today’s Democrats are a bundle that includes Wall Street, Silicon Valley, social justice warriors, and Washington Post-friendly neocons, while the GOP has bundled Christians, gun owners, libertarians, and populists.
Are either of these coalitions happy and stable? Of course not, although for the time being, at least, their revulsion at the other side is keeping them together.
Or should we say, mostly keeping together. In the 2018 elections, many suburbanites, long a key strand in the Republican bundle, chose to unbundle themselves from the GOP and bundle themselves to the Democrats. But will people in the ‘burbs stay bundled to the Democrats even if, say, Bernie Sanders gets the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination? Or, to put the question another way, will moderate Democrats in Congress choose to unbundle themselves from national Democrats deemed too left-wing or otherwise extreme?
In the meantime, Republicans are making an effort at unbundling the other side and bundling up themselves. As this author has noted, in launching a new campaign to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide, the Trump administration is trying to loosen the allegiance of LGBTQs to the Democratic Party.
And we might point to another Republican opportunity: Asian Americans. Over the last few decades, they have been bundled—seemingly as a matter of bureaucratic convenience by federal box checkers—into the category of “minority” and from there to “people of color.” And in fact, the vast majority of Asian-American elected officials are Democrats. Indeed, progressive strategists see Asians as a part of the majority-minority “Coalition of the Ascendant.”
Yet is this bundling into the Democratic Party really the final word for Asian Americans?
One flashpoint issue is quotas in schools. By now it’s become commonplace that elite colleges and universities discriminate against high-achieving Asian students. And it’s becoming equally obvious that the same thing is happening in some K-12 systems.
Such discrimination is perhaps most notable in New York City, where leftist Mayor Bill DeBlasio has been working hard to undo the meritocratic excellence of selective public schools. And so Wai Wah Chin’s March 2 op-ed in The New York Post, headlined “The mayor’s new scheme for top NYC schools is illegal and racist,” might serve to unbundle some of those currently in the Democratic bundle.
Of course, in politics, there’s no law that says that those who find themselves unbundled from one party must then bundle themselves into the other party. That is, it’s always possible that the unbundled could form themselves into a new bundle—a third party. That’s what has happened recently in the United Kingdom, where a handful of disaffected Members of Parliament have unbundled themselves from both Labour and the Conservatives and bundled themselves into The Independent Group.
To be sure, such indie movements, on both sides of the Atlantic, tend to be short-lived: typically new party bundles are but a way-station on a particular group’s migration from one extant bundle to the other. Yet still, every century or so, a new party does emerge, and such a volatile time as this has surely inspired unbundlers of all stripes.
Yes, whether it’s the movies or politics—or just about anything else, from religions to trade associations to garden clubs—the bundlers and the unbundlers are always busy.
One likes to think that this never-ending process is a sign of progress—although, of course, one can’t always be sure.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.