Discourse On The State of Movies Is a Hot New Trend

By Patrick von Sychowski | January 18, 2014 5:06 am PST

 Every few years a notable film critic will take a step back and assess where motion pictures finds themselves in the changing nexus of art, technology and commerce. Notable recent ones are New York Press critic’s Godfrey Cheshire’s “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema” (1999), a prescient look at the coming future-shock that digital projection would bring. A decade later there was The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane examination of the rise of 3D, “Third Way – The Rise of 3D“.

Adding to this canon are two new entrants. The first from The New York Time’s A.O. Scott (right) who looks at whether television dramas have unseated films as the source of quality drama in his piece “The Big Picture Strikes Back“. Surveying the “post-film, platform-agnostic, digital-everything era,” he asks “what the art of cinema might be” in this era. It is a think-piece that anyone involved in, or who cares about, film and media should read and reflect upon. The second is a piece titled “Film Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Misused” and is written by Kenneth Turan, chief film critic at the Los Angeles Times. He diligently assures readers that “nothing can envelop viewers like a movie,” but that “the emphasis at movie studios on profits has hurt content”

The publication of these two latest editorials, so close together, seemed like the perfect opportunity for Celluloid Junkie’s own thought provokers to discuss their own views on the subject. The following is transcript of their conversation:

J. Sperling Reich: Much in the way Hollywood studios will all jump on a hot new trend like 3D or paranormal stories, this really seems to be a year in which everyone is piling on the film business. I’m not sure if it stems from the public finally growing bored with the onslaught of mediocre tentpole releases that soak up so much public mindshare or if the fact that filmmakers themselves have started bemoaning the state of the artform. First we had Steven Soderbergh’s talk at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year about the dire state of cinema, then almost immediately we had Steven Spielberg and George Lucas echoing the sentiment. I suppose that’s what prompted A.O. Scott’s piece. What do you think? In your travels have you noticed that ragging on current movies and the industry itself have become almost trendy?

Patrick von Sychowski: It’s definitely hip to be down on films. However, movies and the industry that spawns them regularly go through bouts of soul searching and anxiety, with the Golden Era of the 40s and 50s or the studio ‘auteur’ era of the 70s giving way to the elephantine Cinerama spectacles of the 60s (think Cleopatra) and multiplex and VHS fodder of the 80s (think Police Academy III). The difference this time is that the ragging comes in the shadow of what Wired Magazine dubbed the ‘Platinum Age’ of television, with the growth of screen sizes in people’s homes matched by a rise in quality of what’s shown on them. Cinema may not face the existential threat that is staring newspapers and magazines in the face – a quick look at the MPAA numbers confirm that, particularly given the growth in non-US markets – but films have lost the elite cultural cache that was once the their exclusive preserve. The Coppolas, Scoceses, Ashbys, Friedkins and Spielbergs of the 70s are today the Chases, Gilligans, Weiners, Huruwitzes and Harmons. So isn’t the “decline” of movies simply the ascendancy of HBO and Netflix?

J. Sperling Reich: I’m not sure if it’s HBO, Netflix or a specific source of content. I think a flood of media from 500 cable networks, to multi-player video games, to mobile apps, iPods, the Internet and more, has shifted the attention of an entire generation of younger consumers and focused it on a range of mediums some of which they have control over. The kinds of visual effects that used to be achievable only in feature films can now be seen in the latest blockbuster video game release. So now you have Hollywood studios wanting to up the ante by producing these huge tentpole releases that cost a fortune. One of the issues Spielberg and Lucas were highlighting earlier this year is that the stakes are so high with so many films now that studios are trying to lower the risk by casting big movie stars and backing them with expensive marketing campaigns. This has meant fewer medium sized titles or “art” films get made leaving a ton of talented creatives on the sideline.

Whether they are an actor, a writer, a producer, a cinematographer, they still need to work. As well, their agents, managers, lawyers, publicists and so on need the creatives to continue working so their own livelihoods don’t dry up. Where did these people turn? To television. Just ask Frank Darabont a motion picture director who launched “The Walking Dead” on television, or David Fincher who is now jumping between feature films and a television series on Netflix. When I worked at talent agencies in the 1990s, television used to be considered “movie jail”. If your career had suffered a setback or was on the decline, you headed to television to find whatever work you could. If things worked out on television, you could might be able to head back to feature films. And that was the goal. But that was also a time when most, though not all, of what appeared on television was generally inferior that what could be found on screen at cinemas. There are amazingly talented artists working in television today on projects and series that have become cultural landmarks. You just mentioned some of them. As Scott and Turan explain, this has meant that television has begun to overshadow movies by becoming a larger part of the ongoing cultural discourse. You really defined it perfectly when you said films have lost their “elite culturale cache”. That’s the phrase I’ve been looking for in trying to explain this trend in various venues including Celluloid Junkie and Showbiz Sandbox.

Patrick von Sychowski: I wonder if those early days of “movie jail” were responsible for much of the increase in the quality of television that we are seeing today. Before the Finchers and Soderberghs started swinging between film and TV, there were major directors from the independent movie sphere doing quality work in episodic television: Carl Franklin (Rome, Riches), Agnieszka Holland (The Wire, Cold Case), Leslie Linka Glatter (The Unit, House M.D.), Ernest Dickerson (Dexter, The Wire) and many others. [Note also from this list that TV appears more welcoming to female and African-American directors, who don’t get as much work on studio films.] Television might be a writer’s, and by extension a showrunner’s, medium, but that has not prevented many notable directors putting their distinctive stamp on it. Some like John Dahl seem to have switched over permanently from film to television and never looked back. Whether they did it out of artistic choice or for the security of income that it brings I do not know, but they have done their best work on the ‘smaller screen’ and the medium is richer for it.given the de-stigmatification that you highlighted, I don’t see the quality of television ever going back to being the ‘dumb box’ that it was when it really still was a cube in the corner of the living room. To borrow Harlan Ellison’s expression, it is now the ‘glass teat’ that we will suckle on for the best cultural nourishment. With 500 channels there’s now always something on worth watching.

Returning to films, though, Scott and Turan’s defense of the medium seems to rest on the fact that movies do some things better than television will, whether it is the 3D spectacle of “Gravity” or the self-contained two-hour emotional character arcs in black-and-white of “Nebraska’” or “Frances Ha”. Effectively this seems to boil down to saying that television can’t be a non-episodical success. This does put a squeeze on medium-budget films, but does it mean that we should be prepared to kiss them goodbye for good? The frustrating thing about Scott and Turan’s pieces is that they are heavily skewed towards this year’s cinema releases – understandably, given their film critic day jobs – but we are comparing them against television shows that have often run for years. The Wire became a classic almost only in hindsight and even Breaking Bad attention didn’t reach fever pitch amongst critics, commentators and viewers until the last few episodes. We telescope the quality of the likes of Mad Men and The Walking Dead forward, forgetting the less good seasons and episodes. So when it comes to films vs. TV, is it not so much comparing apples and oranges as using yardsticks for the latter and centimeter rules for the former?

J. Sperling Reich: Well, I might be the wrong person to ask about yardsticks and centimeters since we don’t use the metric system in the United States and the conversion has always confused me. I would tend to agree with you thought that it is very difficult to compare both the success and artistic merit of a multi-season television show against a single film title.

What’s really interesting is how some television series are given more time now to succeed then they had been in the past. You mentioned “Breaking Bad” and I would add to that “Sons of Anarchy” which are shows where the audience grew to ever greater sizes over time, rather than declined year-over-year as had been customary. Meanwhile, a movie that doesn’t live up to box office expectations is quickly labeled a “flop” by trade publications and countless media outlets if it doesn’t perform well after matinee showtimes conclude. Film releases are often given little more than an opening weekend to find an audience. In that regard the two mediums couldn’t be more different.

It might be easier or more appropriate to compare a television series to a movie franchise. More and more we are seeing franchises such as “Fast & Furious”, “X-Men”, “Hunger Games” and “Iron Man” which have serialized narratives and a growing audience size with each new release. Typically box office grosses for sequels have declined from their previous releases, however thanks to home video and a number of other factors, possibly even piracy, certain franchises have actually managed to increase viewership for later releases, much the way “The Wire” gained in the ratings in its last few years on the air. In part, this might have to do with booming international markets, but not entirely. Instead I would point to long term audience cultivation

Patrick von Sychowski: I think you hit the nail on its head with the observation about “long term audience cultivation.” People have become conditioned in completely different ways about watching television, not just in terms of appreciating and following complexity of editing, narrative, characterisation, etc. but also in terms of their habits of consumption. What’s dismissively called “binge-viewing” is the new normal, as the Netflix study released in December showed. Your recent post about Leonard Maltin’s rant regarding cinema audiences today is a very telling flipside of the same coin. The people going to the multiplexes seem to have taken the worst habits of the TV room with them: texting, talking, munching loudly, updating social network status, adding to the general pain of extended (pre-movie) advertising breaks, long trailer blocks and pricey concessions putting off many other cinema goers. So it is fascinating that reversely, we have also embraced many of the noblest features of cinema going at home, in terms of appreciating the more sophisticated fare.

Added to this is the breakdown of release windows that blurs the boundry between what is content for the cinema and the home. In the UK art house cinema operator Curzon has its Curzon on Demand service for the titles that it also distributes. In reviewing several end-of-summer art-house films this year the New Yorker Richard Brody perhaps inadvertently highlighted a trend of the day-and-date cinema and VOD release that exhibitors have been fighting tooth and nail, at least for bigger, shall we say more ‘Hollywood’ releases. It is worth quoting two sections:

In addition to the extraordinary “Drinking Buddies,” by Joe Swanberg, and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” by David Lowery (which are also available via video on demand), two other independent films that opened in the last few weeks are among the worthiest films on screens now: “This Is Martin Bonner” (also on V.O.D.) and “Short Term 12.”


Two new films by venerable directors, Francis Ford Coppola (“Twixt”) and Brian De Palma (“Passion”) are also available on demand (De Palma’s film opens theatrically today as well), and I take no pleasure in saying that both films convey a sense of great artists who haven’t renewed their ideas or their methods.

Isn’t it extraordinary that the fact that films go out the same day to the cinema and the home doesn’t merit more than a “are also available on demand.” Surely that’s a sign of how far the world has shifted. Have cinemas quietly given up the fight? Has your lounge become the new art house? (Do I sound like Carrie Bradshaw?)

Best reach for Quentin Crisp’s sublime “How To Go To The Movies”, which I urge everyone to use the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon just to read the introduction to the book titled ‘The Forgetting Chamber’. Favourite quote: “a regular diet of celluloid is fast becoming difficult to obtain.” Maybe it is a sign of just how bad things have gotten with kids if they require this kind of step-by-step instructions to do what QC implored: http://www.wikihow.com/Go-to-the-Movies

Patrick von Sychowski
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