Cinema is a global institution: from the cathedral-like movie palaces of the early 1900s, to the mass consumer marketplace of the 21st century, what was once, and still is, the flagship of American identity is now a national pastime and economic machine across the globe. The recent success of Disney and Lucasfilm’s ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, which has amassed over $1.7 billion internationally at the time of writing, is proof of the film industry’s virility in creating an international form of media that is entrenched in the world’s social and cultural identities. It is a further demonstration, as well, of the industry’s trend in employing nostalgia and cultural memory – the romanticising of iconic and cult cinema – to create a multi-million dollar consumer market.
Yet the industry’s reliance upon those brand names that are intrinsically entwined with cinema’s identity – ‘Star Wars’, ‘Jurassic Park’, the Marvel and DC universes – as well as their multi-episodic usage and adaptation of other cultural forms – ‘Harry Potter’, ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ – has created a consumer fatigue and disillusionment, which in conjunction with the growing price of a cinema ticket and the burgeoning popularity of ‘on demand’ services, has resulted in declining attendance figures and falling box office revenue. The convergence towards homogenous products across the major film studios has created a hierarchy in which economic gain is superior to quality of product, an industry trend that “risks damaging the ecology of the business and accelerating already existing negative secular trends.”
It is not a revelation, then, that the small screen is experiencing a new, heightened wave of popularity. Programmes such as HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ have drawn focus upon television’s ability to rival the technological and visual quality of cinema within the consumer’s own private space, a space that is becoming a vital feature of consumer culture. The explosion of digital services have built upon the growing need for convenience in Western society – fast food, fast TV – as well as the need for a low-cost lifestyle without sacrifice. The ‘small screen’ no longer refers solely to the black box sitting in the corner, but those devices which are at the helm of the digital revolution: computers, smartphones and tablets. And with small screen narratives now rivalling cinema in ‘star power’ and both technological and artistic quality – all at a ‘bundle’ cost, rather than a pay-per-view – mutterings of ‘the golden age of TV’ are rife.
Gatsby’s green light
The foundation of this ‘golden age of TV’ is, first and foremost, rooted in the variety of products that can be offered to consumerists primarily due to the differing nature of the television and film industries’ greenlighting restraints. The mass accumulation and churning out of franchises by the film industry is deeply influenced by the alteration of the greenlighting process from executive autonomy to democratic decision, from gut instinct of an individual to involvement of factors such as marketing and international distribution. Combined with increased expenditure to fund the required technology and celebrities that will draw the public to cinemas, profit and loss projections are the decisive power in an industry in which losses can ruin a studio. Reliance upon brand names is low risk, as are narratives that are supported by financial models and cater to established tropes and the human need for spectacle: would ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ be greenlit by a studio in 2016? “Probably not”.
The television industry depends upon financial projections for their products as well, although they are at the mercy of the advertising companies who invest on the basis of an underdeveloped pilot alone. Unlike film studios, networks greenlight several pilots each year – the 2012/2013 season accrued 186 amongst American networks alone – but not all pilots metamorphose into a full-length television series. Executive committees, focus groups, and the advertising companies determine which productions will be screened to homes, and with the major national and cable networks all vying for a success and advertising revenue, narratives that are deemed ‘risky’ are naturally sought after.
Untraditional narratives – a terminally ill Chemistry teacher who produces and sells meth with a former student to provide for his family’s future, a fictional New Jersey mob boss trying to balance his lives at home and at work – are experimented with and provide the novelty that audiences are searching for. Buzz words such as ‘Original Drama’ and ‘Original Series’ are used by networks to indicate their group of exclusive programs with that sense of unique brilliance. In the case of HBO, who have produced ‘Boardwalk Empire’, ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Silicon Valley’ as well as other notable series, these buzz words automatically become associated with high quality programming, and thus engender trust from the consumer in a relationship that is becoming increasingly important to solidify amongst growing competition. Would ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ be greenlit by networks in 2016? Probably.
It is, after all, quality that defines a series and produces a loyal viewership whilst simultaneously increasing it through word of mouth. Whereas in the film industry, a film can create a profit whilst being poorly received by critics and its audience [‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Armageddon’], a negatively reviewed pilot or television series generally loses viewership figures and thus advertising revenue, making it highly unlikely that further episodes will be attempted. For the consumer, television is a lower risk of time and money input, and as a result, more willingly and frequently accessed. This willingness is only further encouraged with the migration of traditionally cinematic features to the small screen. The usage of ‘star power’ to create interest and mark a programme’s quality is widespread: Martin Scorsese’s directing role for ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and Kevin Spacey’s lead role in Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ is highly indicative of the increasing reputation of television as an artistic medium, rather than its previous belittling relegation as a form of ‘entertainment’. As well, the technological artistry that was once reserved solely for those studio backed, celebrity ridden cinematic pieces, is now slowly becoming an option for television programmes, if not a feature. The absence heretofore of this type of technology and star influence in television programming, however, has created a tradition, or rather a habit, for networks to emphasise the quality of the narrative, the main morsel to be fed to hungry audiences.
Of course, the long-term narrative form that television employs adds to the quality perception of its programmes in a manner that a cinematic narrative cannot do. More nuanced characterisation, the ability to add to storylines and expand upon plot points, produces a multifaceted and complex interaction with a viewer. Whilst long-term narrative doesn’t guarantee a high quality product, as Jason Mittell rightfully warns in ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’, the shift from a singular, episodic narrative to a narrative arc that is traced across multiple episodes builds upon the emotional response that an audience both wants and needs in order to invest in and remain tied to a programme.
In turn, a community of sensitive show watchers is created, loyally consuming media and, as only natural to a consumerist society, wanting to share it. Cinema and television are talking points, forms of media that define part of an individual’s social identity. With the rise of social communities – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – the need to conform our media consumption to match the social groups we belong to is a powerful urge. Live web blogs that encourage conversation between viewers and hashtags that add to the dialogue between a wealth of live commentators creates a sense of belonging, comradery, and social relevance that is not feasible with cinema. Yet the inflexibility of television – set programmes fixed into a weekly programming schedule – was simultaneously a communicative ritual for loyal viewers and a blockade for new consumers that desired a taste of the nectar. The ascent of digital on demand, however, has been the great social equaliser, offering access to programmes from their initial pilot as well as fast turnaround times from television set to computer or smartphone screen.
AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ is a startling result of the impact of the digital revolution: its first season drew an average of 1.23 million viewers, garnering positive criticism from the tongues of viewers and critics alike. Yet kind and complementary mutterings could not draw a new, dedicated audience after three series of long-form narrative. Whilst the programme approached the finale of its third season [maintaining a steady average viewership], AMC agreed with Netflix to allow subscribers to access all three seasons via the service. Word of mouth combined with accessibility encouraged consumption, and the fifth season averaged an audience of 4.32 million, with a finale that drew a spectacular 10.28 million viewers.
The power of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu are rooted in the age of convenience and social media that the 21st century is gripped by. The main marketplace for consumers is now the home, in place of the cinema or the shopping complex, encouraging ‘taboo’ behaviour whilst liberating consumers from public conduct. “Binge watching”, mass consumption in a short space of time, is the social legacy of streaming services, and even the user-generated slogan of ‘Netflix and Chill’ marks the VoD service as a paragon of social convenience for a low monetary input.
The Final Curtain?
The colossal success of ‘The Force Awakens’, its conquering of both hearts and wallets, cannot be disregarded when discussing the cinematic apocalypse. Its formula, however, was unique – a franchise engrained in cultural memory with mass social coverage across generations – and it only expedites the growing trend amongst cinematic narratives to be tied to a low risk, cultural marker with an established fan base. The magic of the cinema, the red velvet chairs and spirit of community, may be waning, but the breadth of heritage that it enjoys will ensure cinematic narrative remains a significant part of media consumption. Its survival during this digital epoch, however, when television narratives are blossoming and booming as a result of increased consumption and accessibility, places scrutiny upon both its quality, expense and medium. The announcement of Netflix’s agreement with the Weinstein Company to distribute the in-production sequel to ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ – slated to be available to stream & watch in cinemas simultaneously, and conveniently being released in time for Netflix’s expansion into international territories – is an affirmation of the shift in market popularity towards inexpensive convenience. Yet the pressure that a cinematic narrative is under to drive profit margins – much easier to achieve with a brand name that is only accessible in a certain time frame before being released for home viewing after social coverage has fizzled out – it seems highly likely that it will be stuck in a stasis: the cinematic narrative may have a safety net in its past, but television narratives have the advantage of the future.