Has Television Finally Surpassed Film?

2017 at the movies – Hollywood blockbusters have never been bigger, box office receipts are as healthy as ever, and CG laden extravaganzas are turned around at a staggering rate. And yet…when was the last time you felt genuinely compelled to rave about a film you’ve just seen at the cinema?

Meanwhile, how often do you rush into work, class, hell even your morning yoga session, and feel compelled to talk to whoever will listen about what just went down in Westeros, which inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary you’ve suddenly taken a liking to, or what the hell happened on last nights Twin Peaks?

Chances are you’ll have more examples of the latter than the former, because whilst a jaded cinema snob pushing their “film is dead” agenda is certainly nothing new, there’s an undeniable sense that the small screen is where you need to go these days if you really want to see something unique. Stories often celebrated for their boldness, three dimensional characters, and surprising plot twists. To properly grasp just how much things have changed, you need only look at what was on our television screens a mere ten years ago: The Sopranos had just cut to black, Mad Men was still suiting up, and the term “binge watching” wasn’t even a thing yet. Fast forward to 2017, and it feels like we’re drowning in a sea of must watch TV: Mr. Robot, American Crime, Legion, Black Mirror, The Affair, Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, Fleabag, Master Of None, Silicon Valley, Better Call Saul, House of Cards, The Young Pope, The Handmaid’s Tale…on and on it goes, to the point where it feels almost impossible to consume everything we’re recommended by a friend or colleague.

Conversely at the cinema, 2007 was the year gross out American comedies like Knocked Up and Superbad were winning over mainstream audiences, while “serious” filmmakers were churning out some of their best work, with modern classics like The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men.. And it’s these two film genres which have arguably suffered the biggest blow in the intervening years.

The option to tell a story over ten hours instead of two is an attractive proposition for any storyteller

The comedy film is in particularly bad shape; once a reliable box office mainstay, now dominated by cookie cooker Hangover imitators featuring dialogue that’s high on improvisation and low on punchlines. One need only look at the release slate for the last year or so to see how dire things have become: Dirty Grandpa, Bad Neighbours 2, Ride Along 2, Bad Moms, Grimsby, Masterminds, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Keeping Up With the Joneses, and more recent high profile duds like Baywatch and Snatched. These are all films that to some degree have done well at the box office, but weren’t able of scoring above a mere fifty percent on Rotten Tomatoes.The middle tier drama (50 to 100 million dollars) doesn’t fare much better, in recent times being hurt by comparatively low box office returns and widespread audience indifference. It’s hard to believe we live in a time when film-making giants like Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg are struggling to find both critical and commercial successes; and when a respected cinephile like Martin Scorsese can’t even get a film financed, with the seventy four year old veteran recently signing a deal to bring his long gestating project The Irishman to Netflix, you know something has gone seriously wrong.

Directors aren’t the only ones being lured away from the big screen, with A-list actors now regularly detouring onto the small screen in between their big screen outings. It used to be news when someone liked David Caruso played the lead on CSI: Miami, but when you’ve got an Oscar heavyweight like Anthony Hopkins joining a big budget HBO show (Westworld), Ewan McGregor playing not one but two lead roles (Fargo), and a first rate female ensemble that includes the likes of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley (Big Little Lies), it’s pretty clear that the stigma of the small screen is well and truly a thing of the past.

The exception to this rule is of course the horror/thriller genre, which has always managed to adapt and change according to audience tastes, yet still remain relevant. As this year’s Get Out proves, the low risk model adopted by studios like Blumhouse Productions is not only a safeguard for success, it’s a breeding ground for creativity. The same can be said for indie films in general, which have always been able to operate autonomously, separate from the seismic shifts of the film industry at large. This years Best Picture win for Moonlight could soon become commonplace, as the biopics and “worthy” dramas of yesteryear are replaced by more experimental art house fare.To a certain extent this gradual change in the media landscape was always inevitable. If you look at the medium of television and what it’s capable of, the option to tell a story over ten hours instead of two is an attractive proposition for any storyteller. And perhaps reassuringly for studio execs whose job it is to commission new shows, the general consensus is that this is what a large percentage of the viewing public want.

The lukewarm response to recent YA fare such as the Divergent series and the the final chapter of The Hunger Games, compared to the talk-ability of series like 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale shows that the younger demographic are hungry for this kind of long form content.

When you’ve got people like Christopher Nolan making old school epics tailor made for the big screen, you’ve still got a reason to believe in the magic of cinema

If there’s a case to be made for the future of quality big budget cinema, it’s with the small contingent of filmmakers who are bucking the trend of making CGI slugfests and unnecessary reboots by getting back to basics. When you’ve got people like Christopher Nolan making old school epics tailor made for the big screen, James Mangold redefining the superhero genre for adults, and Edgar Wright bringing his original vision to the screen through sheer passion; you’ve still got a reason to believe in the magic of cinema, and its ability to transport you in a way the small screen cannot.

Not to say that television isn’t trying its darnedest to play in the bigger arena. Look at shows Game of Thrones and Marvel’s The Defenders; these are all highly anticipated events that receive the same promotional marketing as their cinematic counterparts. Back in January, Netflix premiered a teaser for season two of Stranger Things during the Super Bowl, a whopping nine months out from its premiere date. That sort of thing used to be unheard of, but when your show has a global reach, audiences expect it.So what does all this mean? Are we destined for a cinema marketplace dominated by comic book films, animated fare, and the occasional Star Wars movie? Is the future of the drama and comedy genres solely on the small screen? Or will a risk averse Hollywood force all our most gifted filmmakers onto ever smaller projects?

The most likely scenario is that we’ll stop differentiating between film and television, and that everything will simply be referred to as either long form or short form content, each of which have their own strengths and weaknesses. 

After all, as long as we’re getting compelling stories with memorable characters, does it really matter where it comes from?