Monday 22 April 2019

Doug Whelan: Is TV the new cinema?

Matthew McConnaghy in True Detective.
Matthew McConnaghy in True Detective.

The big screen and the small screen have been at war for decades, but with the internet providing a new playing field, the battle lines are being redrawn.

In the 1950s, Hollywood had a problem. The affordability of television sets meant there was one in almost every home in America, meaning Mr and Mrs John Q Taxpayer were visiting their local drive-in less and less. Hence, profits were falling and the golden age of Hollywood was coming to an end.

The film industry was down, but not out. In the past hundred-plus years, cinema has proved itself to be adaptable if nothing else. After bending its knee to TV in the 1960s and surviving a major recession, the 1970s saw cinema come back fighting with a new type of event movie that saw audiences return to the theatres in their droves: the modern blockbuster was born. The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars and more saved Hollywood and helped define the next thirty years of culture, entertainment, business and technology. That's the short version.

The past ten years have seen another TV revolution. DVD box sets and the internet have made it possible for TV drama to be enjoyed as and when we want. Binge viewing is the new buzzword. Five episodes in one sitting? No problem, the next one will start in 17 ... 16 ... 15 seconds. You haven't seen it? No problem, I've got all five series.

This new type of viewing culture has changed the way we watch TV, but it has also changed the way dramas are written. Episodes don't have a beginning, middle and end any more. They're specifically written as ten, twelve hour movies. We don't think in terms of specific episodes any more, but entire seasons as individual acts and the whole series as an individual story. And never mind a TV in every home; now there's a TV in every room. Every pocket.

That evolution in storytelling has made TV roles very attractive to A-list actors. Kiefer Sutherland and Dennis Hopper may have started it in the first season of 24 back in 2001. This year at the Golden Globe Awards, Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, Jon Voight and Helen Mirren (Oscar winners all) were nominated in the TV acting categories. The ayes have it: TV is cool and there's the challenge for Hollywood: the money and the talent is on the small screen. Time is on everyone's side in TV, and that's where cinema is bending its knee to TV once again: if you can't beat them, join them.

The news last year that LucasFilm had been bought out by Disney, who had plans to resurrect the Star Wars franchise, was a sensational one-two punch. First there was the actual return to a galaxy far, far away, then the news that the Magic Kingdom plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year from 2015. Expect trilogies, spin offs, animation, prequels, sequels to prequels, you name it. All will be a part of the bigger Star Wars universe. In other words, rather than standalone movies, they'll be two hour long episodes of an ongoing series? Oh, and there's a TV series rumoured too.

Then there's Marvel Studios. Since 2008, eight (count 'em) films have been released in the ongoing Avengers series. And as if the promise of a bigger and darker (always with the darker) sequel wasn't enough, Marvel pioneered the gossip-generating post-credits scenes that serve as a teaser for the next movie. This isn't a gift for loyal fans; it's a carrot-stick approach to luring people back to the cinema next year. We've stuck with the adventures of Tony Stark and pals thus far, so we may as well see it through to the end. If it ever comes. Similarly, an eighth film (since 2000) in Marvel's X-Men series is released in May, with a further four, at least, on the slate.

The Hobbit is another example. Originally announced as two movies, the Tolkien adaptation was suddenly inflated to three. After the staggering success of the Lord of the Rings, audiences were guaranteed to sit through two movies. But, if they'll sit through two movies, why not another? Why make two billion dollars when you can round it up to three?

Yes, there's no mistaking that movies are playing TV at their own game. The lines are blurring. Movies are turning in to episodes within a series while series are now standalone movies. We're in the middle of a golden age of TV right now and while the old "Hollywood is out of ideas" line gets trotted around as much as ever, it turns out you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

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