Goodbye, Big Screen

The Arts


Remember when Hollywood kept trying to turn video games into films and the results were nearly always horrible?Once again the press is crying out that Hollywood is about to collapse – there are no new ideas left, digital spectacles have replaced all other kinds of film, leading to a top ten that consists of nothing but superheroes, cartoons and fan-servicing action blockbusters – and so on.

But for film that was only the start of the problem. The very way we consume entertainment is transforming so quickly that the venerable BBC has suddenly found itself in freefall with a core audience demographic of over-60s (that would include me now, except that if I watch TV at all I watch Netflix and Amazon on my phone).

I once gave a speech explaining that writers shouldn’t worry about how films and books reach audiences and readers via different delivery systems. We own the well, so it’s up to others to figure out the carriage. But a problem has arisen. I enjoyed ‘The Santa Clarita Diet’ more because it was a 10-part series than I would have if it had been a 90-minute comedy. Why? Because video games have taught us about story permutations. Like most other screen ideas, it would be a one-joke film (undead suburban mother!) but it ran with a set of ever-changing riffs on the concept, and in doing so pushed their writers toward places they would never have gone in a single version.

So TV shows have become the true legatees of the video gaming world, not films. Which rather leaves films between a rock and a hard place. Most affected by the squeeze are mid-sized personal projects, and as we live in deeply conservative times every story is pretty safe – and yet there are exceptions, from ‘Elle’ to Get Out’.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have translated across to books. I have read so many ‘tasteful’ new period novels lately that I’m desperate for something shockingly original (and I don’t mean the Booker winner ‘The Sellout’, which I found a real struggle to finish). Books and films no longer share the same demographics; ‘Game of Thrones’ didn’t become a huge hit because of George RR Martin’s books, but because it became a TV series.

As US product swamps the carriage system we’ve also lost shows, books and films that reflect our own more localised interests. I grew up on mostly British and European fare, so that to this day very few of my top twenty movies are not from Hollywood. I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching political and satirical stories more than family sagas.

Will the Trump era of ‘beautiful walls’, AI, drones, intolerance and cruelty lead to a fiction fightback, as it did in the 1960s? We can only hope for more radical comedy and drama – but it looks as if it will come from the small screen now. And hopefully, smart new books.


9 comments on “Goodbye, Big Screen”

  1. Ian Mason says:

    I have the ring of James Coburn’s ‘hotline’ phone from “The President’s Analyst” as the ring tone of my home office phone (along with the Village Tannoy from “The Prisoner” TV series for the intercom) . No great relevance to what’s being said here, but I thought I was the only person in the world who remembered that film.

  2. Brooke says:

    “And hopefully, smart new books…” But will the economics works for smart new books to reach us? From the statistics you posted about who reads, who buys books, it doesn’t look promising except for manga style works.

  3. Steveb says:

    When the cost if delivery falls, you always end up with a few lucky winners.
    When the gramophone record was invented, many touring singers lost their livelihoods.
    The effect repeated itself with electronic distribution replacing cd’s.
    A few lucky winners scoop the pot.
    The other effect is that the product becomes granular; that is instead of buying a show for the evening or a cd the audience can mix and match.
    Money is made from brands and live events.
    I dont think quite the same effect will happen with reading because unlike music there is an active effort on the part of the reader.
    With film and tv:
    I think until vr comes along cinema is a unique experience. Also it’s a communal experience.
    Tv is something else and it’s only a question of time till tv characters have their own facebook and twitter and wander in and out of each other’s stories, rather than only appearing in one fixed format.
    By the way you nentioned a few daysago about London being on a latitude with Norway, and I just saw the same comment in the new book. Dont know ifyou nean it metaphorically, but actually London is much further south than most people realise – more or less on a line with Dortmund say. Berlin and Hannover are well to the North, Hamburg is roughly Hull, Copenhagen Newcastle, and the most south bit of Norway round about Inverness…

  4. Bill says:

    I’m an American, and, quite frankly, I don’t understand why the world absorbs the crap my country produces. I don’t watch much American TV; why does the world? I hardly ever go to the movies, which, in my country, means excessive garbage; why does the world want to see this s**t? I don’t eat at McDonald’s or Burger King; why do people in other countries do, and then slam America for producing such rubbish?

    I was happy when something called BBC America came on cable- until I saw all it played was Star Trek. I don’t need Star Trek. Do you?

    I remember being confused, in high school, as to why American tastes were so low. A smart boy explained to me that satisfying tastes was geared to a low common denominator. I had no idea it would affect other nations.

    I guess that explains why you can’t get Blythe Spirit on Netflix- I presume, in any country. Maybe yours.

    At one time, Blythe Spirt was rollicking good mid-brow humor- enjoyable good fun. Now it’s -what- undecipherable?

    Please ignore American popular culture. It ain’t easy, but I try. So should the world. Ignore it all – content, delivery systems, all of it.

  5. admin says:

    I don’t need Star Trek, Bill, but this last year I did see ‘Hidden Figures’, ’20th Century Women’, ‘Get Out’, and ‘OJ Simpson VS The People’ – all examples of great work getting through despite the studio system.

  6. Brooke says:

    From an African-American, what Bill said. Four pieces is a high price to pay for the rest of the dross.
    There are great films from other countries; we get hints of them here—like the smell of a good meal to people who are hungry. We are captive to our own bad taste, like junk food, and the profit system that supports it.

  7. Chris Webb says:

    For most of its history cinema has been very formulaic and hidebound, and it was only really in the 60s and 70s that truly original and innovative films flourished, driven by the filmmaker’s vision rather than big studio’s marketing and finance departments, and against the background of the rebellious counter-culture of those times,

    It’s hard to imagine how a new Ken Russell or Peter Greenaway could emerge these days in the conventional film industry, but these days modern technology means anyone with ideas and talent can make a film, even if only a short, and stick it on YouTube or Vimeo. There’s a lot of good stuff there if you can find the needles in the haystacks. Maybe the infrastructure will emerge for good independent film makers to promote and monetize (which %$#@er made that word up?) their work outside of the studio/cinema/TV/DVD system, and create a new thriving film industry.

    Star Trek (the original TV series) might be seen now as dated and cheesy but at the time there was an element of social and political allegory.

  8. Vivienne says:

    Bill, Italy and Greece seem to be holding out against McDonalds, so maybe there’s hope. No pineapple pizza either.

  9. Joel says:

    For Bill,
    See your own country’s curmudgeonly reactionary (but very funny) sourpuss H L Mencken – much misquoted line but the popular version is “Nobody ever went broke under-estimating the public…” That’s why Muckdonalds sells, and so on.

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