Who Says Movies Are Here to Stay?
About 300 years ago, what we now know as the novel began to take over as the dominant form of written narrative fiction, elevated above poetry, drama, and short stories in attention and prestige. By the 19th century its popularity was established, and there it has remained. Nothing beyond the way we read looks likely to change.
By contrast, movies as we know them evolved at lightning speed. It took just 20 years to establish what we now consider to be a film — a story told on screen and narrative in structure, with about a 100-minute run time.
Over a century, the definition and model have changed little. We added sound, then color, then post-theatrical venues. It’s easy to believe movies are guaranteed a future as secure as the novel’s.
Of course, movies continue. We’re about to be dominated by the release of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2;” “The Fate of the Furious” is a worldwide blockbuster. On the specialized front, Fox Searchlight is doing well with “Gifted” and Focus Features has a modest hit with “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
However, none of these capture the zeitgeist, that intangible sense of what represents the mood of the moment. The attention is on series; at this moment, people are talking about “The Handmaiden’s Tale” (Hulu), there’s continued attention for “13 Reasons Why” (Netflix), anticipation is high for the return of “Twin Peaks” (Showtime) and the return of “Better Call Saul” (AMC). All or most might have been movies; they aren’t.
It’s become increasingly prestigious for successful filmmakers to choose smaller screens for their encores. Oscar winners Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle have announced their next projects; both are on TV. Hot property Jeremy Saulnier with make his next project, Alaskan wildlife thriller “Hold the Dark,” for Netflix. Director David Mackenzie and his “Hell or High Water” stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster on the verge of a deal to make their Scottish historical epic, “Outlaw King” for Netflix. It’s also where we can expect to see the newest feature films from Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”), Brad Pitt (“War Machine”), and Will Smith (“Bright”).
While this drains the potential for top-quality filmmaking, it’s hard to fault their exodus. The prime constituencies for theatrical movies are animated features for kids and families, comic-book movies for worldwide consumption, and stories that appeal to older audiences who grew up with the movies and remain loyal to them — but won’t be around forever. The number of movie tickets sold is stagnant at best, and even lower when compared to population increases. VOD gets fewer views than DVDs or VHS did. Premium cable depends less on months-old movies as its central offering to paying customers. Oscar ratings are down, as are grosses for most winners.
For the future of movies, Netflix isn’t even close to the biggest threat. In fact, Netflix might be giving them a lifeline.