Television: The Future of Cinema?


Since the development of the moving picture camera in the late 19th century, the world, especially Americans, has been fascinated by the silver screen. For a time, people shut out the cold reality of the Great Depression with Shirley Temple's iconic curls, and legends such as Errol Flynn, Gregory Peck, and Katherine Hepburn roamed Hollywood lots and ordered Cobb salads at the Brown Derby. For awhile it seemed that our infatuation with Hollywood would never end, but the most recent decade has seen both its revenue and cultural significance decline, and many industry experts are scrambling to understand how movies have slipped from the spotlight. Internal changes show that studios have reinvested quite a bit of their resources into television production, and although Hollywood has been a television oriented town since the late -1950s, it had never stepped on film profits until fairly recently.

Since the true golden age of Hollywood in the early half of the 20th century, movies have been the most popular entertainment form in the world. There were light periods of decline and blockbusters that spurred audiences to head to their local in droves, but the true decline started in the mid-1990s when audiences bottomed out in 1995. Luckily, James Cameron's epic Titanic stimulated box office sales, but studios were turning out more commercial failures and fewer profit-turners. Some thought things were changing with the massive revenues generated by newly invented DVDs and the huge summer in 2002 that began with Spider-Man's record-breaking opening weekend, but the advent of the internet and digital technology put the kibosh on rising revenues. 

Today, major studios are releasing substantially lower numbers of movies: 120 in 2013 versus 204 in the more optimistic 2006. Ticket sales are at their lowest levels since the 1995 decline, and television revenues account for a massive portion of most major studios' profits. Disney, one of the few consistently profitable movie-makers, derived $618 million in profits from film in 2011 and $6.15 billion off their television productions in the same year, a pattern which is consistent across every major studio. It's been decades in the making, but it's safe to say that television has officially supplanted film as America's entertainment medium of choice.

There are quite a few theories regarding how television has risen over film as dramatically as it has, but careful analysis seems to show a perfect storm of technological and social developments. While DVDs drove studio profits up drastically in the early 2000s, the development of at home rental services such as Netflix, on demand film-viewing from cable providers, and DirecTV, and the growing popularity of serial, cinematic dramas on television such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire (video above), and others, slashed their home entertainment profits. Once upon a time, Seinfeld and Friends were leading the television ratings and there wasn't a huge demand for cinematic-styled, story-driven shows outside of the occasional and much-advertised mini-series.

Some shows that loosely fit this mold gained popularity, such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks, both fairly on the fringe of what could be considered the average taste of viewers. As the revenue from home entertainment was faltering, studios found they couldn't finance the sheer amount of films they used to, and many smaller films were eliminated despite their artistic merits. Twin Peaks' creator and professional boundry-defying auteur David Lynch has recently stated that television has become a much better medium because artists can no longer make small films that get a large release, but television and digital distribution allow for cheaper production and more opportunities to get the green light. Anyone who has seen the widely disliked film Dune might agree that television has been kinder to Lynch's methods.

Lynch also brought up an interesting point when he mused that television brings up the idea of "a continuing story" and anyone who witnessed Walter White's descent from a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher into the crazed drug kingpin Heisenberg likely agrees. The idea that the story can be continued indefinitely has been pursued by many fanatics, for example with Star Wars, notorious for its fairly one-dimensional characters, which has been expanded by decades of fan fiction and novelizations. Television, likewise, allows creators to add nearly infinite facets to their characters, enticing viewers into a world of intrigue that is much more comprehensive and believable than film.

The French have a famous phrase which, roughly translated, is "the more things change, the more they stay the same," and the decline of film seems to fall right into the trend. Oral recitation of epic poetry was replaced by live theater, which was then developed and embraced until serial stories in periodicals came into vogue, prompting classics such as Great Expectations, which were then replaced by film and television. While film is now giving way to television as the primary medium of popular entertainment, computers and web-based streaming are now quickly "replacing" television, and soon another medium, most assuredly, will do the same. - Brandon Engel

Mr. Engel is a blogger in Chicago with a passion for Victorian literature and vintage science-fiction films. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonEngel2.