Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Me and Adam Spector Discuss TV vs Movies Part II

My friend Adam Spector keeps a column on film here and leads a film discussion group in DC every month. I've attended the group but I recently confessed to Adam that I like television a lot more these days which sparked the idea that we should settle the argument once and for all on my blog. This is part two of our no-holds-barred (True fact: I've never typed those words before on a screen, they look much funnier in this format) battle of wits between two intellectual giants with a lot of free time on their hands.

Part I was here and before presenting Part II, I will post the last few lines of Adam's post:
"But there’s still nothing like sitting in a movie theater, having the light go down, and being totally immersed in a film.  No cell phones and no distractions.  Just you and the movie. 

Orrin, you and I have both noted the talent that has worked in TV.  But many of them, including Scorsese, Fincher, McConaughey and Spacey also work in film.  They haven’t focused on one at the expense of the other, and neither should we. "

Round II
Orrin-- That's true that TV in the 1950's was a significant threat to the movies as box office receipts dropped. It's also a fitting parallel that just like JJ Abrams and Joss Wheedon ascending to the elite as movie directors rather quickly, so did John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and Sidney Lumet after cutting their teeth in television.

But I think there's a key difference. TV didn't threaten the movies by being a superior art form. They threatened movies simply by existing and being novel. TV was actually behind the times in terms of quality. While films were getting risque with "The Seven Year Itch" and "Pillow Talk" (and well over a decade after "Gilda" "The Big Sleep" and "Double Indemnity"), TV's most progressive show at the time, "I Love Lucy" shied away from even suggesting that a husband and wife could sleep in the same bed. In the interim "Leave it to Beaver" and "Andy Griffith Show" (which debuted in 1960) reinforced conservative American family values while Douglas Sirk was tearing the image of the American family apart in films like "Imitation of Life" and "Written on the Wind." And that's not to mention other 50's films like "Splendor in the Grass," "Searchers," "Three Faces of Eve," "Salt of the Earth," "Defiant Ones," and "Night of the Hunter" that deal with murder, racism, mental illness, the red scare and economic depression. As the code was being broken in the movies, it was being reinforced on TV.

Movies evolved by innovating. They tried some nutty ideas like smell-a-scope and 3-D but more to the point, cinema also evolved through delivering what TV couldn't: Epics. "Ben-Hur", "Ten Commandments" and "Lawrence of Arabia" were all highly successful films that came about in the decade after TV started to hit homes and couldn't be replicated on the small screen particularly easily. It also seems that talent always had something to do with the equation. I mentioned last time we met that I thought Blake Edwards defined the '60s as a director and was responsible for my favorite films of that decade. If we had one less Blake Edwards, film would have been changed.

While you mention that many talents navigate both film and television, I can't help but feel TV talent might be exerting a toll on film. If you check Kathy Bates' filmography, she's pretty exclusively in TV and Jane Fonda, who hasn't been very prolific as an actress since the '80s, has devoted her time to "The Newsroom" and her upcoming Netflix project. Similarly, another talented actress Maggie Gyllenhaal has nothing on her slate after acting in "The Honourable Woman." Actors have the freedom to navigate both mediums nowadays but they might choose TV over film when making a decision and become known as a TV actor like Ted Danson, Kelsey Grammer or Julia Louis-Dreyfus and that makes TV more glamorous.

You're right that moviedom isn't dead and I'm not suggesting good movies aren't out there. I think a smaller percentage of movies that are released are worth watching as opposed to a decade ago, but I'm not suggesting that movies as a medium are dead. I'm wondering though what's left in filmdom's bag of tricks. What's their 3-D/cinemascope grand plan? (I'm just remembering as I typed that last sentence that 3-D movies are back in style these days). In that sense, television might be a greater threat to movies today because TV is innovating faster than movies in everything from economics (With ITunes and TV on Demand, the pay models are evolving whereas movies are forced to ride demand out with increasing ticket prices and ridiculously priced concessions) to the actual content itself.

Adam – You have caught me at a bad time Orrin.  It’s growing more difficult to defend cinema in the face of articles such as “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA” ( and “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s Toxic (and Worsening) Addiction to Franchises Changed Movies Forever in 2014” (  In the latter article, Mark Harris writes that “In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period.”  It’s probably not a coincidence that the late Mike Nichols did not direct a movie for the last seven years of his life.  It’s growing more and more difficult for filmmakers to make non-franchise character driven films unless they are able to do so with a very small budget.  Younger filmmakers just starting out can do this, but for older, more established, filmmakers sometimes it’s just not worth it.  That’s why, as you have noted and the Flavorwire article describes, more of the established filmmakers are turning to TV.    

We differ in that I often enjoy franchise films.  As I noted before, the last Captain America film was a smart thriller and Guardians of the Galaxy was a fun ride.  I can’t wait for the next Bond movie and eagerly gobbled up the trailer for the new Star Wars film.  But it’s frightening to realize that Hollywood’s reliance on these films can crowd out everything else. 

I have recently been studying some of the greatest film years in the '70s.  The first Star Wars film debuted in 1977 as did the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, but so did Annie Hall and Looking for Mr. Goodbar.  Two years later brought the start of the Alien and Mad Max franchises, but also Being There, Norma Rae, and The China Syndrome.   Let’s look at the best of the '90s.  In 1997 Titanic, the biggest blockbuster of all, came out along with Men in Black.  But so did L.A. Confidential, Boogie Nights and Eve’s BayouThe Matrix franchise launched in 1999, but it was joined by American Beauty, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Insider.  At Hollywood’s best, there was room for all.  Are those days gone?

You described the studios’ response to the TV threat in the 1950s.  It’s eerie how similar the response is today.  Back then, films eagerly embraced 3-D technology.   Today, most blockbusters are done in 3-D.  In the 50s it was Cinemascope, today it’s IMAX.   Plenty of biblical films then, and this year we had Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.  The other major response comes from the theaters, which are increasingly offering plush accommodations, a wider variety of concessions, and the ability to pick your seat.  

Innovation flourishes more easily on TV, with its greater array of platforms, than it does on TV.  But, even there, we need to specify matters a bit.  There’s no doubting that cable networks, Netflix and Amazon offer much greater freedom then Hollywood studios.  However, on network TV, sports events dominate the ratings leaders.  Mindless reality shows still abound.  Networks have also tried to go back to their past, with live specials such as “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.”

Of course most TV networks and Hollywood studios are owned by the same huge multinational corporations.  They can spread franchises, such as the Avengers and Star Wars over both TV and movies.   You and I both talk about movies vs. TV, but every day there is less difference between the two mediums. 

With all of that, I try to remain hopeful.  Maybe it’s my lifelong love of cinema, or maybe it’s just naiveté, but I can still find reasons to go to the movies.  While TV takes more chances than most movies do, I already cited the exciting, groundbreaking work of Richard Linklater and the Alejandro González Iñárritu this year.  Another example is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which used 3-D not as a gimmick, but a method for a new kind of immersive storytelling.   Unfortunately, actresses “of a certain age” have always had problems getting good film roles.  But I’m encouraged that Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore, and Susan Sarandon still appear on the silver screen regularly.

In the end though, it’s up to us: The viewers.  Hollywood always follows the money.  If we only go to the big franchise films, studios will have every reason to continue down their current path.  If we want filmmakers to take chances, if we want thought-provoking films made for adults, then we need to support those films with our ticket-buying dollars.  So see Boyhood, Birdman, Selma, Wild and Foxcatcher and do not just wait for those films to come out on DVD or appear on TV.  If we do not support the films we say we want to see, then we can only blame ourselves if those films disappear from our theaters.      

No comments: