Tipping Of The Scales

When it comes to glitz, glamour, and giant profits, there’s no question that the film industry is still Hollywood’s crown jewel. Movies bring worldwide acclaim and billions of dollars of box office returns; in an age of globalization and outsourcing, they have become the main American export to the world. Nonetheless, due in part to the rise of cable and the rigid corporatization of the major film studios, the television industry has recently made exceptional progress in shrinking the gap between the two media. We examine how TV has caught up with film and what the future holds for the two industries.

Zach: Breaking Bad recently wrapped its fifth and final season, and already the debates rage on over its place among television’s best series of all time. I think this points to a larger movement at hand: the rise of television. In the past several years, we have seen a remarkable rise in the content and quality of TV. Film directors have started producing and directing TV pilots, which may help explain how some film techniques have infiltrated the TV arena. Prolific movies directors like Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead), and David Fincher (House of Cards) have all started TV shows that have become immensely popular over the past few years. The rise of all these new, critically acclaimed series has led critics and the general public to peg the current era as television’s “Golden Age,” and I am inclined to agree.

Michael: But while TV may be shining into its “Golden Age,” the Summer of 2013 was particularly rough for Hollywood blockbusters. Looking back, the flops seem to outmatch the successes. Films like The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., Pacific Rim, White House Down, After Earth, and Turbo (the list goes on, sadly) cost over $100 million to produce and raked in far less at the domestic box office. So with these figures, can we now all agree that blockbusters are dead? Has America given up on our old friend called “spectacle” and officially surrendered to the more innovative, character-driven dramas of Netflix and Cable?

Zach: We may not have given up on “spectacle” quite yet (just look at the success of every single Marvel movie), but I do find myself watching much more TV than movies nowadays. Perhaps it’s because I’m a poor college student and don’t have time to go to the movie theater, but I also find myself becoming more invested in the characters and stories that are being told on the small screen. The nature of television lends itself well to in-depth character studies that can last a long period of time, and this seems to be leading to more audience involvement and overall better stories and acting.

Ben: I think TV has also caught up with film because the nature of television, as well as TV actors’ contractual obligations, have changed. In the past, movie actor and TV actor used to be considered as almost separate professions. TV series shot 20 or more episodes a season, meaning that TV actors did not have time in their schedules for major film roles. Agencies had separate departments for motion picture talent and TV talent. Executives at the major film studios barely knew who the biggest TV stars were, let alone considered them for movie roles. For many TV actors, however, their ultimate objective was breaking out of the bonds of TV and making it onto the silver screen. Many of the biggest movie stars of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, including John Travolta, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, and Tom Hanks, successfully made the transition from TV to film. There were many reasons for an actor to prefer working in movies to working in television. Movies offered more prestige, more money, and fewer hours. They also offered a greater variety of roles and a higher quality of material.

Michael: And even today, in spite of the many flops I already mentioned, the movie industry is still extremely financially successful. Recent studies show that in the summer of 2013 “ticket revenue in North America . . . totaled $4.71 billion, a 10.2 percent increase over the same period last year” and “attendance rose 6.6 percent, to about 573 million. Higher ticket prices contributed to the rest of the growth” (Barnes http://www.cnbc.com/id/101002184). These numbers seem to suggest that people are still watching movies, even more so than years before. If that’s true, then what accounts for so many flops? One likely culprit: the sheer number of high budget films in theaters. The same study claims that this summer “studios released 23 films that cost $75 million and up (sometimes way up), 53 percent more than in the same period last year.” With such a saturation of big-budget films, how are people supposed to choose what to see?

Zach: Maybe they should just watch TV! Many excellent TV programs now share a number of similarities with film-style cinematography and structure. We see this more with cable than network shows, but if you look at many recent critically acclaimed programs such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and House of Cards, they all share a filmic quality. Not only are all of these shows serial programs (each episode leads almost directly into the next), but they also use cinematography and storytelling techniques reminiscent of those we are used to seeing in the movies. Techniques such as unconventional camera angles, time lapses (primarily in Breaking Bad and American Horror Story), and overarching thematic narratives that sometimes leave the audience with more questions than answers (Mad Men and House of Cards) are all excellent examples of the way television has been influenced by film.

Michael: And while television may be taking on more filmic aspects, the success of these programs still seems directly dependent on the quality of the story being told. The movie industry seems to be in constant competition with itself for audience attention. And while blockbusters may have relied on sheer spectacle in the past to gain our attention, consumers more and more seem to be looking to critics to guide their opinions in this dense market of films. The majority of films that flopped with audiences this summer also failed with critics, according to review sites such as Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes. Case in point, compare Man of Steel and Iron Man 3. They both cost upwards of 200 million dollars, but domestically Steel grossed just under 300 million while Iron Man pulled in over 400 million. The distinguishing factor comes back to the quality of the narrative. Yes, quality still pays out even when it comes to loud flashy blockbusters, because without things like character development and substance, movies wouldn’t exist—blockbusters included.

Zach: There does seem to be a confluence occurring between film and TV, where television series are becoming much more like really long movies. Netflix especially capitalizes on that idea by offering all the episodes of their original series at once, which makes them perfect for binge-viewing, and even more like long movies. Also, we are seeing film actors, movie stars even, wanting to do TV dramas (Kevin Spacey in House of Cards), which further blurs the line between TV and film.

Ben: Spacey seems to have started a trend among Hollywood’s middle-aged leading men returning to the small screen. It used to be that once a TV actor successfully made the jump into film, he or she was usually there to stay. Recently, however, there has been an influx of marquee names moving back to the small screen after decades away from it. The most popular new show of 2013 is the CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams, arguably the most famous movie actor recently to return to TV. But he is far from the only one. Michael J. Fox has returned to the small screen in a comedy (unimaginatively titled) The Michael J. Fox Show. On the drama side, Kevin Bacon begins his second season in The Following. And Woody Harrelson will be back in early 2014 in HBO’s True Detectives alongside Matthew McConaughey, who has never before had a regular role in serialized TV.

Zach: Not to mention Robert De Niro, who recently joined the greenlit HBO show Criminal Justice, which was stuck in limbo after the tragic passing of James Gandolfini. Gandolfini was preparing to star in the miniseries that he was also executive producing (he will be given credit posthumously), and after he passed away the HBO executives decided they would continue with plans for the show as long as they had an actor who could fill Gandolfini’s shoes. De Niro is, of course, one of the greatest actors of this (or any) generation, and if anyone can do justice to the role it will be him.

Ben: This sudden influx of film actors into TV has been a long time coming: many of the aspects of feature film acting that made it more attractive than TV acting are no longer as true. Most actors’ salaries are lower than in previous years, and most big-name actors settle for back-end deals that are only lucrative if the movie is financially successful. In addition, TV shows now can have as few as 13 or even 10 episode seasons, so acting in television no longer prevents an actor from starring in films as well. Besides, special effects have become the real stars of big-budget movies, relegating the star actor to secondary status. This devaluation of the role of actors in studio films has coincided with the devaluation of writers who can create compelling, three-dimensional characters and mature stories. Some of the best writers have already moved to TV, and now some of the best actors are following suit. The question is not whether actors like Brad Pitt and George Clooney will be seen on TV shows but when.

Hollywood definitely seems to be in a period of transition. While feature films used to reign supreme as the pinnacle of respect and prestige, TV has been on an upswing. And while the blockbuster continues to lose the battle for quality to more innovative television, what does this mean for the future of the movie industry? Will Hollywood learn from this summer of middling quality and mild successes, or will TV continue to siphon off the talent and become the new benchmark for prestige in the entertainment industry? For now, it seems that the success of a few superhero movies has blinded the studios to the cracks in the blockbuster model. If TV can find a way to monetize its superior critical acclaim, or if, for some unforeseen reason, audiences abandon Marvel, television might very well take over film’s number one spot in the years to come.

Zach Saldacher and Michael Cummings are seniors in the English Department. Ben Neumann is a senior in the History Department.