Some people have dubbed the ’70s the golden age of film. Movies had been around long enough for filmmakers to learn from their predecessors and perfect the craft, and most importantly it came after the end of the American government’s strict censorship on film, otherwise known as the Hays Code (Motion Picture Production Code) in 1968–the reason why people in old movies slept in different beds, didn’t kiss for longer than three seconds, and rarely got away with portraying interracial relationships. We got movies like “Star Wars,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Jaws,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Rocky,” “Chinatown” and “The Godfather” parts one and two. The list goes on and on–this was a decade of the greats, as far as movies go.
Like the end of the Hays Code, another major change has hit Hollywood in recent years, having a similarly significant impact on our society: the dawn of digital film. George Lucas took major steps in popularizing this when he made “Star Wars: Episode II” and filmed it digitally. This was quite the controversial subject throughout Hollywood, but it was also a game changer.
Digital film did a lot of things. For starters, it seriously empowered television, getting it to be taken more seriously as it had always been secondary to movies. Shows like “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead” or “Vikings” would not have been possible twenty years ago, television wasn’t given that kind of budget or taken nearly that seriously.
The dawn of digital filmmaking has effects throughout Hollywood that have changed the very fabric of the business–bringing new blood in from indie productions that can now afford to be players in the game, for one. But it also runs hand-in-hand with the dawn of the internet, which has made the distribution process a hundred times easier. Now you can spend a few hundred thousand dollars (nothing when it comes to movies), make a movie and suddenly be a significant competitor once it’s uploaded.
Because of this, TV Shows have increased their budgets like crazy, put a ton more effort into their writing, and developed sweeping stories with long character arcs, as opposed to the old procedural method of week-by-week mysteries to be solved by the protagonists. These changes have proved to be wildly popular and have made television executives a ridiculous amount of money.
Movies are still generally produced at a higher quality than TV shows, as far as the technical side goes. Yes, “Westworld” is sleeker than a lot of indie films on Netflix, but in general, major films will outdo major television shows in technical quality. Still, there is something that TV can accomplish that films have a hard time doing: long story arcs.
TV shows nowadays act more like a book than they do some kind of long movie, and people respond to that. Episodes aren’t like little movies, they’re like chapters in a novel. You simply can’t get 20 or 30 hours of investment into characters and cram it all into 2 hours of a single movie. That’s why audiences will get so invested in “The Lord of the Rings”–it’s basically like watching an insanely expensive TV show. After all, it’s about 9.5 hours of epic storytelling on a movie’s budget. That could easily be the running time of a mini-series.
However, movies decided not to compete with TV shows so much as they decided to emulate them, and that’s where we get franchises. Franchises allow the audiences to get just as invested as they might with a character after ten episodes of “Mr. Robot” or “The Americans.” The Marvel universe is a perfect example, as is “Star Wars.” With every new installment of “John Wick,” we can expect a larger and more loyal fan base. This is purely a business-based decision for these Hollywood executives, as they see these investments in characters as investments in their wallets. And it works, even with the threat of audiences getting tired of the same thing over and over, they still tend to buy tickets just to see. Good or bad, if Hollywood gets tickets sold then they’ll make more just like it.
Overall, books have been the most popular medium of fiction storytelling for a very long time. It would seem that we are seeing television adopt this long-form method, rather than the 2-3 hours of movies, theater or opera–and even movies are falling in suit with franchises. As I said before, the episodes/franchise installments watch more like chapters in a novel than mini-movies, and we ought to expect more of that in the future.
Ironic that the desire for long-form storytelling comes at a time when short attention spans seem to be at their peak.
Featured image courtesy of HBO, from the shooting of “Westworld”