As “Avengers: Endgame” broke records for ticket sales weeks ahead of its release, and studios pitched their best products to theater owners at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, “Game of Thrones” threw a provocative monkey wrench into the news cycle. HBO holds ostentatious premieres for its celebrated sword-and-sandals epic each season, but the New York gathering for the start of the eighth and final season was an epic of its own: Some 6,000 invited guests crammed into Radio City Music Hall, while thousands of fan crammed into every corner of Rockefeller Center to catch a glimpse of the bountiful cast on the red carpet, which ranged from the series heavyweights to minor players whose characters were killed off ages ago.
With so much media hoopla, the actual screening of “Game of Thrones” might have seemed like an afterthought. But once the cameras stopped flashing, and show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss finished thanking virtually every executive, writer, and producer from the stage, “Game of Thrones” played big in the room, even to a casual viewer of the show (like me).
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The experience provided the unique opportunity to consider a possibility that could complicate the next chapter of theatrical exhibition: If “Game of Thrones” can thrill audiences on the big screen, and inspire future shows with the potential to do the same, television may be less a threat than an ally to theatrical exhibition. But it also could lead to greater concerns about an ever-crowded market in which every movie sans superheroes is fighting for its life.
I’ve never been entirely convinced by “Game of Thrones” worship. I find much of its fantasy world-building derivative to near-grating extremes, its overcrowded ensemble loaded with intriguing characters often casually knocked off for the sake of cheap surprise, and the underlying mystery of which power-hungry ruler will overtake the kingdom drawn out to ludicrous extremes. But my god, does “Game of Thrones” ever work as a big-screen spectacle. The show’s formidable budget has yielded a blockbuster feel on par with any bonafide studio blockbuster onscreen at the moment, and the campy tone really delivers to a crowd that laughs and applauds to accentuate every manipulative beat.
The details of the Season 8 premiere remain under strict embargo, but needless to say, an impeccable sound mix, sweeping camera work, and well-timed reveals all contributed to making this show a whole lot more effective as a crowdpleaser jointly experienced by thousands of people in one room. Every jolting dragon shriek, catty showdown, and fiery jump scare made “Game of Thrones” connect in a way that it never could on the small screen.
The optimistic spin on this outcome is that, well, of course “Game of Thrones” works as a theatrical experience. Purists will argue that the theater always provides a superior setting, especially with immaculate audiovisual presentation; it capitalizes on everything that a living room cannot. But the notion that “Game of Thrones” can play to the room with the same electricity welcoming the latest studio tentpole points to another possible industry twist.
It’s not a difficult to envision a future in which television events overtake the big screen with the same regularity as Hollywood blockbusters. At CinemaCon, MPAA chief John Fithian attempted to mollify nervous exhibitors in vague terms. “How does any movie stand out against the endless choices in the home?” he asked. “A robust theatrical release provides prestige that cannot be replicated.” And yet if networks decided to capitalize on the potential to draw crowds for their most anticipated shows, why should exhibitors deny them? HBO could screen “Game of Thrones” in theaters around the country each week in advance of its airdate and steamroll competition.
Of course, this would create all kinds of headaches — for the Television Academy once the network decided to consider one of the show’s 90-minute episodes as a feature, for studios trying to find an ideal release date for their major tentpoles, and for countless specialty distributors struggling to find some modicum of success. But that last contingency has always fought for eyeballs, to the extent that much of the year’s most exciting and daring cinematic experiences finds the bulk of its audiences on the small screen, where the VOD model provides a scalable opportunity.
The survivability of the theatrical experience may be an open question, but that has less to do with the actual potential for the box office than decisions about which content unfurls on the screen. Television and movies won’t undergo radical changes tomorrow, but there may be a future in which the most common places for audiences to experience them switch places.