Is Television overtaking Cinema?
The question has been asked for some time now and every year seems to be coming to the fore more and more and being posed in different ways. Is television overtaking cinema? Is it producing better quality and more interesting stories than cinema can hope to deliver? Is it a better return for studios and production companies?
I know I’m watching more television shows than I ever have and I’m finding a lot more gratification from them than I am from many films I’m seeing, but seeing a great thriller in those two hours on a big screen or a home cinema still takes some beating for me.
Yet I can’t deny that there’s more talk of television shows that I’ve heard over films, both in my circles of friends and in my social media circles, even from the people who talk about films all the time many conversations are beginning and ending with television series. The question itself is being seen more and more and asked again and again.
How do you see it? Is Television overtaking Cinema?
There are some obvious advantages that a television series carries over a film and most of all it comes down to space. No, not the Gravity (Filmstalker review) kind but the kind that allows people the space to work, to explore, to imagine. A space opened up from constraints.
Film carries the biggest constraints where a group of investors are looking for a huge return, often for a huge investment, with a single product being sent globally in an uncertain marketplace. The money required just to get it to the cinemas is intense and there's only a short window in which to recoup that money and make the required percentage profit.
With television it can be a lot easier. The initial outlay tends to be less, usually for a short run of episodes or even just a pilot to prove the series with the audience and if it turns out to be successful the long tail of return for the series is much longer and more lucrative. Already we're ahead of the film industry who, although they do carry out focus groups, don't get the ability to interact with the audience as television does. For once that short run or pilot is out there feedback can alter the next batch of episodes.
This means that in television the investors don't have to purchase the whole product and rely on one short sale window before the product is pulled, they can invest in smaller parts of a product and if these parts sell well then they can invest in more. If they don't then it's a case of finding out what didn't work and changing that to see if the next batch sells.
You just have to look at pilots of shows compared to the series run to see changes, didn't a different actress to Kaley Cuoco play Penny in The Big Bang Theory pilot? That's a big change, and look how that paid off.
The film money model is much more difficult than television, and there's another competitor, digital. Netflix's House of Cards, LOVEFiLM now Amazon Instant's Vikings, and Amazon Prime's many pilots that are making it to production. For a perfect example of how digital can beat them all, look to Steven Spielberg's upcoming Halo television series, a large film project that failed to make it a number of times and in a number of guises, now it's going straight to an on-line production.
The biggest win that television, and I'll include digital alongside that for the rest of the examples, has over film, well as far as the audience is concerned since the investors are focussed on the above answer, is the long arc storytelling offered by television.
I always hark back to the complexities of Babylon 5 as a demonstration of just that, but think of other modern television series to see how well their long-term storytelling worked - The Shield is another great early example of that and the thread of Vic Mackie was something that lasted all seven series from the opening episode to the closing. A forerunner for many of the series you'll have been watching the past few years.
Most television series take the long arc storytelling view but they don't all rely on it, more and more series are arriving that concentrate solely on that format and are all the more powerful for it. All the big hit series carry this feature - The Shield, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Breaking Bad and many more.
With television you have much more room for characters and character development. You've seen series where separate episodes are devoted to different characters, instead of updating multiple plot threads through one episode they concentrate on showing the story of one character, getting the audience closer to them, understanding them more, building them for later threads. That can be a whole fifty, or on an advertisement rich channel, forty minutes of character development. That would never happen in a film.
Never mind if the characters don't have an entire episode devoted to them, there are upwards of twelve episodes of forty plus minutes in length to develop characters as well as plot threads, a film has a mere one hundred and twenty minutes worth, if it's lucky, to deliver a complete story.
Complementing the extra time and effort that can be applied to character and plot development is the time that this gives the talent. Although television filming can be a more gruelling schedule than film it does have benefits of keeping the character close to the character rather than throwing them back to the trailer for a day, a week or even a month. With television the character is in the fore for the actor or actress and by the same reasoning that there's more time for character development, there is more time for the actor or actress to be the character and inhabit them.
There are so many great character performances in television series to be had, just reel them off and you'll no doubt find yourself hitting most of the list previously mentioned as well as series like The Wire, Sherlock, Homeland, Luther and so on.
Another aspect that this room gives the series is in the plot itself. There's much more acceptance of risk taking to deliver darker stories, more shocking and surprising turns, something that a one hit film model can't do. More often than not the film will rely on the PG13 demographic peddling 3D and epic scale CG to bring in the audiences, failing that or even in addition to that we will see the standard A-list talent playing the same roles we've seen before. With film it's much more a tick-box, spreadsheet exercise, with television there's a lot more risk to be taken. Part of that is because of the following point, the audience.
The audience available to the television series is much greater. If we're talking about a series commissioned or exclusively carried by a television provider that operates a subscription model then their audience is already there and has already paid a month or year in advance. That's a distinct advantage over film where they have no guarantee of income, they provide the money and hope that the marketing and cinema/screen saturation is enough to draw them in. The subscription television provider can then resell their show onto other television providers in other countries and to on-line providers.
If the channel doesn't operate with a subscription model then they still have a huge advantage. People come home and into their living rooms where the television is already, this is the television equivalent of getting people to walk into the foyer of the cinema, now they just need to pick their film. It's clear that television has a larger audience available to it from the outset, and that means the potential for higher returns.
Those are just some of the areas where television can beat cinema all too easily, and it's where television is seen to be doing just that. However is it that simple? Is television really beating cinema for audiences and profits?
One question to ask is whether it really is comparing like for like. Sales of Ford are beating McLaren, well they are because McLaren are hand built and made to order, not to mention insanely expensive, whereas Ford are rolling huge numbers of many different affordable models off of the production line. Is it comparing like for like?
Television and cinema are two different story telling medium. As I mentioned, storytelling in television is usually across twelve to twenty-four episode series with multiple series available to the writers, directors, crew and cast. A couple of hours story telling versus days and weeks worth of content across months and years. Can the two really be compared?
Then there's what's on television to be considered. While those who say that cinema is in decline and television is on the rise are correct but they are missing the other half of the respective pictures. The mainline of cinema is filled with huge Hollywood blockbuster films with little imagination or depth, packed with CGI and 3D, its pulp tailored for the masses, and while that can be very entertaining and enjoyable, that PG13 pitch is often an indicator of blandness. That's the same for television, the majority of what's on television can be described as pulpy, soapy, reality and trashy, yet is the majority of cinema like that? I would suggest no.
Get yourself out of the mainstream multiplex and find your local independent cinema. Go visit films that aren't the Hollywood mainstream, visit thrillers in non-American cinema, particularly European, and suddenly you find the level of quality raised a fantastic amount, perhaps outnumbering the mainstream cinema pulp. Can the same be said for television? There's a lot more rubbish on my television than there is playing in the local cinemas.
So is Television overtaking Cinema? It should always be remembered that comparing the two so blatantly isn't exactly fair. A series offers so much more to the creative teams working on the project as well as the sheer scale of time available to the writers and directors, whereas a film is limited to somewhere around two hours. Television caters to a rather captive and already in place audience whereas cinema has to attract an audience for each and every film. However.
There's no doubt that the quality of television is increasing, more so with the rise of digital services and the growth of the cable providers better stories are being told by more talented people, and it's fair to say that the quality of mainstream cinema is slipping, concerned too much with earning bigger profits in the opening weekend by making bigger films and marketing them more aggressively.
Yet there's a wealth of cinema out there that isn't the ninety percent of the multiplex cinema screens at the weekend, the independent cinemas and rental marketplaces are filled with many other country's great films. I don't think the same can be said of television.
Yet there are a lot of high quality television series that have been seen across the globe and are still being seen, not to mention the ones in development. Just look to the series Lost to see what impact and reach a television series can have or how The Bridge was remade for other countries, and then reel off the list of big name film talent from both in front of and behind the screen that are making the move to television.
Television may not be beating cinema, but it certainly is rising to the fight.