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A creative crisis for Hollywood and the Golden Age of television

No viewer is willing to leave home to watch a middle-brow movie when he or she can get TV entertainment that is as good as (if not better than) any movie. Hollywood’s response - up its budgets, increase its special effects, build franchises.

art and culture Updated: Dec 27, 2018 11:57 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times, Delhi
Vir Sanghvi,Vir Sanghvi writes,The taste with Vir
Representational image of a Star Wars movie as the film begins. (Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash)

If you are a movie buff then you will know why they say that Hollywood is in the middle of a creative crisis. And why they call this the Golden Age of television.

The Hollywood problem is self-evident and its most obvious symptom is the Oscar ceremony. Once, this was the highlight of the Hollywood year. The ceremony would honour the year’s ‘best’ films (whatever that meant) which, by some remarkable coincidence, would usually be among the biggest hits of the year.

Then it all began to go wrong. Over the last few years the Oscar Academy has nominated such films as The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Ladybird.

These are great movies but they are not usually among the year’s most popular films. Often they tend to be too arty and appeal to smaller audiences. Yet, such is the power of the Oscar, that many of them then go on to become big hits once they have won. But rarely do they appear on any list of the year’s top grossers.

As a consequence, viewership of the Oscars has steadily plummeted. Fewer and fewer people care about these movies, and consequently less and less viewers watch the telecast. It has got to the stage where people mention the Golden Globes (which used to be a joke show hosted by the mysterious ‘Hollywood Foreign Press’) in the same breath as the Oscars and this year, the Academy is having difficulty even finding a host for the ceremony.

Simply put, the problem is this: the Academy, which is still dominated by Old Hollywood, refuses to honour the movies that people actually go to the cinemas to see.

The trouble began in the late Seventies and early Eighties when the Academy balked at honouring the likes of Star Wars and other films made by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

This was an Academy tradition. No James Bond movie, for instance, has ever done well at the Oscars, no matter how much money it made. And now, when the biggest grossers feature Batman, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America and Spiderman, the Academy has got even sniffier. It regards action, fantasy and super-hero movies as stunt films, not worthy of recognition.

So it tends to pick relatively small, arty films. This is okay for a film festival. But the Oscars are supposed to honour the best of Hollywood, not the most artistic movies of the year.

And as more and more relatively obscure movies win big, TV audiences are losing interest in what used to be Hollywood’s greatest spectacle.

The Oscar Academy itself is so worried by the drop in ratings that it has considered splitting the Best Picture award into two: one for popular films (those that make money but don’t usually win Oscars) and the normal award, which, these days goes to a movie that most people don’t really want to see.

And yet, to judge the film business only by the Oscars might be to misunderstand the nature of the problem. Films still make money. In fact, the big grossers are such super-hits that new box-office records are set every year. So it is not that movies are losing money.

The problem is that the middle ground has disappeared. Once upon a time, Hollywood studios would greenlight such movies as Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (whose writer, William Goldman, died last year, lamenting that nobody made his kind of movies any longer) and The Sting. Not only were these films big hits, but they were also well-made, classy entertainment.

But now Hollywood either makes The Avengers or The Shape of Water. There is very little space for the middle ground; The Sting would never get made today.

Hollywood’s problem is that the audience for the middle ground has moved to TV. When there was only network TV, some good shows did get made (The West Wing is possibly the best TV show made in the last 30 years) but most TV programming was junk.

Then, cable TV (Showtime, HBO, etc.) changed the rules with a subscription model which allowed for more quality entertainment to be made. And now, the streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, etc.) dominate quality TV.

Twenty years ago, Hollywood could brag that even the TV mini-series, the closest competition to the movies, was a cheap and nasty affair. And yes, the TV channels liked turning books by the likes of Jackie Collins into low budget, no-star sagas. They were more expensive than the average TV show but none of them could compete with real movies.

Now, however, TV has upped its game. It always had the advantage of time. A ten episode series could tell a story much better than a two-hour movie. But now it has the advantage of budgets also. A show like say, Game of Thrones, is as expensive as any movie. And it has the stars. House of Cards was initially powered by Kevin Spacey’s star-power. And that show’s creator Beau Willimont is back with another series starring Matt Damon. Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and many other big stars are now willing to act in shows and movies made by streaming services.

What this means is that no viewer is willing to leave home to watch a middle-brow movie when he or she can get TV entertainment that is as good as (if not better than) any movie.

Hollywood’s response has been to up its budgets, increase its special effects, build franchises (an idea which, if you think about it, is not unlike the principle of a TV show with its recurring characters and premise) and hope that the big screen can provide what a TV set cannot. So far it has worked.

But I sense that the difference between TV and the movies is vanishing. Such gimmicks as 3D (which you can’t really get on TV) seem to be losing their appeal and not all the franchise movies hold our attention (DC is in trouble and the last few Star Wars movies suggest that the concept is wearing thin).

Besides, there is the relentless march of technology. Once upon a time, our TV sets at home were basic and gave us only a fraction of the excitement that the big screen could provide. But now, many of us have large screen TVs at home and the sound systems make our walls reverberate.

There is still no comparison to the experience of watching a movie in a cinema but, as time goes on, the difference will erode. It is hard, for instance, to think of a way in which say, Game of Thrones, will be much better enjoyed on the big screen.

So what happens next?

Well, I doubt if cinema can sustain itself on the basis of The Avengers or Iron Man for very long. As TV gets better and better in term of content, effects, technology and budgets, a time will come when the idea of Iron Man flying across the sky will seem less and less novel. Already, the best superhero movies (Black Panther, for instance) are more character-based and less effects-reliant. And Marvel, to take one example, has as strong a presence on TV as it does in the movies while DC is actually more successful on TV (The Arrowverse) than it is on the big screen.

We’ve talked about ‘convergence’ for decades. But I think it may finally be on its way. The wall between TV and the movies will collapse. Already, the streaming services are finding their movies nominated for Oscars (to qualify all you need to do is to arrange a short theatrical release before putting it on TV). A time will come when the gap between say, Amazon, and say, Paramount, will close.

Will movies survive?

I guess so. But there will be less and less reason to go to the cinema as home entertainment technology improves.

And there is yet another factor: viewership on mobiles phones (which is significant) which suggests that at least part of the audience doesn’t care as much about big screens as we think.

In this brave new world (that is already upon us) everything will become just entertainment. And if the cinema halls are not careful, they will go the way of newspapers in the age of the internet.

So what happens to the beleaguered Oscars? Well basically, the only reason people now take the Golden Globes seriously is because they honour both TV and the movies. If the Oscars are to survive they will need to make a similar jump. The Academy must not just stop discriminating against blockbuster movies, it must also recognise that some of the best entertainment is now on TV.

Will the same thing happen in India?

Well, eventually is has to. As of now, however, most TV is embarrassingly bad and hardly in the same league as international programming. But such shows as the Indian version of 24 and Sacred Games tell us what the future will be like.

The movies will die. But entertainment will live forever.

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First Published: Dec 27, 2018 11:57 IST