Cinema will soon become a theatre-like experience – a handful of mega-budget pictures released for longer runs, in order to get the biggest box-office results. In this mass-appeal landscape, the art of story-telling and the focus on character relationships will have to find a new home. Nowadays, though, it seems like they’ve gotten pretty comfy on our couches.
Television is now the bastion of depth. It’s where we go to get to know interesting characters, and where we invest most of our time exploring complicated stories and relationships. Considering that high-grossing feature films have become more expensive to produce; people are spending more time at home; and there’s a whole host of new on-demand services, TV has become both a viable story-telling and money-making alternative.
The focus in coming years will be on what I will call “pay-and-play” services, where people at home can watch an increasing library of low-budget feature films as well as the new medium of “episodic features” – tightly-scripted episodes of shows that have in-depth character development and narratives laced with the structure and metaphor of novels.
While HBO shows like Deadwood and Carnivale are paragons of the episodic feature, Netflix has taken the lead in pushing a new hybrid narrative form – the 13-hour movie. By releasing its shows all at once, instead of one episode a week, Netflix seems to have accepted that people are less inclined to start a two-hour feature film than they are to watch continuous episodes of a one-hour show. With budgets rivalling Hollywood blockbusters, these shows create an experience similar to a feature film, but allow viewers to delve deeper into the characters and the relationships, and, importantly, give them control over the experience. Such shows are a risk, but Netflix seems to have caught onto current viewing trends and presaged the future.
Part of what Netflix caught onto was that people today are so overwhelmed with information that they have developed shorter attention spans. We are more inclined to watch 3-minute YouTube stars and 30-second Instagram shows than to expend the effort on carefully crafted 2-hour long films or 250-page novels that explore the depths of human nature.
One might speculate here that this new reality is a result of an increasingly individualised urban society, complemented and fostered by a ceaseless advertising machine that supports a culture of knee-jerk consumerism.
But what it does reflect, nonetheless, is that more of us now have the luxury of time. Time buys the freedom to choose to sit at home and watch TV, and it also buys the space to ponder our own natures. The hashtag existentialism of Twitter society reflects the basic human need to explore our natures. A big part of the appeal of episodic television is the ability to do that – we build a relationship with characters and take part in the development of their lives.
Basically, television today is like catching up with an old friend. Except you’re alone in sweatpants on a sofa. #netflixandcarbs.