TV’s golden age has freed cinema to do what it does best

Cinema has always been about spectacle – it’s not yet walking dead. AAP/Marcus Walters, Gerrit Fokkema

At the opening night of the Victorian College of the Arts graduate film screening season this month, keynote speaker Clayton Jacobson (writer/director of Kenny, 2006) mentioned to the audience his belief that we are currently experiencing a golden age of television.

Mr Jacobson is certainly not the first to make the observation and I doubt he will be the last, but it led me to thinking: why now? And what does it mean for theatrical cinema now that television is so good?

In the days before the home video cassette recorder, prime-time television programs generally followed a rule of status quo: each episode began and ended with the same group of characters in more or less the same state.

Television producers could not assume that viewers would be able to watch each episode of any given show. Screening schedules were at the mercy of broadcasters and if for any reason an episode was missed, due to work or misadventure, there was little to no possibility of catching up other than discussions around the water cooler at work or with friends.

Television of course was always an advertising medium: programs existed to sell products and the viewers were very aware of the contract between audience and producer:

We will give you entertainment for free, but you have to watch our advertising in exchange.

Sony Betamax 1978. Nesster, CC BY

To some extent the status quo was challenged with the advent of the VCR. It became possible to time-shift viewing, at least for those who were capable of programming the infernal machine, and to rent or purchase content on cassette for viewing at times decided by the consumer, not dictated by the broadcaster.

But the visual quality of VHS was low and the price point of entry was relatively high. Not to mention that distribution of material, whether legal or otherwise, was still restricted to physical copies on bulky video cassettes, copies that became more and more degraded with each generation and with multiple viewings.

Digital technologies including DVD, Blu-ray, ubiquitous high-definition large-screen TVs, and of course easy access to digital content online, has fundamentally changed the way audience interact with “the box”.

The viewing public holds power that once belonged solely to broadcasters – audiences decide what they want to watch and when and how they watch it. Binge viewing TV programs is becoming the new norm, a practice still resisted by traditional media outlets that maintain their weekly roll out of programs but firmly embraced by upstarts such as Netflix.

Programming

Now that practically every middle-class home has an entertainment system capable of HD playback – (74% of Australian households in 2013) – it should come as no surprise that they want to use the technology.

Producers have been happy to respond with a swath of high-quality programming for all tastes, from Downton Abbey to The Walking Dead and everything in between. Exceptional casts have been attracted to smart, well-written scripts and the security of ongoing television productions with long but not outrageous working hours.

Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery in Season Two of Downton Abbey. The TC series is returning to the Seven Network at 8.30pm on Sunday May 20. AAP/Seven Network

When I visited the Film Roman offices in LA earlier this year (producers of The Simpsons) the staff spoke about the audience demand for detail in every frame. The days of getting away with simple coloured boxes in the background are long gone: HD demands that every box be labelled and every book titled, preferably with in-jokes and gags for the fans.

No discussion of the new age of TV would be complete without referencing the juggernaut that is Game Of Thrones. At a reputed average cost of US$6 million an episode ($10 million for the pilot), it is the most expensive television program of all time and, piracy concerns notwithstanding, also one of the most lucrative.

Spectacle

But what does all of this mean for cinema? If viewers are stuck at home bingeing on DVD boxsets and torrents then surely the theatrical motion picture industry must be on the brink of collapse? As it turns out, not so much.

According to Box Office Mojo, eight of the top ten grossing films of all time were produced in the last five years. The other two were Titanic (1997) which although originally released in 1997 received a stereoscopic 3D rerelease in 2012, and The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003).

In 2013 Disney broke all records with more than US$4 billion in box office, only to break that record again in 2014 – and the year is not yet over, with some big Christmas releases still to come.

Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902). Wikimedia Commons

With the much-hyped purchase of Lucasfilm and the impending Star Wars sequels, not to mention the powerhouse performance of Disney’s Marvel division and the ever dependable Pixar, the future for Disney looks very bright indeed. It seems theatrical cinema still has some life left.

There are certainly those who complain that current offerings at the international box office are mostly dumbed-down comic book movies.

These individuals bemoan the loss of “real” cinema as big-screen offerings veer more and more into apparently mindless spectacle. But spectacle has always been at the heart of cinema. George Melies himself, creator of the first ever effects-driven science-fiction blockbuster Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), was only concerned with spectacle:

As for the scenario, the “fable”, or “tale” [… it] has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the “stage effects”, the “tricks”, or for a nicely arranged tableau.

New wave

Cinema in its earliest days was seen as a medium for delivering spectacle of a kind that could not be achieved on stage. The medium was fairly quickly co-opted into telling stories, first as literally filmed stage plays but as cinematic language developed so to did the ability to tell stories in ways unique to the screen.

But the roughly two-hour duration of a theatrical presentation has always been, if not an obstacle, at least a limitation for telling complex screen stories. Of course there are many wonderful feature films that tell great and powerful stories, just as there are many wonderful short stories, but a short story is not a novel.

Adaptations of novels for the screen invariably leave out or merge many characters and plot points, much to the irritation of existing fans of the work, while short story adaptations, such as the Spierig brothers recent Predestination, are able to present a more intact version of the narrative.

While extended screen time allows for greater depth of writing, it is interesting to note that the TV season of 22 to 26 episodes is also fading. The new wave of TV has embraced the short run, high-quality series.

Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson as Martin Hart in True Detective. Foxtel

Game of Thrones produces 10 episodes a season, this year’s True Detective only eight episodes. The most recent season of 24, a show that takes its name from the premise that each of its 24 episodes represents one hour of screen time, was limited to 12 episodes.

These are all short runs by traditional television standards, but with much more screen time to devote to character development and intricacies of plot than any feature film could hope for.

Ultimately my point is this: television has not killed cinema, if anything it has freed cinema to do what it is best at. The invention of photography did not spell the death of painting. For centuries artists, at least those in Europe, had been working within strictly representational parameters, developing techniques to create more and more realistic depictions of their subjects.

There is no denying a camera is a better tool to record how a given subject appears at a given moment, but painters did not suddenly disappear. The explosion in creativity that occurred just as photography appeared is testament to the freedom created as painters were allowed to explore and exploit the medium in ways they never could before.

Without the invention of the camera there could not have been a Jackson Pollock or a Joan Miró.

It is a fallacy to presume cinema was intended to be all about story and character – not to say that it can’t or shouldn’t be – but cinematic spectacle is also a valid use of the medium and one that should be seen not as a betrayal of the medium but rather a return to form.

For those who complain about lack of quality storytelling, you’re just not watching enough TV.