– By James Powers –
I never liked watching TV much as a kid. Nine times out of ten, I preferred to watch a movie, because I’ve always favored the closure of feature films over the unending twists, cliffhangers and repetitions that TV shows depend upon. So good news for me: TV lately has more and more been coming to resemble film. Emerging shows tend to run seasons composed of fewer, longer episodes, because this makes them more binge-friendly. This also means they’re able to run more complex yet self-contained stories, both at the level of the individual episode as well as the season as a whole. A single episode of an hour-long drama often gets to have something of the three-act structure of a traditional film, and when you arrive at the end of a 10 (or 8 or even 6) episode season of, say, Channel Zero or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Stranger Things, it feels sort of like the cinematic version of completing a novel. We seem to have hit the apotheosis of this trend with Game of Thrones’ extravagant last season, which is rocking per-episode budgets and runtimes that approach those of theatrical features.
The bad news for me, however, is that this phenomenon also works in the opposite direction. It’s not accurate to simply say that TV is starting to resemble film more and more; film is imitating TV as well. The two storytelling forms are blurring into each other, as streaming platforms strive to achieve the credibility of cinema and cinema strives to achieve the profitability of TV. This isn’t entirely a bad thing – I get a big kick out of how episodic TV is beefing up its storytelling chops lately, and as much as I want to be a hipster and bemoan Hollywood’s obsession with sequels, if I’m honest with myself I don’t really believe that sequels are inherently bad. But in general the gradual melting-together of film and TV seems to be leading to the end of an era, a transition that should definitely worry the many little guys in the entertainment industry. If the advent of the Internet caused a “Cambrian explosion” of diverse storytelling methods and platforms, then the likes of Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ final season might spell an oncoming mass extinction.
Let me illustrate what I mean by first looking more closely at cinema’s gradual transformation into TV, where the studio leading the charge is clearly Marvel. Take, for example, those extra mid- and post-credit scenes that are now a staple of MCU movies and occasionally used by other studios as well. They’ve come to serve the same function as the tags at the end of TV episodes that say “next week on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit…” They exist because sequels, in the MCU and elsewhere, are now not only common – they’re expected. A slate of self-contained, standalone films is no longer enough: for studios to compete, they need to launch a universe. Or at least try. In other words, major theatrical releases are now serialized and meted out with almost the same regularity as TV episodes, albeit with longer gaps and much larger budgets in between. But we now have Game of Thrones coming from the other side to erode that distinction as well.
Critic Steven Greydanus observed this phenomenon a while ago in his review of Captain America: Civil War. “In the MCU, every movie is a middle movie, like an episode in a TV series, or the latest issue of a comic book. That’s one thing for a weekly one-hour series or a monthly comic book — and clearly the series’ fans don’t mind — but I remain attached to the old-fashioned idea that a two-and-a-half-hour movie should generally tell a complete story, with a start, middle, and end. Not that Disney cares what I think.” I feel you, man. I also like complete stories, and Disney doesn’t care what I think either.
Interestingly, someone else who might agree with Greydanus is OG Avengers director Joss Whedon – whose experience with making MCU films potently illustrates the studio’s TV-like sensibilities. In the cinema ecosystem, the buck stops at the director whenever it comes to the creative elements of a film. Theoretically anyway. But TV’s system is different – the director often changes from one episode to the next, and instead it is the showrunner who is the overall visionary calling the shots for the show as a whole. Because all of Marvel’s movies are so carefully interwoven with each other, any individual director working in the Universe needs to conform his or her vision to the studio’s overall story – much like a TV director does. But since that’s not exactly a film director’s normal MO, it inevitably leads to friction when the director is thinking of the individual film on its own terms, while the studio is thinking of, well, “the universe.” That friction, among other things, proved extremely taxing upon Whedon as he directed Age of Ultron, and it has led to difficulties with other MCU directors as well.
To be fair, studio executives and directors have been butting heads for as long as they’ve both existed. But it’s definitely unusual for execs to be as deeply involved in the creative process as Marvel president Kevin Feige apparently is – acting, as Greydanus also notes, more or less like a showrunner writ large. Not that studio execs can’t or shouldn’t be creatively involved in the films they produce. For all I know (for example), the Feige-approved version of Ant-Man may be oodles better than Edgar Wright’s aborted take on it would have been. But the problem is that story quality isn’t the ultimate reason for Feige’s interference with directors, because it’s not the highest priority for Marvel movies individually (sorry guys). The point isn’t to make Ant-Man or Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok as good of films as they can be, although some do turn out very good. The point, rather, is for them to serve the broader purpose of the MCU as effectively as possible. Ultimately, the whole strategy has had one goal in mind the whole time: the titanic and aptly-titled Avengers: Endgame.
Turns out the payoff of this strategy has been nothing short of historic. The release of Endgame last week dropped one of the biggest box-office nukes ever, smashing records with the same apparent ease as the Hulk plowing through concrete walls. In doing so, it has massively, frighteningly, awesomely confirmed the power of the “cinematic universe” as a business model. Marvel (and its imitators) has pasted TV’s revenue-generating model onto the theatrical one and created a real monster. And with almost uncanny timing, HBO has pulled the reverse move, applying a cinematic production model to its signature show with huge success. So, long story short, we now have undeniable proof that films can score majorly by imitating TV, and TV shows can score majorly by imitating film.
Well…so what? Entertainment is entertainment, right? Audiences will respond to a good story, no matter what form it takes. Endgame and GoT Season 8 scored so big because their franchises had already invested the time and resources necessary to create rich, immersive universes, populated by characters that won audiences’ loyalty, and executed with production value that people are willing to pay a premium for. Far be it from me to begrudge Marvel and HBO’s big returns on undeniably big investments. So what if TV and film are melting together? A good story is a good story, no matter what form it takes.
Yes. But. There’s a reason why TV and film have existed as distinctly separate media, with distinctly different storytelling styles, for so long. There’s a reason no one has combined them like this before. Because doing so, while apparently worth it, is massively, gaudily, obscenely expensive. It requires a marketing machine that fascist propagandists would drool over, to say nothing of its production costs. There can only be a few, a very few, colossal pop culture events like Avengers or Game of Thrones, and when they happen they “suck most of the air out of the marketplace,” crushing the competition. It’s probably going to be a while before something like this dual-lightning strike can happen again, but you can bet that studios and networks – including the likes of Netflix and Amazon – are already brainstorming ways to tee up the next one. Which means they’re not paying attention to the multitude of smaller things they could be making.
Not that small things have ever been particularly attractive to them, but there was a hot second during the emergence of YouTube and Amazon and Netflix when the playing field was suddenly leveled, hungry new markets were opening up, and the usual pop-culture gatekeepers were struggling to keep pace. Lots of small things were suddenly able to find backers and an audience at that time. That “hot second” is at least a decade old by now, and though I’m no economist, I don’t need to be one to know that everything is cyclical. Including the media marketplace. As Disney eats up Fox, and Netflix joins the MPAA (perhaps to take Fox’s place lol), and Warner Bros. gets nommed by AT&T, more and more power is getting concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. It’s been happening for a while, but I think we’ll look back on April 2019 as something of a historic month for pop culture. Two huge franchises hit their apexes, the balance of the showbiz ecosystem visibly tipped, and everyone was there to see it.
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.