WHAT TV IS DOING THAT THE MOVIES AREN’T
In the last post, I talked about the inherent difficulties in creating original art in a medium as collaborative and expensive as film. Yet television, long considered a ‘wasteland’, is enjoying a widely acknowledged creative renaissance at the same time the movies are striking out. On first glance, this is puzzling. They’re both mediums of visual narrative aimed at a mass audience with budgets sizeable enough to preclude amateur involvement. But I think there are key differences, intrinsic and imposed, that have made it easier to achieve excellence in television than in film – at least in the last decade.
FAILURE DIVIDED BY TIME
One reason might be that TV creators simply get more chances. Movies are a one-shot deal, while television is usually serialized over a period of months or years. Spreading the narrative out over a longer period of time relieves some expositional and character building pressure from the creators. And it allows more leeway for mistakes, since viewers see the episodes, at least in part, as distinct entities, and won’t judge an entire show too harshly based on a few bum apple episodes. In fact, most great shows not only have a few crap episodes but at least one mediocre season, but fans view that as an inevitable part of the process of getting so many hours of entertainment. To use a term from finance, television has the ability to amortize its failure over time, a luxury that films, by their very nature, don’t have.
But I don’t want to let the movie industry off the hook that easily. There are stark differences in the choices that the two industries – even though they’re often owned by the same parent company – have made in distributing their product to the people. These choices have made all the difference for the end product.
SCRATCHING THE NICHE
Since the 80’s, television has benefitted creatively from the introduction of niche markets, a.k.a. the cable networks. None of us would be talking about the current “golden age” of television if our only choices were still the Big Three. Relieving the pressure to please everyone all the time, producers can work on quality shows knowing that an audience lies out there somewhere among the cable universe. Movies haven’t really figured out to do this profitably yet. All the money is gambled on the shoot-em-up spectacles and the inane star-driven romantic comedies, with a few crumbs left over for tedious and predictable prestige pictures for Oscar bait. These days, the cinematic circus is all tentpoles with nothing underneath. The medium budget studio movie is basically dead, and with the collapse of foreign pre-sales as a method of financing last year, indie film distribution is struggling more than ever. Rather than researching alternative avenues of income and distribution, the Big Six studios keep putting their bets on bigger, dumber, and younger. Meanwhile, adults looking for thoughtful movies are out of luck.
THE WRITER AS PAUPER AND PRINCE
The lowly treatment of writers in the movie industry is the stuff of on- and off-screen legend. Robert Altman’s The Player captures the feeling most vividly when it has a producer literally kill a screenwriter and get away with it. Once a screenwriter hands in a script, he/she can expect to have it rewritten twenty times by God-knows-how-many writers hired afterwards, not to mention being shut out of the set and thus, further input.
The case of Ridley Scott’s recent stinker, Robin Hood, is a good illustration. Originally entitled Nottingham, the script took a fresh spin at the myth by telling the story from the Sherriff of Nottingham’s point of view. Using forensics, he hunts down a local terrorist, aka Robin Hood. The script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris quickly became a hot property and the subject of an intense bidding war.
Given that there have already been 111 movies about Robin Hood according to IMDB, it was essential that any new movies about this legend actually be, well, new movies. And this script, while dark and unconventional, certainly promised that. Well, till Russell Crowe, director Ridley Scott, producer Brian Glazer, and god knows how many other writers got their hands on it. First, Ridley became obsessed with archery and had the movie rewritten to be all about that. You and I might think that’s the least interesting part of the Robin Hood myth, but what do we know? We didn’t direct G.I. Jane. Oh, and then Scott thought it would be interesting to have Russell Crowe be both Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham in a Fight Club sort of twist. I almost wish they would have ran with this idiotic idea so at least the movie would’ve been spectacularly bad instead of just plain old boring bad. But cooler, more conventional, heads prevailed, and it became little more than a retread of the last big Scott/Crowe team-up.
“The script went through many, many different changes…. But to me, really, it’s more about the visuals. It’s the Gladiator version of Robin Hood.”
– Brian Grazer to Entertainment Weekly
Who in the hell – beside the aforementioned three – wants that movie? No one, according to Rotten Tomatoes and the box office. But it’s a familiar story in Hollywood. A studio buys a script for its unique and compelling voice, and proceeds to strangle that unique and compelling voice until it’s the same whimpering moan of mediocrity that we get every week out of these guys.
Contrast that with television, where the writer/producer supersedes the hired-hand director and has final say over what happens to their story (except for the execs, of course). I’m not saying that film needs to hand over the reigns to the writers. It is a director’s medium, after all. But somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that auteur means author. If directors aren’t going to write their own scripts, they should at least listen to the people that do, even after they write them a check. The current too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen process –a tug of war between half a dozen screenwriters, inane input from egotistical execs, clueless after-the-fact focus group suggestions – is murdering storytelling at the cineplex. Art By Committee is an oxymoron, not a business plan. I’m biased, obviously, but if you stop treating the writers like they’re disposable, you might start getting something besides throw-away movies.
IS THE CINEMATIC SITUATION HOPELESS?
So much of modern moviemaking seems to be a conspiracy against quality, where expecting a good time that doesn’t insult your intelligence is a sucker’s bet. Entertainment – to say nothing of art – rarely makes it out alive. But does it have to be this way? So many of the problems revolve around the monopoly of the Big Six studios, and their chokehold on the making and releasing of film product. Given the recent revolutions in the distribution of home entertainment like Netflix, Red Box, and on-demand, it seems odd that hasn’t had more of an effect on the production side, especially since the secondary market is where most movies make back their budget.
Perhaps this change towards digital distribution can make the digital revolution that happened in production finally bear fruit. Higher quality HD cameras such as The Red have made digital indies look less like subpar high-school productions (see The Anniversary Party, Funny Ha Ha, etc.), and more like the kind of adult art than can give the majors a run for their money. The movie industry is nothing if not unpredictable, and I wouldn’t count out quality movies as being something to compete on. Stranger things have happened.