Scott: Keith and Nathan, the current renaissance in television can be accounted for in a number of ways: the splintering of the viewing public into niche audiences; the increasing popularity of serialized, novelistic forms of storytelling; a more “cinematic” style to complement our giant HDTV sets. At the same time, movies have arguably become more like TV, at least on a technical level. Films are shot and distributed digitally, rather than on celluloid; many films are being made available On Demand at the same time (or even before) they appear in theaters; and special events, like live concerts or theatrical performances, are being streamed at movie theaters. In fact, the new Mike Judge HBO series Silicon Valley is screening this week at the SXSW Film Festival without anyone questioning its appropriateness. I hope we can sort out our feelings about this crossover in this Conversation, but let’s start with two recent events where TV has got its chocolate in movies’ peanut butter:
Thanks to busloads of evangelicals, the religious film Son Of God is nearing $50 million in ticket sales, a healthy number that looks even healthier when you consider that it’s a repackaged abridgment of the 10-hour History Channel miniseries The Bible. The distributor wasn’t exactly trumpeting the fact that it was making people pay for a shorter version of a movie that was once available free to cable subscribers, but it’s nonetheless galling that Son Of God has reduced the theatrical experience to big-screen TV. Then there’s the case of Veronica Mars, which is 100 percent all-new footage (not counting the two-minute recap that opens the film), but makes a strong appeal to fans of the long-cancelled TV show, including a continuation of the show’s visual language. At this transitional time for movies, these developments are disturbing to me, because they chip away at the novelty and necessity of the theatrical experience. Is my fretting legitimate?
Keith: I’d say yes and no. On the one hand, we should probably be grateful for anything that keeps the theatrical experience going. With so many options out there, going to the movies doesn’t have to be a habit these days. On the other hand, I get where you’re coming from, Scott: As film enthusiasts, we want people to be seeing films, even if they aren’t shot or shown on film much these days. I’ve seen both Son Of God and Veronica Mars, and if, just on their surfaces, they represent two possible futures for what going to the movies means, I’ll take Veronica Mars every time. That’s even factoring out the overall quality of the films. Son Of God is another pass at the Greatest Story Ever Told, but it’s the Greatest Story badly retold. Beyond that, it also looks like television, specifically the sort of television that gets shown on The History Channel, with its cheap effects, unconvincing production design, and aggressive do-I-have-your-attention-now? sound design. Veronica Mars looks just like the show that inspired it, but Veronica Mars was always cinematic, in spite of its low budget—it borrows a lot of its visual language from film noir.
We’ve thrown out some loaded terms in this TV-vs.-film discussion, which has become an ongoing debate in our culture. I’m about to do it again, so let me state up front that I love television. We live in an age when there’s simply too much good TV for any one person to watch, which is not something I would have predicted when Twin Peaks premièred and suggested television could be just as ambitious and visually interesting as movies. But I would caution against the creeping of television aesthetics into movies. There’s a reason “cinematic” is a complimentary adjective when talking about television, even if more and more TV shows are making cinematic TV the standard. It’s good for television to borrow from movies, but the converse isn’t true. Veronica Mars works as a movie because it already looks like a movie. Son Of God looks like it belongs at home.
Nathan, beyond visuals, what do you think is the difference between what works for television and what works for film?
Nathan: When television threatened the cultural dominance of film in the 1950s and 1960s, film responded by getting bigger: Cinemascope. Cinerama. 3-D. Biblical extravaganzas with the proverbial cast of thousands. A few weeks back, I reviewed It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which tried to fight the plague of television by making the biggest, most expensive and star-studded comedy of all time, and then, in an implicit acknowledgment of how the world had changed, cast it overwhelmingly with television stars.
So I suspect it’s not a coincidence that 3-D has thrived commercially (though that trend seems to be waning) during a television golden age. Filmmakers seem to realize they can’t replicate the novelistic density and complexity of shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, so they lean heavily on spectacle, 3-D, and big, big canvasses, just like the nervous studios of the 1950s—only this time, they’re cranking out Marvel movies and adaptations of YA novels rather than biblical epics. (Though the gaudy gross of Son Of God might change that.)
It’s interesting that the Marvel cinematic universe currently has a television outpost, The Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., at a time when movies have so many advantages over television, primarily bigger budgets and bigger stars. It’s telling that in the Marvel movie world, Robert Downey Jr. is the big dog; on television, it’s all about the slightly less prestigious Clark Gregg. So while television may be better at telling serialized stories that unfold over many, many episodes or even seasons, rather than a 90-minute block, it still doesn’t have the financial firepower of film.
Television is well-suited to telling intimate stories built on dialogue and acting rather than direction or visual style. That’s why it’s more of a writer and producer’s medium than a director’s. But while watching Short Term 12, I thought that in the right hands, it could make for a really wonderful television show. The film is blessed with characters so deep, distinctive, and likable that I wanted to see them week in and week out, whereas a film sequel to Short Term 12 just seems like a terrible idea.
It’s worth noting that this film-to-TV and TV-to-film stuff is nothing new, and has produced such beloved hits as The Naked Gun, Wayne’s World, and The Blues Brothers. Do you think factors like Kickstarter and the faith-based push behind something like Son Of God has changed the paradigm considerably, or are we just looking at the latest step in the evolution of the TV-film relationship? And what do you make of something like Eastbound & Down, a novelistic, cinematic show whose seasons tend to feel like stand-alone movies featuring some of the same characters?
Scott: Eastbound & Down co-creator Jody Hill and some of his key collaborators, like David Gordon Green, are filmmakers working in television, so it doesn’t surprise me that the show is as cinematic as it is, because their sensibilities are more filmic. (Among its other merits, Hill’s superb black comedy Observe And Report was a startling leap forward in technique, and showed how much style could work to make a film like that even darker and funnier.)
But to keep this in the realm of movies, you make a good point that the interplay between TV and film has existed for a long time. Our friend, the critic Peter Sobczynski, pointed out the other day that the original Battlestar Galactica released an edit of its pilot episodes (and later, two more films that cut together episodes) in theaters, so even a crossover like Son Of God isn’t unusual. And it’s correct, too, that Hollywood is responding to this encroachment in traditional fashion by releasing movies in a much more sophisticated and long-lasting form of 3-D, and investing in features like Gravity that cannot be replicated at home.
And yet here’s why I worry a little: The digital age is taking us beyond crossover and into convergence. Lines are being blurred. And frankly, even a drama as good as Short Term 12 isn’t helping matters: As with many true indies, its theatrical run was brief and way under the radar, and I also imagine it would work even better as a HBO series, where it could draw out group-home culture more extensively, and not have to jam in backstory. Nothing would have to change about it visually, either. But my larger point is that most movies aren’t big, splashy, and expensive like Gravity, and on an indie level especially, there’s a sense that companies are picking up titles to feed a home-video distribution pipeline, with only a nominal theatrical release as a precursor. (And sometimes not even that, in the case of day-and-date or day-before-date VOD.) It diminishes the theatrical experience, in my view, and when you diminish the theatrical experience, you’re diminishing cinema as a medium, too.
Nathan: I’m not necessarily as worried as you are, Scott, about the lines between film and television getting blurred; it’s the way of the future. I think the fact that Gravity—which, once you get past the star power and 3-D, is a challenging, adventurous movie—did as well as it did speaks to our collective hunger for a truly theatrical experience: that immersive, getting-lost-in-the-dark, borderline-sacred experience at the heart of moviegoing.
I don’t think anything can really diminish the moviegoing experience, but I wonder if what we’re seeing is the dissolution of a middle ground in American film. We’re either going have Gravity-style immersive experiences that would be impossible to re-create on even the most impressive television set, or tiny indies that might work just as well on VOD or as HBO series. That’s why I’m strangely excited when a medium-sized movie really takes off, like Best Man Holiday, even if it isn’t necessarily a masterpiece. We need that middle ground, and I fear the cost of advertising and distributing films that size is rapidly eliminating it.
To bring it back to the topic at hand, it has been my experience that even somewhat-successful feature-film adaptations of television shows, like Strangers With Candy, Reno 911: Miami, and the new Alan Partridge movie, fall into the category of “good enough” rather than being great, or even good on their own terms. As I wrote in my Alan Partridge review, they tend to be Frankenstein’s Monsters, not quite film and not quite television, and meant to satisfy fans of the shows they’re adapting rather than drawing in new audiences or work as stand-alone films.
Two prominent recent exceptions to this rule are Borat and Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, both of which thrust fictional characters from television shows into the real world, then delight in the shenanigans that ensue. This is in sharp contrast to 2002’s Ali G Indahouse, which tried to squeeze Sacha Baron Cohen’s titular dumb-ass into a fictional context, and failed miserably. Keith, your Veronica Mars review makes it sound like the movie is pitched intensely and directly toward fans. Can you see it attracting an audience beyond that, due to either Kristen Bell’s popularity or the Kickstarter campaign’s notoriety? And why do you think Borat succeeds so spectacularly as a stand-alone movie where so many of these adaptations run the gamut from painfully arbitrary to “good enough?”
Keith: I can imagine newcomers walking into the Veronica Mars movie being entertained, but also confused. Bell is so good as the title character, which gives her a chance to stretch out in ways most of her big-screen roles haven’t, and the dialogue is as sharp as ever. Yet for as good as Bell and Enrico Colantoni (who plays her father) are together, they’re good in part because their characters have a history that will be lost on newbies. Movies don’t have to be all things to all people, but this is a movie tailored to a specific set of people. By contrast, I’d say Borat works because it goes bigger than Cohen ever could on television, sending him cross-country and giving him an extended narrative, however dumb it may be. It also stands alone. Viewers didn’t have to know the character at all—and I guess more didn’t than did—to enjoy the movie.
I hate to resort to vague terms, but if it’s on a movie screen, it needs to feel like a movie. TV screens have gotten big and sharp over the last few years, and television has, at the same time, gotten better and better. At the same time, watching movies at home has gotten more appealing, and easier. But despite the blurring of the lines and some hybrids with the genetic material of both forms, they still remain distinct forms.