Monday, March 19, 2012

The New Dominant Media

ABC's new Thursday night drama, "Missing," stars several familiar faces. There's Ashley Judd, playing the heroine with Sean Bean and Cliff Curtis in major supporting roles. All three are better known for their work in films, and ten years ago it would have been extremely unusual to see actors with their resumes appearing on prime time television for more than a special guest spot or two. But then, ten years ago movie studios were still making the kind of mid-range dramas that Ashley Judd used to headline, and there were still enough decent supporting roles to go around for character actors like Bean and Curtis.

As Hollywood has contracted in recent years, with financing becoming scarcer, and the studios making fewer and fewer films, mostly big tentpole blockbusters, the industry's talent has steadily headed for television. This is not the first time that this has happened. Television has traditionally moved into areas that the movies have left behind, absorbing newsreels, cartoons, and many different film genres and formats, along with all the talent that produced them. For film talent with flagging careers, television was long viewed as a fallback position, somewhere for the likes of Charlie Sheen or Rosie O'Donnell to remake themselves, or for Robert Downey Jr. to test the waters after his rehabilitation.

However, we've never seen so many people who have made their names in the movies migrating into television, especially in the pay-cable realm. Showtime is currently airing comedies and dramas headlined by William H. Macy, Jeremy Irons, Claire Danes, Don Cheadle, and Laura Linney. And it's not just the actors, but directors and writers and producers coming to television too. Martin Scorsese and Steve Buscemi are the minds behind "Boardwalk Empire." Frank Darabont, who directed "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile," was the major creative force behind the first season of "The Walking Dead." It's no longer rare to see someone like J.J. Abrams juggling multiple television and film projects at once.

Media commentators have been watching the migration for a while now, musing that the new "golden age of television" might be indicative of television becoming the dominant artistic medium of the popular culture of the 21st century, as movies were for the 20th century, and literature and paintings were before that. I addressed this idea a while ago on this blog, remarking that I didn't see movies becoming less important or influential a medium. Rather, I thought the we were seeing just the latest round of skirmishes between television and the movies, a rivalry that has been going on since the dawn of television in the 50s. However, I'm starting to question my position.

The more I compare the content on television to the content of mainstream films, the more woefully limited the film world starts to look. Outside of the indies and foreign projects, movies these days are almost all aimed at the younger demographics, leaving older viewers woefully underserved. When television first appeared on the scene, film struggled to differentiate itself, not only by providing larger spectacles such as widescreen epics, but by tackling the kind of subject matter that you couldn't do on television. This was the era when the Hayes code was finally retired, and the movies could show sex, violence, and sensitive content to a much greater degree.

But now, television has all but caught up, and studio films have gotten progressively more risk averse and dumbed down. Sure, comedies are full of raunch and nudity you still couldn't show on television unedited, and horror went through its unpleasant "torture porn" phase, but I don't see anyone at the studios using that freedom to its full potential. Movie executives these days abhor message pictures, have largely stopped making war movies after a string of bombs, shy away from real controversy and topicality, and get more exasperated with their awards contenders each year for not drawing more crowds. Ambition is in short supply, resulting in more B-movies, cartoon features, and sequels.

This is not to say that good movies aren't being made, and that they're not being made with encouraging regularity, but the financial reality of the movie business has made it far more difficult for interesting filmmakers to operate within the confines of the Hollywood system. So most of the real auteurs work outside of Hollywood, with smaller budgets and few guarantees that their work will ever be seen by mainstream audiences. Studios are now either making huge, pricy action blockbusters or tiny, cheap genre flicks, and these are the movies that enjoy the overwhelming majority of press coverage, marketing muscle, and media attention for most of the year. There are outliers, like Tyler Perry's movies, but these are increasingly rare.

So who's left to make Todd Haynes' new version of "Mildred Pierce," and the adult fantasy epic "Game of Thrones," and the sultry 60s melodrama "Mad Men," and the cancer comedy "The Big C"? HBO, Showtime, Starz, AMC, and FX. Sure, there's plenty of genre schlock and reality shows around, but you can also find an amazing diversity of content being broadcast with no equivalent on studio slates. Television has quietly absorbed even more of their abandoned genres, including domestic dramas and women's stories, and is willing to spend money producing them. In the rare event that you do see a thoughtful, low-key drama on the big screen, it's usually a festival acquisition, playing a few art house screens in limited release.

It's also important to remember that this is actually a three-way fight now, with the fledgling Internet emerging as a major contender. Internet-based content models are still in their infancy, but their influence is already being felt. So many people are now consuming so much media from the internet, it is quickly supplanting both film and television as a common source. And just as television was bolstered in its early days by broadcasting old films, both television and film content are finding new lives through internet distribution. And if there's one telling sign that television content is considered on par with film content now, it's how they're treated on the web.

Netflix turned its sights from acquiring first run movies to bulking up their library with televised content, and will be launching its own web-based shows. Renting two episodes of "Breaking Bad" or "The Walking Dead" from Amazon or iTunes costs about as much as renting a feature film. Television and movies are being put head to head in direct competition on a new playing field. And I wouldn't be the least surprised, when the figures come in, if television content emerges as the ultimate winner.

Well, at least until the Internet gets its act together and clobbers them both.

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