Economy Of Film
Where do I begin? Watching Devs made me realize something I never gave thought to until now. I’ve always been a firm believer that exclusive content on streaming platforms would cause the fall of traditional theater experiences. That we were in an era where watching a film in your home theater would outweigh spending $50 for one night. What I could not predict, however, would be that films would be created without long-form constraints. What I mean by that is an artist being able to tell their story without the worry of “can I compress all my thoughts in 2-hours“? Thinking about how film-structure works, you know there’s a beginning, middle, and end to a story.
But what about before streaming? Traditionally, television was the next step to filmmaking in the same way a college head coach made it to the professional level. Once you made your name in television, studios might consider highlighting your talents in film. But creators weren’t showrunners of a television series crafting their own ideas as a director for a film. And really, why would they? You want a series to continue with seasons, but each show wasn’t parts of an entire theme overall. But you make a film with the notion of a major theme as a one-off in the hopes of obtaining a sequel with no guarantee. That’s why sequels are hit or miss and sometimes never live up to the original. Different creators might equal different ideals that don’t match.
What Devs Actually Means
I’m not here to get into Devs spoiler-territory because that’s not what this article is about. If you haven’t seen the series, I would highly recommend it. But as I watched the show, in a 3-day time span, I noticed something I had seen before. This series was divided up as if it were a 6.5-Hour film. The first 2 episodes were a certain genre and the middle 3 were another. Then, with the final 3 episodes, you realize what you thought the show might be emphasizing is another genre altogether. Creator, Alex Garland, made this ‘limited series’ with the notion that it wouldn’t fit the normal film parables. So, from what I could tell, he engineered the show as if it were a feature film just broken down in pieces.
This wasn’t the first time a “Film” director did this for a streaming service. Cary Fukunaga directed all episodes of Maniac on Netflix. In doing so, he understood that he craved a larger canvas to paint his story. And that’s a way Netflix separates itself from the competition. It allows creators to have full control over their work without limiting ideas in favor of box-office runs or gambles. Nicholas Winding Refn explicitly said his Too Old To Die Young series was a 13-Hour film. And watching it, you felt his influence in every aspect of every episode. But that, too, was an exclusive property to Amazon. He said it best about the difference of streaming versus traditional television to Indiewire:
“And if it’s a different concept, in a way, because it’s uncontrollable. You just log on [and] log off. It’s a coexistence now. Episodic television was designed when television was once a week on an analog channel. Why do we still retain the same narrative and constructions from a time that doesn’t even exist?”
What Will Happen To Normal Films
I won’t criticize Marvel for what they’ve achieved in the film industry. But I will say that having inaccuracies and contradictory elements fit, or not fit, just to tell a story in a continuum is something I hated. Imagine the same director and the same cast and crew making End Game from start to finish. Regardless of WHICH creator was chosen, having a story or plot doing a 180 wouldn’t happen because the series would have a normal structure. By that I mean no one could say End Game was always going to happen after Iron Man 1. But you could say that the 20 films leading up to End Game weren’t perfectly tied together structurally like one seamless film. And I use Marvel for obvious reasons: Their films began to be viewed as “what’s after this one” instead of I KNOW there’s something next because it’s part of the overall plot.
Studios have always played the risk of a film having sequel after sequel in order to keep viewers returning. But if a film “underperforms”, any continuation might be halted in reaction. So, instead of risking millions on a film that MIGHT earn a profit, streaming services have subscribers that pay monthly dues to watch content; new or old. And if something catches fire, they can renew a series or film. But good luck attempting to break box-office records in theaters for any Drama, Comedy, or Sci-Fi (that’s not superheroes) films. That’s not a sure thing anymore. Which is why studios are going with the safe bet: Comic Book Films. Anything else will have to move to streaming or it’ll be developed exclusively for a streaming service. Especially if you’re trying to have new content to attract new subscribers.
Full-Length Films As Limited Series’
This leads me to what I’ve noticed about some of my favorite shows in the past year. Even Watchmen was a complete 1-season series. After watching all of these limited series’, I found myself actually NOT want them to continue. TOTDY, Devs, & Watchmen all end with an open interpretation. It ends with the viewer having thoughts about what transpired and what the ramifications of it all mean. They’re all films that don’t need sequels because the Director or Showrunner told the story in its entirety. It feels complete because it is. After all, that’s what a film does, right?
Take Game Of Thrones, for example. Regardless of what your opinion on the last 2 seasons is, you watched them because you were engrossed with the previous 6. You knew it was high-quality television because it took its time with character development and wasn’t rushed. I could apply what Alex Garland tells The Hollywood Reporter about Devs to Game Of Thrones:
“I’d been working in film for a long time by the time I started working on [Devs], and I was very used to the extreme economies of film — not so much financial economies, although that is also a factor, but screen time: How much time you spend with characters. How much you can explore the number of different angles on a theme that you can present.
Predating the period of time I worked in film, I’d worked briefly as a novelist and I knew that there were things in long-form narrative that you could get that you couldn’t quite compress into a movie. I didn’t see any way that this story could possibly be told as a single two-hour movie. It felt like the right story for the medium, and I had been looking for the right story, which would allow me to work in television. This just felt like everything coming together.”
Imagine creating feature-length films with the idea that you can dive deep into characters without limiting time. I believe any creator would seize that opportunity. Now imagine a streaming service allowing those creators that avenue and not tying them to a “this needs to be continued” requirement. The storytelling becomes exponential. Even on IP’s that we’re all familiar with. I personally believe Fantastic Beasts would’ve benefitted from that. We don’t need to tarnish the Alien franchise so what about a series based on Prometheus where we learn about the Engineers? You could potentially take any idea and build on it with the notion it’s a 6-10 hour film, with the right creatives involved that is.
What This Means For Subscribers
Having Auteur directors develop exclusive content for streaming services should give studios all pause. Do you really think they’ll want to return to a studio that says they have to stick to a certain mandate because of runtime and age groups of 5 to 9-year-olds? Or a streaming service that gives them complete freedom to make whatever story they want? And that’s the difference between the content that’s being created in this new age. The only streaming service that’s really gelded itself is Disney+ because they don’t make adult content, but that’s for another article.
So what if we start seeing some of our favorite auteur filmmakers create more limited series’ on streaming services? That’s simply a bonus to most of us since we’re already subscribed to some of these services. Justice League Dark is already in development on HBOMax as an original series and I’ve been with HBO this whole time. I subscribed to Disney+ for Star Wars content because they had The Mandalorian. So getting Clone Wars was a bonus for me. But that’s how you keep subscribers on a monthly basis. What would you rather have: A one-time purchase of $50 in one year you have to share with a theater that shows your film? Or a monthly purchase of $14.99 directly to your revenue stream and it’s just residual? That’s what this new era is bringing.
The End Is Nigh
Who doesn’t want to dive deeper into characters and stories never before explored with film-quality? I believe having certain creators expand their canvas might embark on a new Genre of cinema. If a 3-Hour film is referred to as “an Epic”, what would a film 3 times that length be called? A Saga? I’m not sure, but if this past year has taught us anything, it’s that filmmakers are seeing something offered to them that no studio has. And I think Alex Garland explains it best:
“It’s absolutely a story from start to finish. When episode eight ends, that’s it. That’s the end of it. Part of that is because I think there are some people who are supernaturally skillful at the long-form version of the long-form narrative, seasons that go on and on and on and on. But people who are less good it — and I could easily fall into that category — I think what starts to happen is that the viewer starts to detect that this story is being strung out, or things are arriving into it really just as a way of extending the run time or the number of episodes or the number of seasons. Whenever you feel that, it’s always kind of disappointing, I think. You suddenly [pull] away from your involvement with the characters because you start to see the structures behind the characters, that this is in part a huge moneymaking exercise rather than the fierce investment in the predicaments of the people you care about.
The Sopranos is a perfect example of a show that [exists for multiple seasons] brilliantly well. The people who manage to do that I think are probably very few and very far between. I certainly had no confidence that I would be one of them. That aside, there’s something about stories that you know have an ending, and you know that the ending is coming in six, five, four, three, two, one episodes. That creates its own kind of tension. You can feel escalation. You know, one way or another, it’s going to pay off.”
The time for Films only being debuted in theaters is coming to an end. I suggest you buy a nice surround system to christen this new age of cinema. Don’t be surprised when filmmakers begin developing exclusive content for HBOMax, Amazon, Disney+, & Apple TV. It’s only a matter of time when theaters are only showing superhero movies and it’s only from one studio. Everyone else will have moved on to limited series television. Where will you be?