Is film dead? If you live your life according to the Internet (please God, no), you might be tempted to reply with an ill-informed, "Probably!" That's because certain corners of the Web have been increasingly intent on propagating the myth that movies have become an incurable disease, and television is the only cure. As with most matters online, it's a bit more complicated than that.
The campaign started last month, when The Boston Globe's Ty Burr argued that "someday we may look back on 2016 as the year the movies died." He pointed to the dearth of original material coming out of the multiplex this past summer, as evidence of a corrupt institution that was beyond repair. The argument gained steam after The Huffington Post chimed in with the defiantly melodramatic headline, "Not to be melodramatic, but movies as we know them are dead."
Even noted cinephile Donald Trump wormed his way into the conversation, telling supporters last week that "they don't make movies like they used to – is that right?" (I can only assume Trump was referring to the good ol' days when D.W. Griffith's racist classic The Birth of a Nation dominated the big screen.)
But it wasn't enough to bury film – people had to crown a successor to the medium, too. The argument was summed up nicely (and by that, I mean poorly) by Clara Jeffery, editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, on Twitter: "There is a lot of good television. And almost all movies suck. Direct me to the piece that explains this best." This resulted in a lot of bickering between two of the more bicker-prone factions online: members of Film Twitter and members of TV Twitter. It was mostly insufferable, but out of it came a few points worth considering.
For instance, why does the rise of prestige cable television (what pundits call "Peak TV") have to cancel out the film world? Yes, there are more original scripted TV programs than ever before (one estimate puts it at an astounding 409 series), and owing to the ubiquity of such streaming services as Netflix, audience habits are shifting toward consuming entire seasons' worth of shows, which gives the sense of a vast wonderland populated solely by four-star, binge-worthy entertainment. But dig a little deeper into reactions from both audiences and critics and you'll find the supply may be dwarfing demand.
Netflix's new series Luke Cage, for instance, is being currently pumped up as the fall season's must-watch event, but critical reaction has been middling, and because Netflix doesn't release viewership numbers, we'll never know how many more people are binge-watching that versus, say, going to see Deepwater Horizon. (Ditto for such longer-running Netflix series as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.) Amazon and Hulu, two other purveyors of Peak TV, also refuse to release audience data – so we have no idea how well such universally acclaimed shows as Transparent and Casual are performing against entries in the so-called dying world of film, which offers firm box-office statistics every week.
Transparency aside, there is no real reason why one medium cannot exist alongside the other. Is it so hard to admit there are both excellent television shows (HBO's Westworld and FX's Atlanta are two new standouts, as my colleague John Doyle has pointed out in recent columns) and equally great films, too (new releases Hell or High Water and Southside with You come to mind)?
Perhaps the split comes from the audiences who are only exposed to the multiplex-friendly likes of Suicide Squad, X-Men: Apocalypse and Jason Bourne: Part 8. If you only look at what played in wide release this summer, then yes, it's easy to conclude that movies are awful, burn the whole business to the ground etc. But of course, there are still excellent films being made – it's just that they're being released either in limited runs by independent studios or outside of the headline-grabbing summer season.
For myriad reasons, summer is where the big studios have decided to stake their tent poles, which has resulted in a season of suffering. Four months of reboots and retreads – with nothing of quality until the fall, when studios finally unveil the Oscar hopefuls – means there's a flood of quality films and legitimately great movies get lost.
Why that timeline? Mostly it's a stubborn reliance on tradition – when the kids are out of school, most of the product is geared toward immature audiences. But recent history has proven that such younger-skewing blockbusters can perform just as well outside the summer season (Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released in the winter, while the live-action Jungle Book reboot smashed records in the spring) and, more importantly, that discerning, older audiences will show up for quality dramas released in, say, August (Hell or High Water is the indie success story of the year).
Come December – once the likes of Moonlight, La La Land, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, Elle, Loving and a dozen more all-time classics hit theatres – it will be impossible to argue that film is dead, and everyone who advanced such a click-friendly theory will feel pretty foolish. But it would surely help if studios decided that audiences didn't have to wait until the end of the calendar to realize that the medium would live to see another year.