Television is the best it’s ever been. In fact, the 2015 year in TV might be the best anything has ever been, its only competition being the ’96 Bulls and Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster.” As New York Times cultural critics and world’s best film writer Wesley Morris recently noted, the last two years of television have been so revolutionary in the scope of stories told that we as an audience have not processed the change yet. Suddenly, television has become a model of storytelling breadth.
The past two years have seen spectacular, critically-recognized TV performances from Rami Malek, Aya Cash, Bokeem Woodbine, Justin Theroux and Danielle Brooks to name a few out of dozens. The explosion of new channels and services has created a vastness of opportunity and a sea of quality programming nearly impossible to navigate. What implications does this trend have for the movies? Well, that’s up to the movies.
The film industry has always operated on a higher plane than TV, one from which executives can scoff at the small screen and mostly ignore it. But TV is now offering variety that not even the independent film scene can match. Hollywood’s hand will never be forced — after all we’re talking about movies, and for all the worry about streaming services and evil studios, movies are financially fine. The question then becomes whether films will see TV’s rise in quality as a challenge, or ignore it and let TV enjoy its critical acclaim.
It’s useful to think of this potential shift in terms of stardom. Moviegoers and TV watchers think a lot less about directors and showrunners than critics would like them to. Stars, on the other hand, are universal. Chris Pratt’s recent, inexplicable transition from Parks & Recreation’s resident schlub to highest grossing movie star in the world is an aberration in the TV-to-film model. The goal should not be to get Rami Malek into a superhero suit. I’d rather watch any actor do interesting work on Mr. Robot than in Iron Man 4. What needs to happen for the studio system to consistently compete with the eclectic nature of new television is a redistribution of spending dollars.
Critics have long begged for the return of the medium-budget movie, the type of film that shuns the city-destroying tendencies of blockbusters. What has been cancelled out in the age of superheroes and reanimated franchises is genre fare, the spaces where mainstream films could wander from the new, strict plotting guidelines of 21st century studio movies. Think of how many fewer romantic comedies, legal thrillers, sports movies and mafia stories are produced today compared to 20 years ago. We want them back! These are the movies that embrace the weird and the grotesque. Mid-budget movies are almost altogether gone, save for loose-cannons like 2013’s The Counselor and 2014’s The Gambler. Most people left both those films thinking they’d just seen an abomination. They’re probably right, but at least those movies take chances.
The key to making movies look more like TV is for studios to make more movies for a smaller average budget, thus enabling directors to take risks. TV has made its quantum leap for this very reason. Distributing those Hollywood dollars to more movies would mean Hollywood stars that don’t all look like Chris (Pine, Pratt, Evans, take your pick). It would mean the Academy wouldn’t be able to choose to pick 20 white acting nominees. And it would mean we stop staying home to see something that feels new.