Has TV Killed the Movies?

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As Labor Day approaches, most of us past the age of consent are realizing we’ve been denied one of the season’s sweetest pleasures: that great summer film that everyone’s talking about.  It was left to television to produce 2016’s only terrific summer movie, “Stranger Things,”an homage to the great films of the ‘80s. Unfortunately it wasn’t shown in an actual cinema, but only on Netflix.

Film was the great mass communication medium during the first half of the 20th century, with the average American attending two to three movies per week.  The introduction of television in the 1950s dealt Hollywood a body blow, stripping away its monopoly on visual entertainment and significantly cutting into movie attendance.

But early TV didn’t kill the movies.  If anything, by drawing away viewers interested only in mindless entertainment, TV did cinema the favor of making it a more serious and ambitious medium.  For Baby Boomers, going to movies in the ‘70s and ‘80s was akin to attending the opera or the museum a century earlier, and going to a summer movie with your friends was a rite of passage.

Well, that was then.  By the time 2016 rolled around, the major movie studios had almost abandoned any hope of attracting adult audiences.  To the extent there are still serious movies, they are generally produced by independent film companies and shown in art houses to discerning but small audiences, or released at Christmas so they can be eligible for the Academy Awards.

For the last dozen years or so, Hollywood’s business model has been to create blockbusters that generate hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.  To get a blockbuster, you need to attract repeat viewing, which has generally meant developing movies for teens or kids who are eager to get out of the house (it’s no coincidence that the groups most likely to go to the movies also watch the least amount of TV).

There was a time when blockbusters meant exciting original content (“Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” etc.) Today the industry is fixated on franchises, remakes or sequels.  So it’s no surprise that the top 10 movies of the year to date are literal or figurative cartoons (i.e., animation or action movies based on comic books.)  What’s a little bit of a surprise, however, is that box office receipts are down from last year.  Maybe even kids and teens have had their fill of sub-par films.

Is television to blame for this sorry state of affairs?  Has it finally finished off what it started in the 1950s?

In some respects, TV didn’t kill cinema. The film industry itself committed suicide.  No one forced Hollywood to stop making movies that appeal to adults.

And yet you can’t help feeling that much of the talent and energy that would have gone into making general-appeal movies 20 years ago is now focused on TV.  The best blockbuster of the year is not “Captain America.”  It’s “Game of Thrones.”  And the best horror experience is “The Walking Dead.”  And the best documentary is ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America.”

Hollywood’s fate may have been doomed by the artistic and commercial success of “The Sopranos,” which demonstrated there was a mature audience hungry for adult storytelling.  Soon thereafter, Alan Ball, who had won a screenwriting Academy Award for “American Beauty,” took his talents to HBO to produce “Six Feet Under.”  A decade later, David Fincher, the Oscar-nominated director for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network,” created and produced “House of Cards” for Netflix.  We’ve reached a point where Martin Scorsese, the world’s greatest living director, is now doing occasional TV work, directing the series premieres for both “Boardwalk Empire” and “Vinyl.”

But what’s really drained Hollywood has been the renaissance of the TV mini-series and the anthology series.   Hugely popular in the 1970s and 80s, with such shows as “Roots,” “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War,” these self-contained, multi-episode TV shows have returned with a vengeance.  Mini-series were once a rare and special TV event, but have now become a regular part of the TV diet.

It’s the mini-series that is really drawing star power to television.  Major movies stars like Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn agreed to do TV work on “True Detective.”  And Billy Bob Thornton and Kirsten Dunst appeared in “Fargo.”

Storytellers have always craved time to tell their stories.  Exactly 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith brought forth the three-and-a-half-hour blockbuster “Intolerance,” and in 1924 Erich von Stroheim infamously produced the eight-hour-long silent movie “Greed.”  Since then, some of Hollywood’s greatest films (“Gone With The Wind,” the earlier, 1959 version of “Ben-Hur,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Godfather”s, part 1 and 2, and “The Lord of the Rings”) have all clocked in at three hours or more.   Hollywood rarely has the nerve to do that any longer, but HBO and Netflix, with hours to content to fill, are happy to give their storytellers as much time as they need.

Maybe the slate of fall movies will surprise me and the year will redeem itself. but it will be hard for any film to beat the experience and joy of watching “Stranger Things” this summer.

Good luck, Hollywood.  I like to get out of the house, too, so I’m rooting for you.

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