Movies Vs. Television: The Tide Shifts Back

Movies Vs. Television: The Tide Shifts Back

When Steven Spielberg introduced the nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this past Sunday, he noted that in the history of the Oscars, the roll call of movies that didn’t win is just as prestigious as the ones that did. Maybe that was Spielberg’s way of acknowledging the inevitable: that The King’s Speech was about to take home the big prize, even though 10 years from now, movie buffs will more likely remember 2010 as the year of Winter’s Bone, Black Swan, Toy Story 3, Inception, and The Social Network (not to mention Dogtooth and Exit Through The Gift Shop). It may be cold comfort, but it is some comfort. Daring, rousing filmmaking losing to respectable awards-bait? That’s just Hollywood tradition.

Me, I was just excited to see so many quality films nominated. And it’s been encouraging to see those films do well at the box office too—and that includes The King’s Speech, a throwback to the kind of historical drama that was all the rage in the mid-’90s and then fell out of favor over the past decade. A year ago, I wrote a blog post in which I talked about how in 2009, a few of the surprise successes were “a slow-paced, offbeat, hyper-violent WWII movie with more than half its dialogue not in English…a crafty sci-fi action mockumentary that doubles as a commentary about immigration, an ultra-low-budget horror movie shot with the equivalent of low-light surveillance cameras, and an animated adventure-comedy about an old man and his floating house.” This year, I could say the same about True Grit (a western with weird, archaic-sounding dialogue), Black Swan (a movie about ballet that looks like a shotgun marriage between Michael Powell and Dario Argento), The Social Network (a talky drama about coding), and Inception (an uncommercial Christopher Nolan mind-game that he was allowed to shoot as a reward for making Batman movies, and as an incentive to make more). And though neither were nominated for Best Picture, I was also happy to see Martin Scorsese make a pile of dough in 2010 with the deeply strange Shutter Island, and a movie as well-constructed and thrilling as How To Train Your Dragon overcome a slow start at the box office to become one of the year’s biggest hits. There’s still plenty of crap at the multiplex these days, and a lot of that crap makes a depressingly large amount of money. But increasingly over the past two years, movie audiences have seemed willing to take chances on honest-to-goodness good movies.

Not everyone shares my upbeat mood, however. Last week, GQ posted an article by Mark Harris called “The Day The Movies Died,” in which Harris notes that for all the success of Inception, Hollywood studios don’t seem to be in a hurry to repeat the “let a smart filmmaker do whatever he wants” experiment. Harris writes:

At this moment of awards-giving and back-patting, however, we can all agree to love movies again, for a little while, because we’re living within a mirage that exists for only about six or eight weeks around the end of each year. Right now, we can argue that any system that allows David Fincher to plumb the invention of Facebook and the Coen brothers to visit the old West, that lets us spend the holidays gorging on new work by Darren Aronofsky and David O. Russell, has got to mean that American filmmaking is in reasonably good health. But the truth is that we’ll be back to summer—which seems to come sooner every year—in a heartbeat. And it’s hard to hold out much hope when you hear the words that one studio executive, who could have been speaking for all her kin, is ready to chisel onto Hollywood’s tombstone: “We don't tell stories anymore.”

Harris is an intelligent writer, whose book Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies And The Birth Of The New Hollywood is highly recommended for students of showbiz history. But given how well-versed he is in Hollywood’s past, it’s surprising that he’s being such an alarmist here. He’s sounding a lot like Joe Queenan, who wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal last year asking whether 2010 is “the worst movie year ever,” based on the usual complaints: too many sequels, too many remakes, and too many stupid movies like Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups becoming hits. How can it be that two guys as media-savvy as Harris and Queenan have just now realized that the first quarter of the movie year is a dumping ground, summer blockbusters tend to be dopey, and studio executives are skittish about green-lighting any project that’s not pre-sold? There’s little in their two articles that couldn’t have been written 30 years ago. (In fact, Pauline Kael did write all this 30 years ago, in her famous New Yorker piece “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers.”)

Harris’ piece also reaffirms the recent conventional wisdom that any filmmaker who wants to do quality work is better off turning to television. (Harris quotes producer Scott Rudin saying, “For all those people who spent years trying to get movies made at all the companies that are now gone, there’s now one place to work where you can get respectfully treated and fairly judged. It’s HBO.”) For much of the past decade, pop-culture commentators—myself included—have argued that TV had caught up to and even surpassed movies in terms of producing artful, sophisticated entertainment. And not so long ago, I’d say we were right. In 2007 and 2008, right around the time that Mad Men and Breaking Bad debuted, The Sopranos and Deadwood had just ended their runs on HBO, to be followed shortly thereafter by The Wire. Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls had just ended on The CW. The Shield was still airing on FX, Lost on ABC was in its creative heyday, and 30 Rock, The Office, and Friday Night Lights were all going strong for NBC. The medium seemed to have come into its own.

But while there’s still plenty of excellent work being done on television, I’m less optimistic about the near-future of TV than I am about the near-future of cinema. Because while audiences are turning out en masse for all those movies I cited up top, the best shows on television aren’t doing so hot, largely because of the way the TV business works. The Good Wife, a complex-but-accessible legal drama on CBS, draws around 12 million total viewers a week, which in movie terms would make it a solid hit. (By which I mean that if 12 million people went to see The Good Wife: The Movie, that would equate to around $100 million at the box office.) And yet the website TV By The Numbers has The Good Wife as “on the bubble” between renewal and cancellation, because not enough of those 12 million viewers are in advertisers’ coveted 18-49 demo. By contrast, The New York Times ran a story over this past weekend about how the younger market is staying away from movie theaters while cinephile seniors—who aren’t part of the downloading generation—are coming back strong, and making the likes of True Grit into blockbusters.

Even cable television, which has nurtured some of the best shows of the past 10 years, is finding there’s a difference between “niche programming” and “putting on a show for me and a few hundred thousand of my closest friends.” In the wake of the cancellation of the excellent Terriers (which drew around a half-million viewers a week), FX president John Landgraf held a teleconference in which he said, “I don’t know that subtlety is something the American public is buying in droves today,” and, “There’s a relatively low correlation between excellence and commercial success.” The trouble that FX’s sister network Fox has had in trying to bring cable-style shows to network TV would seem to bear that out, as the likes of The Good Guys, Lone Star, and The Chicago Code haven’t performed as well as anyone had hoped.

Let me be clear: I expect the cablers and the networks alike to keep trying to produce top-shelf TV just as I expect Hollywood studios to keep pumping out movies based on board games and children’s toys. But I also predict more caution on the TV side in the years to come, given the disappointing numbers drawn by some recent critics’ darlings. And while Harris may be right that Warner Bros. isn’t in the market right now for its next Inception, I’m heartened by the news that this most recent Sundance film festival was one of the most active in years on the business side, with adventurous, non-mainstream fare getting snapped up left and right. Some indie companies may have been shopping for another Black Swan-style breakout, while others were just looking to stock their libraries for future deals with video-on-demand providers like Netflix and Amazon. Either way: They’re buying. Which means that contrary to Scott Rudin, if you’re a writer/director/producer with a challenging story to tell, you might be better off right now developing it as a low-budget feature film than shopping it around to HBO or AMC.

I doubt any of this will persuade Harris or Queenan, because when they talk about “the movies,” they mean films that open on more than 1,000 screens, not dinky indies that play on IFC. But if the object is for talented filmmakers to do the work they want to do and then to have that work available to whomever wants to see it… well, “the movies” are doing just fine. Maybe better than they have in years.

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