The Small Screen Gets Bigger

There’s an extremely well-written and convincing piece in the May issue of Vanity Fair by James Wolcott that argues television has eclipsed film, at least in terms of pop culture relevance. I can’t help but think the article is ill-timed, considering “The Hunger Games” is currently tearing to shreds any notion that movies can no longer be water-cooler topics of conversation. Still, film snob though I am, I really can’t argue with any of Wolcott’s main points.

Mainstream Hollywood is playing it safe. Too safe. You can just look at this past year’s Oscar race to realize that: “The Artist” was the Mitt Romney of Best Picture candidates. The Academy settled on it because it was the one film that everyone could agree on to some degree. It’s not just the insular world of awards season, though (Internet bloggers are far too quick to forget that the realm of movie critics, bloggers and industry insiders are NOT the mainstream) – too often you can tell movies are constructed to appeal to that lowest common denominator. A million people saying, “eh, I guess I’ll go see ‘The Lorax’ this weekend” is more desirable to Hollywood than a thousand people raving about “A Separation.”

"We thought about just reading the book to our kids, but it's just too wordy, you know?"

I enjoyed “The Artist,” but Wolcott’s right: that film was a bauble, and couldn’t hope to reach the character complexity or narrative intrigue of “Mad Men.” Yes, “30 Rock,” “Community,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Modern Family,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” are all consistently funnier than the paint-by-numbers comedies churned out in the theaters. Yes, I would far rather catch up with “Breaking Bad,” “Dexter,” “The Walking Dead” or “Downtown Abbey” or plow through the entire run of old shows like “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under” or “The Sopranos” than sit through a clunky drama like “J. Edgar” again. And, best of all, yes, television is THE place to go if you’re a female actress, particularly over the age of 40. “The Big C,” “Weeds,” “Enlightened,” “Damages,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Sons of Anarchy,” Lena Dunham’s upcoming HBO series “Girls;” the list of shows with prominent/dominant female presences on TV goes on and on, while Hollywood doesn’t give a shit unless your name is Meryl Streep.

"Hi Hollywood, I'm Glenn Close. I've had this movie that I've wanted to make for thirty years now, do you think you could lend me some cash-" "A WITCH!! A WITCH!!"

It’s not that there aren’t good movies out there for you to watch. It’s just that most of it is either foreign or independently produced, and most potential viewers either a) just can’t see those films, or b) the gap between the film’ debut (at festivals or previews or whatever) for Internet critics and its actual release in theaters has grown so monstrous that some people are just bored by a film before they even have a chance to see it – i.e. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Take Shelter,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” even “The Artist.” I think all of those films could’ve been highly-debated pop culture topics, but they fizzled out because hardly anyone saw them. They’d rather just stay home and watch “Boardwalk Empire,” and can we really blame them?

He even looks kinda like Tilda Swinton!

My question is, what can Hollywood do to fight back? What do the movies have going for them that TV can’t offer? I don’t believe that the movies are doomed, but they have to start making some adjustments (beyond inflating ticket prices) if they want to stay afloat in the next decade.

First, movies can offer a superior viewing environment. Thanks to Blu-Ray and giant flat screen televisions, that gap is closing, and movie theaters need to realize that digital projection, as it currently stands, is not helping things at all. Film stock has become more expensive than digital distribution. I get it. But film still offers a much higher quality image than current digital projection. At some point in the last five years, have you gone to see a big blockbuster action movie and just thought, movies don’t look like they used to? You’re not just romanticizing the past. On a giant cineplex screen, digital projection comes out darker and blurrier than film stock, plain and simple (and 3-D only accentuates these problems). If someone can figure out a way to make digital images in the theater as sharp as HD TVs, that’ll help get people back to the movies.

Pictured: movie shot on film stock.
Pictured: movie shot in digital.

Second, movies can offer spectacle that TV can’t. This is the one thing that Hollywood executives DO get: they have more money to throw around than the networks. Just look at the lineup of big-ticket, big-budget blockbusters that we’ve got this year: besides “The Hunger Games” we’ll soon have “The Avengers,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Prometheus,” “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Hobbit.” I can guarantee those will all be hot pop culture topics. But Hollywood still needs to be smarter about this one. Those films that I’ve listed look like they’ll turn out pretty well, but what about “John Carter?” What about “Wrath of the Titans?” What about the upcoming “Battleship” movie, which has “MASSIVE FLOP” written all over it? Even as recently as the 90’s, people went to see whatever big-ticket blockbuster was coming out that weekend because THAT’S WHAT THERE WAS TO DO. We have waaaaay more options now, especially because of TV. Hollywood execs can not just assume that they have an automatic audience for their epic films anymore , especially since “Game of Thrones” is seriously challenging the entire idea that TV can’t do epic action/adventure.

"Game of Thrones" is also proving that Peter Dinklage is boss.

Finally, film can experiment in a way that even TV can’t. Sure, TV shows can appeal to particular niche audiences, and I’m secretly convinced that HBO is just a giant experiment to find out if the line between high-brow drama and porn is actually a circle. But when you get right down to it, the standard TV format is fairly limiting: you have to tell your story in well-planned installments that can each only last a certain amount of time (approx. 20 minutes or 50 minutes). And how radical do TV shows really get, even those on cable networks like AMC or HBO? Shows like “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones” are telling extremely good stories, filled with interesting, psychologically complex characters and intricate plots, but they aren’t really breaking new ground. Have you ever seen David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive?” That movie was originally conceived as a television pilot, which unsurprisingly got turned down. Even after the cult success of “Twin Peaks,” Lynch’s work is just too bizarre, too different to fit into the current standard TV formulas.

The movies can offer us something completely new. Films like “Drive.” Films like “The Tree of Life.” Films like “Take Shelter.” Hollywood needs to play that up (and not confuse “showing us something new” with “more digital aliens”). It might be the only way for the big screen to fight back against the little screen.