It’s almost becoming comical how often people complain about the poor quality of cinema these days. The industry certainly took a hit in the 2008 financial collapse, but fear of investing in originality is not the only reason for the decline in quality films.
Hollywood knows they’re being made fun of, but they don’t care. Why would they, as long as their tent poles are still pulling record profits? There’s been a balancing act between creating art and creating income since Hollywood’s inception. In the 70s, Jaws and Star Wars redefined cinema by becoming the first international hits. Studios went through a storm of sequels and tent pole investments in the 80s, trying to capitalize on that trend of "Big Hits." The 90s saw a brief rise for Indie films, where original writing enjoyed some fleeting limelight. But by the 2000s, Hollywood was firmly invested in two dynamics: special effects over plot, and films that had built-in "pre-aware" audiences.
This meant that formulaic sequels, comics, remakes, Hasbro Transformers and GI Joes were all getting greenlit, because audiences were already there and waiting. The only original films getting produced had to have a famous director or actor attached.
Just look at this list of the most popular movies from the last decade. Now think about this: the Fast and Furious movie series is a BILLION dollar franchise! Movie piracy, lack of investors, Netflix, torrents … blame whatever you want, but the only movies people go to see in cinema anymore are big, loud, explosive and colorful. Why else would you leave the comfort of your computer or television?
In 2008, the Writer’s Guild strike crippled Hollywood for several weeks, but rather than give in to the creative talent, Hollywood just doubled down on the FX and production values. In turn, there was a massive migration of writers towards television — where serials like The Sopranos and The Wire had proven that a space existed for long-term creative work, and loyal audiences.
The digitization of cameras meant television shows were also now cheaper to make, and could meet faster editing deadlines. In turn, productions can attract more name brand acting talent — Steve Buscemi, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Bacon, Don Cheadle, and Kevin Spacey to name a few. The surge of creative talent filling the screens in our homes is evident in your weekly line up.
Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Girls, Veep, Boss ... the quality is spread across several networks and channels. TV audiences are enjoying a slew of original shows with engaging plots and well-written characters.
The best example of even the smaller networks investing in great quality programming is FX’s new show The Americans. The show is about a married couple of KGB deep-cover sleeper agents pretending to be an American family during the cold war. The show has world-class espionage intrigue, solid action and passionate acting from the two leads — Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. But more than anything, it makes us root for the bad guys by sympathizing with their plight. They have children to worry about, unreasonable bosses that don’t really care about them, a war tense nation all around them and a marriage on the rocks. Now compare that to plot of Transformers 3 …
And Hollywood is set to go through another painful battle with their main "talent" source – as special effects workers are looking to unionize, while overall films are starting to dip in profits. Perhaps the film industry will have another renaissance of 90s-esque Indie films, and writers can once again find a paying home in the film industry.
Television isn't going to slow down long enough to find out though, just look at the success of Netflix's little streaming experiment. The only hindrance to television's expansive success is the cable provider's terrible business practices, which have earned them a fitting reputation for ripping off their customers and resisting the inevitable move to online viewing.
Whatever comes next, I'm looking forward to seeing more quality on all my screens — and pray to Superman that I will never have to witness another Paris Hilton reality TV show.