They’ve had a tremendous run over the past 120 years and profoundly transformed global popular culture for the better. (The last decade or two have made it a close call).
But 2017 is the year in which we need to admit feature films, as a distinct segment of our popular culture, have really ceased to exist. No, not because the latest wave of sequels with words like “Transformers,” “Mummy” and “Despicable” in the title are too mind-numbing to bear. If you prefer coherence in your big-screen entertainment, you can still see “Baby Driver” or “The Big Sick” or “Beatriz at Dinner.”
The reason is Netflix. And Marvel. And HBO.
The world’s most successful digital-entertainment company, movie producer, and television network are all blurring the lines between the big screen and small, between big-budget TV and mid-budget movies, and between film reboots and TV pilots to such a degree that it’s tough to say what a movie really is anymore.Is it entertainment meant to be seen on the big screen?
Netflix has answered that question with a resounding “no.” After tiptoeing into the space with art-house fare and comedies from the fading box office draw Adam Sandler, Netflix has significantly upped its movie game with the $US75 million military-political-comedy War Machine, released in May and starring Brad Pitt, and Okja, a $US50 million modern fairy tale from South Korea’s most respected director, Bong Joon Ho, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton. A nearly $US100 million Will Smith action movie called Bright is coming later this year.
Film Trailer: Okja
Some of these are given perfunctory releases in a handful of theatres, but that’s just so old-school film critics will review them and old-school organisations will consider them for awards like the Oscars. These films premiere on Netflix and are intended to be streamed on televisions, tablets, and phones.
What makes them different from Netflix original programs like House of Cards or Daredevil? Just their length. You can watch War Machine in one evening, whereas a TV season can take even the most overcaffeinated until the sun rises to complete.
So perhaps it’s the compactness of the story. Movies give you a satisfying two hours of entertainment, whereas TV always keeps you wanting more.
But that doesn’t apply to one of the most popular big-screen releases of the summer: Spider-Man: Homecoming. The Marvel Studios-produced movie is really the best television pilot of the year.
Like a lot of hit TV shows, it features a character spinning out of a long-running hit — see the new Spider-Man’s cameo in last year’s Marvel blockbuster Captain America: Civil War. Homecoming features a relatably insecure protagonist still learning how to be Spider-Man, an out-of-his-league love interest, a nerdy best friend, a mentor who thinks our hero still has a lot to learn, and a single mum (technically his aunt) from whom he’s hiding his double life.
Between all those characters, Homecoming introduces a lot more questions, tensions, and conflicts than it resolves and ends on a twist that leaves you needing to find out what happens next — exactly what the best television pilots achieve. Set a season pass on your DVR now for all the Spider-Man: Homecoming episodes coming in the next few years!
Film Trailer: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’
This is what Marvel has been doing brilliantly for years. It doesn’t make self-contained movies with a beginning, middle, and end or even trilogies that eventually reach a conclusion, like The Dark Knight.
The Marvel cinematic universe is one big ensemble television series with episodes that focus on one set of characters or another but whose overarching storylines are always expanding, not resolving.
Perhaps what differentiates movies then is the scale. You can’t get the overwhelming spectacle of a big-budget visual-effects spectacle on an Imax screen at home.
Then again, have you seen Game of Thrones? HBO spends more than $US10 million an episode for a fantasy show with dragons and swordfights and sieges that rival the biggest and best you can see at the multiplex. No single episode approaches the nine-figure budget of a movie like Homecoming, but a 10-episode season certainly does.
The finale of the coming season 7 of Game of Thrones will run an hour and 22 minutes, it was recently revealed, and episodes of the eighth and final season will regularly be the same length. Almost as long, in other words, as a movie.
You might even be able to watch some of them at a movie theatre. Imax previously screened the final two episodes of the fourth season of Game of Thrones and in a few months, it will premiere the pilot of Marvel’s Inhumans before it debuts on ABC.
So is that a movie or a TV show or what?
In a few years, it’s doubtful anyone will care. It’s all content. And if that word scares you, well, it could be worse. There could be nothing good to watch.