Television vs. Film: The Sequel

I have a confession to make. That previous post – the one about which is more culturally significant, television or film – that was written awhile ago. Two years to be exact. It was during the time when I started up a blog one summer with the intention of writing a post everyday for four months. It didn’t exactly pan out. Surprisingly, it still exists in the somewhere in the cloud, and out of laziness (posts can take some time to come up with) I went looking for it so I could copy-and-paste that post. It brings up some interesting points, and I still lean towards film as being more culturally significant, although I’m not entirely sure my argument would be an altogether convincing one (they’re just better, alright?). Nonetheless, there is one thing I noticed after revisiting that post – despite which one you think is better, film is starting to become a lot more like the television industry.

Regis Philbin: Savior of Television

Television was on the verge of death in 2000. That was the year Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor topped the charts. Why spend the vast amounts of money hiring writers, actors, and directors when you could make a bare-bones show with volunteers – er – “contestants.” Especially since “reality” television was what everyone wanted to see and the returns were amazing. It was the death of scripted television the pundits lamented. And then television rebounded – miraculously – do to three simple letters and number: HBO and 24.

Now, this isn’t very scientific. I didn’t dig deep to get the actual figures of HBO subscriptions from 2000-2001. It’s just a gut feeling that the success of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Oz, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Band of Brothers caused network executives obsessed with the low-cost high-profit model of reality television to look at scripted television with deeper consideration. And then Fox debuted 24 on November 6th, 2001, and it was a bit of a game-changer. For the first time (in my memory, at least) they brought in a recognizable movie star (Kiefer Sutherland) to play the lead role in a television drama. The format had always been considered to be “below” that of film, and major stars usually appeared in single episodes, and were generally not given (or more likely they didn’t want) recurring roles. But suddenly, when a faltering movie star (between 1998s Dark City and 2002s Phone Booth there are about twelve Kiefer Sutherland films I’ve never heard of) became the lead of a successful television series he revitalized his career and others took note. Reality TV didn’t kill scripted television; it forced it into a new Golden Age.

This is a long-winded post, but I’m getting to the point – that films are becoming more like television – because of this new Golden Age of TV were living in that was ushered in on the back of Joe Millionaire and The Apprentice. Film was always the higher art form – movie stars moving into television were “slumming” it or their careers were nose-diving. Now, a lot of actors and actresses are moving towards television – because that’s where all the risks are being taken.  My favorite television show right now is Breaking Bad. It’s the tale of a cancer-stricken high school teacher who turns to producing crystal meth to leave his family with a comfortable sum of cash after his death. It’s not exactly heartwarming stuff. And it would never get through the gauntlet to be made into a multi-million dollar film.

So what’s happened is that a lot of the talent is moving towards the smaller screen – great actors, directors, and writers – and we’re living in a watershed moment in television history. It probably won’t get much better than the television shows we have right now, and it will take another wake-up call (Reality shows 2.0 perhaps?) to entice artists to keep things fresh.

With films, we tend to think of this era as a waning period for Hollywood pictures. They’re filled with remakes and sequels, and the whole business seems devoid of intelligent stories – even in the face of potential extinction by the likes of Netflix, Apple TV, and BitTorrent. But this isn’t a case of Hollywood finally running the well of ideas dry – it’s a case of the film industry trying to emulate the television industry, as absurd as that may sound.

The franchise that really stands out is the Saw series. Each film came out in yearly installments around Halloween, and the plot (beside the tortured victim-of-the-week) dealt with Jigsaw’s death and the mysteries his estranged wife and malevolent heir uncovered. But the mysteries weren’t solved in a single film. Jigsaw’s wife gets a mysterious box from her husband’s lawyer and when she opens it her eyes widen. There’s something pretty interesting that she’s found in that box but it isn’t revealed until the next movie. The Saw films are just like episodes in a television series – don’t worry that you didn’t find out what the mystery was – tune in next year at Halloween for the answer! Imagine a Sherlock Holmes movie where who committed the murder isn’t revealed until the next film…ugh.

The thing is, when you look at the success the television industry is having, the lazy explanation is that the television shows last longer than films. Ergo, make a film into a franchise (therefore longer-lasting) and success will surely follow. That’s why we have Fast Five, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, and X-Men 3.5 (but technically 0.5) coming out this summer – they’re just new episodes of the same successful series.  Look at the reverse: television shows that become movies – Sex and the City 1 and 2, The Simpsons Movie, the often rumoured but never realized Arrested Development film – the lines between television and film have become blurred.

And as long as the new “episodes” of films remain popular and successful, this trend isn’t going to change anytime soon. The industry needs a shake-up to send Hollywood into a new golden era. How about Joe Millionaire: The Movie?

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