Monday, July 18, 2011

Film and TV: Is it finally a fair fight?

Recently I started thinking about the merits of the film and television industries. I don’t think either is a better place for an actor to be - in film over television or vice versa. There was a time when film actors viewed work in television with disdain, but much has changed in the last twenty years. Television is now considered a reputable platform for filmmakers and actors wanting to produce strong, sophisticated entertainment.

The film world has followed the same formula for several years now. Around the last six to eight weeks of the year, in that precious time right before awards season, we’re usually treated to some pretty great film fare. After that healthy period of good movies and awards-giving, though, the dumping ground that is January through March begins when films are released with little to no expectation and very little appeal.

After the first quarter comes summer, and in the last few years in particular, this period has been dominated by too many sequels, remakes, superhero adaptations and painful-to-watch movies like Grown-Ups. While there will always be great movies to see, it seems more and more like studios are only releasing two months worth of quality films and ten months worth of subpar films. The level of excellence doesn't seem as consistent as it once was.

There’s plenty of excellent work being done on television. Big cable networks like HBO, Showcase and AMC are providing some exceptional television programming that can rival some films in terms of great script writing, superb acting and even impressive special effects. Shows like Glee, True Blood, The Killing, and Mad Men have all received better reviews then some major studio movies. Television shows are not immune to poor audience turnout and drivel either. Great shows like Arrested Development, Veronica Mars, The Chicago Code and Pushing Daisies were critical successes, but failed to draw strong and steady viewership and were cancelled well before their time.

Part of the problem is that reality TV is dominating the airwaves and television viewers are tuning in en masse to see “regular folks” doing “real, everyday things,” which is funny given that reality TV shows are as authentic as the scripted, fictional shows that viewers aren’t tuning into. Luckily, smart, sophisticated and entertaining programs like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Dexter and Breaking Bad are around to more than compensate for the excessive “reality” on TV.

So which industry is winning the battle? I think the film and television industries are shifting tides pretty evenly. There have been good, quality films in theatres (Inception) just as there have been good, quality programs on TV (Community), and there have also been box office bombs (Gulliver’s Travels) and television shows that have been cancelled before a complete first season has aired (The Event.) Each industry is bound to experience ebbs and flows in terms of excellence and commercial success. As long as the good continues to outweigh the bad, we movie and television fans can keep the faith that plenty of excellent work will continue to be done by filmmakers and television networks eager to keep the battle very much alive.

This is part one of a three part look at the correlation between film and television. The rest of the series will be posted on the dates below:

Part II - Actors doing double duty in film and on TV (Wednesday July 20th)

Part III - Television a proven springboard for movie stardom (Monday July 25th)


  1. I do think that television has caught up with film as a medium. More and more directors/writers are giving their hand to television, such as Scorsese and Mann. It allows the filmmakers to do so much more, instead of trying to please the studio and fit everything they want in a 90 minute window.

    And with the upcoming "Video on Demand" battle that's going to shake the film world to its foundation, I can see television pulling ahead in the next coming years, if it hasn't already.

  2. Actually, I don't think it's a fair fight. IMO TV has surpassed films at this point. There is a lot more risk taking and hence success. If something doesn't work, they can nip it in the bud. And having the ability to truly develop characters and sub-stories is a huge advantage for TV shows.

  3. JBT is away on vacation this week so I will be taking care of the responses until she returns.

    @Red – I think once directors like Spielberg and Scorsese started to embrace the television medium, the flood gates opened. Now directors like J.J. Abrams can move back and forth between film and television with no problem whatsoever.

    The “Video on Demand” battle is going to have very interesting impacts on the film industry. While I think people will always crave the cinema going experience, I do not think they will put up with substandard releases anymore. The whole economic climate of movie making it going to get a serious wake-up call if VOD goes through.

    @Castor – The ability to develop characters deeper is a huge bonus. I agree that currently more risks are being taken on television than on film. Film studios are still hold true to the notion of “if they like it once they will like it again.” This is why we are seeing more sequels and reboots now more than ever. Yet I find that television networks seem to suffer from this line of thinking as well. How many LOST clones have come out since that show was a hit. Conversely, some networks are a little too quick to cancel show if they do not find an audience in the first week.

  4. I am with you on this one. TV shows are now having such an amazing sense of proaction value that they become really amazing to watch.

    AMC seems to be pumping out some really breathtaking shows lately, Breaking Bad is probably the best thing I have ever seen on TV, followed by Walking Dead.

    OK they haven't got the FX budget but they certainly know how to get the viewing invested into them, much more than film sometimes!!

    Great post this!

  5. Poraction should be production....sorry

  6. @Custard – AMC has been putting out a lot of stellar stuff of late. I really enjoyed both the Walking Dead and The Killing. I now am catching up on the first season of Mad Men.

  7. Movies win just because they can't be cut off mid-sentence like a TV show. Unless we're counting franchises. Which we're not.

  8. @Simon – I think that only applies to mainstream films. Foreign and independent films are a little more daring and are not afraid to abruptly end mid-sentence/mid-conversation.

  9. There's a catch though, we are mostly talking about cable television, not even basic cable... so in a sense, we should be comparing shows like Mad Men or Broadwalk Empire to smaller quality films, and not blockbusters.

    While I do think there's a lot of quality television, and that the medium has certainly changed a lot in terms of "prestige" for actors, who shouldn't feel down any longer for being "tv actors" like it used to... Hmmm, I've forgotten the point I was making. LOL

    Hmm... the point is, I think they're finally on the same ground.

  10. @Amy – You make some very good points. I actually think cable television has surpassed basic cable as the standard of quality television. Basic cable continually plays it safe by recycling the same formula over and over. They are more concerned with making a quick buck than making memorable, or ground breaking, shows. Lost being the most recent exception to this of course...

  11. @CS, you also gotta take into account that an HBO show (or miniseries) has as much budget as a relatively smaller pseudo-indie flick ;D

    And some very good foreign films are made with just a fraction of that budget~

    see, all in almost the same level ;)

  12. @Amy - Imagine if those foreign films had even half of the marketing budget that HBO has? The audience for foreign films would double instant...oh, to dream.


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