May 15 – Midday Cinemorphosis: Tentpoles, Tadpoles, Studios and Streams

[NOTE: Missed the show? Check out the podcast!]

Rodricks May 15 2015 Poster

  1. “Thirty-five years of silent cinema is gone, no one looks at it anymore. This will happen to the rest of cinema. Cinema is dead.” – Director Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover)
  1. “Cinema … is more alive than ever, more multi-faceted, more abundant, more omnipresent than it has ever been.” – Academic Philippe Dubois, in his book Extended Cinema: Le cinéma gagne du terrain

Removing the hyperbole, what do the authors of these two statements actually mean? Greenaway seems to lament the passing of the classical narrative film-going experience, where we, the audience, sit in a darkened movie theater and have a movie wash over us as passive recipients of a director’s (or studio’s) vision. Dubois, on the other hand, celebrates the fact that there is now more visual storytelling in the world than there has ever been and that we, the people, can actively watch and/or participate in all of it as much, or as little, as we choose, at home, on the go, and even in theaters, if we so decide. I think they’re both on to something, though I would caution that predictions made when one is living through an era tend to be half-baked, as one cannot see the forest for the trees; the context is too overwhelming.

But there is no question that we are experiencing a moment where the amount of moving-image media to which we have access is enormous, and of high quality, and that such media is available to us in outlets and formats that have but recently been invented, home streaming services and portable devices among them. And there seems to be a self-reinforcing cycle of production, distribution and viewing habits that is affecting what media gets made by whom and who then watches it where. So while predictions about the future may be futile, discussions about the present can prove interesting.

As producer Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Hollywood) notes, the collapse of the DVD market and the increasing popularity of home streaming services (the latter partially causing the former) have forced Hollywood studios to adjust their output to maximize profits and limit losses. Obst calls Hollywood “completely broken,” a fact with which we can quibble (though George Lucas and Steven Spielberg might agree), since one’s definition of “broken” changes depending on where one stands (or on whether one is a hammer or a nail), but there is no question that we are seeing a shift in what kinds of content appear where. More and more, the big studios focus on “tentpoles,” those movies (or, even better, movie franchises) that can prop up the studio’s finances for that fiscal year, rather than on “tadpoles,” the smaller movies (gritty dramas, gentle comedies), that may not come with any sort of “pre-awareness” (i.e., they’re neither sequels nor book/comic book adaptations).

As the studios make more tentpoles and fewer tadpoles, the talent (writers, actors, etc.) that does not wish to be part of a franchise migrates to outlets – TV networks, cable, streaming sites like Amazon or Netflix – that are still focused on original dramas. Audiences looking for these kinds of stories can find it easily enough at home, and is pleased with the quality of those offerings, so when studios do make the smaller movies, people are less inclined to go see them in theaters, and might choose to wait for the movies to make it into the home-viewing options. This, in turn, reinforces the studios’ focus on the films that bring the most people into theaters, which tend to be the big superhero films (The Avengers, The Dark Knight) or other ongoing franchises, some of which may be based on other material (The Hobbit, Transformers), some of which, by now – though originally “original” – may be its own tentpole (Furious 7). When these movies connect with audiences, they bring in big dollars (Transformers: Age of Extinction made over $1billion, domestic and international box office combined, last year, and Avengers: Age of Ultron is currently blowing away the competition). Other than the exception-that-proves-the rule American Sniper, which has brought in, to date, almost $550,000,000 (domestic + international), the only adult drama in the 2014 top 20 was Gone Girl, which has earned, so far, almost $370,000,000 (domestic + international). These kinds of smaller films can bring prestige (and sometimes, Academy Awards), but not the same bucks as movies like the Hunger Games films. So the cycle continues, with fewer tadpoles being made for theatrical release, and television – or what used to be called television – picking up the slack.

Join host Dan Rodricks and me, Midday film critic Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – on Friday, May 15 – the day another franchise releases a new film, Mad Max: Fury Road – at 1pm, as we discuss the changing nature of moving-image entertainment. Which films do you like to watch in theaters? Do you even still go out to the movies? What television/cable/streaming series do you like to watch, and why? Tune in to hear what we have to say, and add your own voice to the conversation by listening live and emailing your comments and questions to midday@wypr.org, or by calling in at 410-662-8780 (locally), or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309. If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the show on-line. If all else fails, you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

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