King of the Viewers – TV or Film (Trend Story

King of the Viewers: TV or Film?
by Maurice Pennington
Is film better than TV or is TV better than film?
Forever, it seems, the answer was clear – film. With its massive scope, larger budgets and vivid
storytelling, film’s superiority was apparent when compared to the calculated formula of
That is not so clear today. The two can be difficult to directly compare. TV has an ad-based
revenue model, whereas film produces revenue from ticket sales. TV shows are based on a
series model and although movies can have franchises, each film stands on its own.
One thing has been clear, TV has become extremely popular. So much so that it has begun to
attract actors and directors known for their work in film. Film actors now want to be in TV. In
years past, actors who had gotten their start in TV clamored for their chance to be a movie star.
It was a proven method, as the likes of George Clooney (“ER”), Jennifer Aniston (“Friends”),
Steve Carell (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) and the late Robin Williams (“Mork & Mindy”)
successfully made the leap to the silver screen.
Today, becoming a television star can be just as lucrative as becoming a movie star. Bryan
Cranston and Aaron Paul are clear indications of that after they co-starred on AMC’s “Breaking
There may be no better example of the world’s colliding than HBO’s “True Detective”, in which
Academy Award-Winner Matthew McConaughey co-starred alongside Academy Award-nominee
Woody Harrelson. McConaughey made his name in film, while Harrelson transitioned into
movies from his popular TV role as Woody in “Cheers”.
Having worked in both mediums, maybe McConaughey and Harrelson could answer which is
better. Or maybe they too would find it difficult and saw they are now on the same level. Really
only one thing is clear and that is that things are not the way the used to be.
This shift can be tied directly to 1999, when HBO Premiered “The Sopranos” according to OC
Register TV critic Michael Hewitt.
“The 15 years since ‘The Sopranos’ premiered has seen an incredible boom in high-quality
drama and comedy on television. There are far more worthwhile roles on television today,”
Hewitt explained.
Denis Leary, the star of FX’s “Rescue Me” agreed with Hewitt when he explained to Newsweek
the moment he realized TV could stand on its own against film. Unsurprisingly, it came during a
scene while watching “The Sopranos.”
Tony (James Gandolfini) happens upon a snitch, who'd been placed in witness protection, at a
gas station. The next day, after dropping off his daughter for a campus interview, Tony tracks
down the snitch and brutally strangles him to death with a coil of wire.
"I remember watching that and thinking, 'Oh, my God ... ‘ I don't think I blinked that entire
episode. The show ended at 10 o'clock, and at 10:05 the phone in my apartment started ringing
off the hook. That's when I thought, 'If they can do this , you can do anything in this format'."
Dramas like “The Sopranos” have drawn in more viewers to TV and in the age of binge
watching, shows like “Mad Men”, “The Walking Dead”, “Sons of Anarchy”, “Orange Is The New
Black”, and “House of Cards” do not want to let their hold on viewers go.
The TV shows ares not the only things gaining recognition though says Hewitt, “Television is
more of an actors' medium than movies are today. When the casual fan talks about great acting
performances these days, they're more likely to be discussing Bryan Cranston or Claire Danes
than Denzel Washington or Meryl Streep.”
TV characters and the actors that play them are becoming much more recognizable, so much
so that TV is now doing what film has always done. “These days, it is more likely to have your
acting career take off because of having a successful role on a TV series,” said Richard Stein,
Executive Director at Arts Orange County.
Though LA Times TV civic Robert Lloyd doesn’t believe that television was as bad before it got
hot or as good as its biggest boosters believe, he acknowledged that “there's an excitement
about it now and with it, a kind of social permission to work in television. Movie people can work
there now without feeling their career is over or that (by making TV) they're doing the thing that
will end it.”
The kind of social permission Lloyd mentions seems to be all movie stars needed to dive right
in. Actors such as Matthew McConaughey, Zooey Deschanel, Kevin Spacey, Don Cheadle,
Kevin Bacon and Halle Berry all have ventured into TV after establishing themselves in film.
Most with great success.
Even directors are getting into the mix.
Martin Scorsese, known for movies such as Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990),The
Departed (2006) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), directed the pilot episode and served as
Executive Producer of HBO’s popular Boardwalk Empire. It was recently announced he would
do the same for HBO on a new rock-based drama.
David Fincher, who is known for Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999), The Curious Case of
Benjamin Button (2008) and The Social Network (2010), directed the first and second episode
and is an Executive Producer of Netflix powerhouse House of Cards.
“TV is it at the center of the social conversation now; and TV shows exist over time: even a
relatively big film can come and go pretty quickly, but ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Girls’
get talked about for years, as they go on for years,” Lloyd replied when asked why he thought
actors and directors normally associated with film were working in TV now.
When presented with the same question, Hewitt said “Actors are drawn to strong characters and
stories, which they are more likely to find on television now. Also, many shows now shoot 8 to
13 episodes in a season rather than the traditional 23. Actors don't need to make so much of a
time commitment. Directors find TV more interesting than in the past because high-definition
pictures allow for a more cinematic approach.”
Hewitt may be right on point as earlier this year at a panel for FX’s adaption of the film “Fargo”,
Billy Bob Thornton gave his advice to any aspiring actors, “If you want to be an actor, get on a
really good series in television because [that’s] where it’s at.”
A year ago, director David Lynch (“Elephant Man” and “Mulholland Drive”) told The Independent,
“… television is way more interesting than cinema now. It seems like the art house has gone to
If budgets were the measure of what should be interesting, the box office should have soared. It
had a blockbuster line-up that included: “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Transformers: Age of
Extinction”, “Maleficent”, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, “The
Amazing Spider-Man 2”, “Godzilla”, and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.
Most of these films had a production budget of at least $160 million, with “The Amazing SpiderMan 2” having a reported $255 million budget and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” carrying the
lowest at $125 million.
Therein may lie the issue with the film industry. The studios are much too reliant on blockbusters
and CGI to bring in revenue.
Acclaimed director Spike Lee turned to Kickstarter last year in an effort to raise $1.25 million for
his next indie project. In a video he posted to the Kickstarter page, Lee asked, “How many more
explosions with Ear splitting Sound Effects can you take?” Lee’s Kickstarter was successfully
funded by 6,421 backers and raised $1,418,910.
One of the biggest names in film, Steven Spielberg, voiced his concerns in June of 2013 when
he told students at the University of Southern California, “That's the big danger, and there's
eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There's going to be an implosion
where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing
into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm.”
George Lucas was at USC with Spielberg and he added, "I think eventually the Lincolns will go
away and they're going to be on television. We're talking ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Red Tails’ -- we barely
got them into theaters. You're talking about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can't get their
movie into a theater. The pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller.”
While movie-lovers sit around and wait for the paradigm to shift, companies like Netflix and HBO
have taken the offensive.
This year, Netflix received 31 Emmy nominations (including 13 for House of Cards and 12 for
Orange Is the New Black) and seven Golden Globe nominations. Last year, Robin Wright won a
Golden Globe for Best Actress in a drama for her role in “House of Cards”.
HBO received 99 nominations for Emmy Awards this year. “Game of Thrones” had 19
nominations by itself, more than the entire FOX network. HBO also received 15 Golden Globe
nominations. The company extended its streak as the network with the most Emmy nominations
and Golden Globe nominations to 14 years.
The nominations for both Netflix and HBO reinforce the idea that their content is of a high quality
and the numbers say their fans agree.
A June report from the PricewaterhouseCoopers Entertainment and Media Outlook suggests
that online streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu will soon be generating more
annual revenue than traditional movie theaters. HBO plans to add to this revenue by offering it’s
online streaming service, HBO Go, to non-cable-TV subscribers by 2015.
The answer to which is better may still be unknown, but projections like those from
PricewaterhouseCoopers seem to indicate TV may be getting the better of the movie industry.
This summer was not the best indicator for the movie industry as the North American summer
box office endured its worst year-over-year decline in three decades. Was TV responsible for
this decline? Not necessarily, according to Stein who summed it up saying, “movies will never
stop being popular—you just don’t have to go to the cinema to see them any more. It’s certainly
fun to go and see large-scale epics and action movies on the large screen amongst an audience
that joins together in reaction to them, but it’s far from necessary now that home entertainment
centers are inexpensive and you can stream almost anything on them. TV’s role in causing this
is only that it’s made it easy & convenient to stay home to watch things.
Many may wind up looking to the 27th of February to see if Stein is right as Netflix will release
the third season of its hit original show “House of Cards”. That same day, Warner Brothers
Pictures is slated to release a film called “Focus” starring Will Smith. Smith’s movies have
amassed over $5.7 billion world-wide and should command a respectable opening box-office
figure. That weekend may provide the answer as to which is leading in the minds of those who
matter most– the viewers.
Primary Sources
Michael Hewitt - OC Register - [email protected]
Robert Lloyd - LA Times - [email protected]
Richard Stein - Arts Orange County - [email protected]