Should TV Movies Count Among the Year's Best Features?
Roger Ebert today takes his sequel angst to Newsweek, where the beloved critic inveighed once more against the slow, suffocating death of original, sophisticated projects for grown-ups coming out of Hollywood. Of course the End of Ideas at the movies is nothing especially new, nor is the migration that Ebert cites of filmmaking talents like Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson and Todd Haynes -- to say nothing of actors like Al Pacino and Kate Winslet -- to the more expansive narrative climes of premium cable TV. But here's a somewhat radical idea: What if, at the end of the year, we held theatrical films to the standard of the made-for-TV movies that have often surpassed them?
That's the proposition of Paul Schrader, the writer-director (and onetime critic) who challenged Ebert to taking one last swing at the already-crumbled conceptual wall between theatrical releases and and movies first broadcast on cable -- principally on HBO, where Ebert claims to have not even known the superb Levinson/Pacino collaboration You Don't Know Jack even premiered when it aired a year ago:
"A veteran film critic -- by this I mean you, Roger -- should take it on himself by unilaterally abandoning the distinction between theatrical and nontheatrical films in year-end best-of lists. All long-form audiovisual entertainment, released on any distribution platform, would be eligible for consideration. The Academy, of course, would regard this as a nightmare. It would downgrade the 'specialness' of theatrical films. But this is all happening anyway. Why not get ahead of the curve?"
Why not? It's tempting, Paul. I could relax before my big eight-foot home-theater screen, and the work would come to me. The problem is, that goes against my grain. A movie is shown in a movie theater, and I like to sit there and see it. That's how it's supposed to be. I'm not ready to bowl alone.
Well, yes and no. We all like to sit there and see movies in a movie theater (at least until our rude neighbor's mobile phone rings -- and he answers it). But this idea of "how it's supposed to be" seems immaterial at best and irrelevant at worst to the issue at hand, which is that HBO's feature-film supremacy pretty much is how things are whether we like it or not. Movieline itself declared Mildred Pierce -- directed by Haynes and starring Winslet, Guy Pearce and Evan Rachel Wood in five hours of glossy, big-budget, Emmy-ready glory -- the film event of the year so far. And we still have the cable giant's all-star adaptations of topical nonfiction bestsellers like Too Big to Fail and Game Change head our way in 2011.
Under the circumstances, it seems not only reasonable but also responsible to assign credit where credit is due when media conglomerates take chances on material for grown-ups. It seems equally responsible to recognize creative triumphs by actors, directors and writers for whom "studio filmmaking" is today synonymous with "comic-book adaptation."
Furthermore, these in-house developments at HBO and elsewhere can influence Hollywood by edging their most valuable blocks of programming toward work for an older demographic vastly underserved at the multiplex. If, as studio output deals come up for renewal with their respective networks, the bulk of the feature content it can offer is movies for 15-year-old boys, it could (in theory, anyway) diminish the value of that content to the network. Which would mean less money for the studios, which need to wring every dollar from every revenue stream available to them -- thus an incentive to produce more complex movie fare with an appeal to the audience HBO has been carefully cultivating since debuting The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under.
Again, this is all in theory. But it does start with influencers in the media (Roger Ebert, for example) who have both the audience and the insight to usefully leverage cable's power to demand more of theatrical film producers. There is a very real chance that HBO will yield at least one of the best films many critics will see in 2011. Why not reward it, especially if it can make a difference for the development and exhibition of films the way they're "supposed to be" -- if it can possibly help stanch what Ebert calls the "erosion of community" around moviegoing by reversing such destructive mainstream cinema trends as sequels, toy/video-game adaptations and overwrought teen franchises?
Ultimately, this isn't even a TV-versus-cinema issue. It's an art-versus-accountants issue, and one in which anybody who believes in the transcendence of film should probably invest him- or herself sooner than later: Laud the best movies, not the best movies that were exhibited the way things are "supposed to be." That mindset is as destructive as a sequel could ever be if only because it, too, fails to acknowledge the merit and risk and invigoration of something new. (They're not even that new, really; many of HBO's biggest critical and commercial success have books as sources.)
Anyway, think it over. What would you do?
· How Sequels Are Killing the Movie Business [Newsweek/The Daily Beast]