The former Marion Theatre sits abandoned as it
represents the decline of cinema. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAROL HIGHSMITH/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
For over a century, the motion picture has been at the forefront of pop culture and the arts. At first, theaters would fill to see films that were brief, black and white, and soundless. These early pictures were a technological spectacle but did little to immerse the viewer in drama. As the industry advanced through the early part of the 20th century, film started to become more elaborate, incorporating the primitive stages of special effects, stunts, and props. Individually, each of these pieces wasn’t particularly impressive but paired with a great narrative, it gave the audience the ability to connect with the film on a deeper level through vision. For the first time in history, a new medium for storytelling was born through the visual arts. The essence that draws us to great books, plays, or films is the story and the length of each medium is certainly correlated to the degree of depth a director can partake when telling a story. This is why the rise of television as the prominent form of motion picture should be celebrated, even at the expense of the movie industry.
It’s clear that Hollywood feels threatened by the television format by looking at how the industry has reshaped its multi-million dollar projects. It is far rarer to see new films that make a cultural impact in terms of great storytelling the way that many pictures did from the 70s-90s. Especially over the past decade, the success of Marvel’s cinematic universe has created a strong precedent for building out stories across multiple movies. You could call this the “televison-ication” of the movie industry, where studios lay out a plan for a multi-part saga stretching across multiple years. Although one could argue that this shift is a welcome change and that this general shift allows for the possibility of better storytelling, these projects still fail to compete with the scope and breadth of a full television series.
Considering a cinematic universe as expansive as Marvel only has two to three movies each with contained stories of the main characters. When compared to something like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, each with 60+ hours of narratives spanning multiple seasons that are able to deeply explore the motivations, backstory, and psyche of multiple characters. Although there is a certain artistic statement associated with being able to tell a compelling story within a 2 hour time period, even the most talented directors can’t reach the psychological depth of characters or conflicting narratives that appear in long-running television series. In this way, modern television is far more similar to a novel than a film but without the bar for entry being literacy. This makes TV by far the most democratic way to distribute expansive and complex storytelling. There’s no telling how monumental decades of work on 60+ hour stories could be for the world of art, even if it means the death of cinema.