On May 19, 2019, the final episode of Game of Thrones (2011-2019), “The Iron Throne,” aired on HBO. Over its eight-year run, Game of Thrones had regularly been called “cinematic” or even “the most cinematic television show ever made” (Epstein 2016), a sentiment echoed when HBO Chairman and CEO Richard Plepler spoke of the final season as much more like “six movies” (Littleton 2019), and when showrunner David Benioff shared that the production team had always considered the show like a “73 hour movie” (Hibberd 2017). Game of Thrones was not the only major finale that week in the United States, though, as Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame (2019) was still in cinemas everywhere. For all its S2.8 billion command of the box office and for all the sweeping effects that its S356 million budget bought it, though, in structure and style Endgame felt very much like a television series finale, complete with the tour through past episodes, return of past characters, and sad diegetic goodbyes standing in for presumed sad real-life goodbyes. That week in May thus focused how loosely the labels of “film” or “television” may sit on their wearers, and focuses a feeling many of us have probably had of late, that television and film might be a lot more alike than we have been told was the case. Television and film critics—and television and film professors—can prove overfond of pitting the two media against each other as if rival sports teams, with each new major achievement in either medium being read as a step closer to winning a bowl, cup, or medal. Especially as critics, academics, and the public at large have increasingly noted a “Second Golden Age” of television, an era of “peak TV” in which television has finally begun to shake off its identity as the “idiot box” or the “boob tube,” there is a sense of zero-sum competition in which the plaudits enjoyed by one medium might come at the expense of another. But they still have a lot in common, and the pathways between the media are both well-traveled and multiplying.

Hit films old and new are being adapted to television, in the form of high-budget, critically acclaimed shows such as Fargo (2014-), Hannibal (2013-2015), and Bates Motel (2013-2017). Film, meanwhile, has regularly drawn from television’s creative pool to produce franchises such as Transformers or Mission: Impossible. Marvel comic book characters (owned by Disney) move back and forth from television to film in its ever-expanding universe. Each such movement requires a host of behind-the-scenes work, from licensing and lawyering to ambitious projects of co-authorship, broader corporate strategy of timed releases, and more. Many film-to-television or television-to-film moves, moreover, happen wholly within a corporate family, reminding us in the process that film and television are hardly “competing” in any true sense. Instead film and television represent horizontally integrated components within a media corporation’s diversified portfolio. And beyond the texts and industries, people are moving between film and television all the time, as many of the film industry’s most successful actors, writers, and directors cross over to work in television with previously unrivaled frequency.

Television Goes to the Movies is set amidst this odd drama of unprecedented synergy mixed with competitive, comparative discourses that run throughout everyday media encounters. We see this as an especially good time to ask questions of what the two media mean to their viewers, to those who create them, to their self-appointed guardians, and to each other. At this historical conjuncture, how are film and television related, how are they seen to be related, and how do they interact in ways that tell us about their places in contemporary mediated culture? Television Goes to the Movies addresses these questions. We focus on how television shows and stories go to the movies through exhibition, on how television as medium goes to the movies as the subject of adaptation, and on how television personnel situate their careers across and between television and film. In doing so, though, we ultimately ask how television culture has “gone to” the movies—how the meanings, practices, rituals, and identities of film and television have collided in specific contexts of experience—and how discourses of television, what it is, and what it does interact with discourses of film, what it is, and what it does. Television Goes to the Movies focuses on the boundaries and passages between media, identifying them as porous, while revealing the significant efforts made—across the levels of exhibition, discourse, adaptation, and labor—to build them back up again. As television goes to the movies, it nevertheless participates in a counterintuitive process of calcifying the boundaries felt and experienced as media are produced and consumed.

Shifting and Reinforcing Boundaries in Film and Television

Understanding the relationships between these media requires a grasp of their relative orbits to one another and how those orientations might be perceived and experienced. At the turn of the millennium, film and television in the

United States seemed to be moving closer together. Spurred by media ownership deregulation, five of the big six Hollywood studios—Disney, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros.—had joined or would soon join corporate families that included the top US television networks ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, UPN, and WB, alongside many cable offerings. Sony, a company perhaps best known for making television sets, owned the sixth studio, Columbia, since 1989. The 1990s had also seen the rise of so-called “quality television,” and as the 2000s began, the networks would be challenged by a slew of cable channels and eventually streaming services offering their own high-prestige channels. Two of them even had names that situated them between film and television—with its slogan that it’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO,” HBO promised a “home box office,” while Netflix began as a service sending DVD “flix” to your mail box, before transitioning to its current position as the world’s preeminent streaming television service and lead producer of television content globally. Regardless of these positionings, the online subscription services that define the “streaming wars” brought the libraries of film and television studios alike together in their efforts to attract potential customers with interest in both. Encouraged to do so in part by these changes, personnel increasingly moved between the film and television industries: many creative personnel now regularly go back and forth between film and television, while the rise of franchising and transmedia storytelling has required many producers to keep one foot planted firmly in each medium in order to structure deals for entities that know no media boundaries. Meanwhile, high-definition televisions achieved near-ubiquity at speed, and soundbars, surround sound systems, and other acoustic treats came down in price and spread far and wide, allowing more people to approximate the pleasures of a movie theater in their own living rooms (Klinger 2006). Crossing similar boundaries, movie theaters started replacing their stadium seating with lounge chairs and added alcohol and food service to approximate the pleasures of watching at home in the theater (Benson-Allott 2021). The theatrical experience came to include advertisements, too, with companies such as Before the Movie packaging these consumer appeals as part of pre-shows that evoke the sequential programming “flows” (Williams 1972) of broadcast television. And an increased amount of viewing of both film and television was happening on multiple other screens altogether—on phones and tablets, on airplane seat backs, on computer screens—where film and television were often separated only by menu options. Thus, while film and television had always been intimately connected, the 2000s brought them even closer together in many ways.

This is not to say, however, that boundaries between film and television have no longer been felt in the 21st century. Few examples make this clearer than the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the entertainment industries. As the needs of social distancing brought production of both film and television content to a standstill in early 2020, Hollywood calculated its exposure as a loss that would span both sectors (Lang, Vary, and Donnelly 2020; Littleton and Low 2020). As early as March 2020, analysts estimated that the shutdown of the production operations shared across film and television combined would cost Hollywood as a whole some $20 billion (Siegel, Kit, and Goldberg 2020). And yet, the pain of the pandemic was not necessarily felt equally across industry sectors still distinguished as film and television. In the face of social distancing policies, theatrical exhibitors were forced to close as anticipated blockbuster film releases like Mulan (2020), No Time to Die (forthcoming), and Black Widow (forthcoming) were repeatedly and indefinitely delayed. Unlike the public entertainment of the cinema, television appeared better suited to adapt to the crisis, given its status as a domestic medium tied to privatized devices and viewing spaces. Undoubtedly, both film and television faced similar supply problems as the production shutdown limited the amount of new content in the pipeline; yet at the level of distribution and exhibition, television could still deliver programming to consumers isolated in their homes in a way film could not. In fact, this existential threat to theatrical modes of exhibition was arguably a boon to domestic forms of programming delivery long associated with television. With socially distant consumers isolated in their homes, domestic forms of entertainment enjoyed a captive audience eager for social connection and windows to the outside world. Television could pick up the slack as public forms of entertainment faltered.

Early reports from the Nielsen Company thus revealed that there could be winners as well as losers in the crisis engulfing Hollywood. As stay-at-home orders and other social distancing policies took hold in the United States in March 2020, ratings data revealed a potential 60% increase in television viewership (Spangler, “Quarantine” 2020). Clearly, there was an opportunity here. Streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ found that the isolation of consumers at home helped to drive up subscription rates. Between January and April 2020, Netflix added almost 16 million subscribers globally, helping to increase the market value of the company by another $50 billion (Lee 2020; Spangler, “Netflix” 2020). In the second quarter, that growth slowed, but still added another 10 million subscribers. The biggest challenge facing Netflix was the fear that thanks to the pandemic, everyone who might ever want a subscription might now already have one (Alexander 2020). Disney+, too, stood to benefit from the pandemic. By March 2020, the service was already in half of US households with children ten years old or younger, but Disney anticipated even further growth given parents’ interest in occupying children stuck at home (Spangler, “Disney” 2020). By August, strong performance for the streaming service was credited as the lone “bright spot” enabling Disney to maintain its value during the pandemic (Jenkins 2020).

One way to read these successes is to focus on delivery technology and affirm the greater advantages television held in this crisis as a domestic medium, compared to the public medium of film. However, the advantages enjoyed by

Netflix and Disney+ could be equally understood as a function of the persistent interrelationships between the two media. In Netflix’s case, the service may have been delivered domestically; yet it would be a mistake to say it only brought television to its subscribers. During the first six months of the pandemic in the United States, Netflix was one of the very few outlets providing consumers with new feature film releases featuring recognizable Hollywood stars. While theatrically exhibited films sat in standstill, subscribers could still see the Charlize Theron superhero vehicle The Old Guard (2020), the goofy Will Ferrell romantic comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020), the action thriller Extraction (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth, and many more. Netflix thrived in the pandemic in part because it provided a means of continuity for the cinema, not because it stood outside of it. Similarly, while Disney sometimes resisted using the domestic delivery service of its streaming platform to bring its film content to viewers, it redirected planned film releases like Hamilton (2020) and (eventually) Mulan to Disney+. Yet in some contrast to Netflix, the success of Disney+ in the domestic realm long dominated by television had to be understood in relationship to the company’s persistent investment in public entertainments. Plaudits that Disney+ received for helping the company to retain its value represented somewhat damning praise at a corporate level; while Disney+ represented one bright spot, it only offset all the losses that the company continued to face in theatrical markets and theme park operations. So when analysts called Disney the “bellwether of the industries’ resistance to the virus” (Lang, Vary, and Donnelly 2020), it was out of recognition that the worlds of domestic and public entertainments remained intimately connected. By contrast, Netflix could be described as “virus proof” because it was non-diversified, having gone all-in on a single service perfectly suited to the dynamics of social distancing (Lang, Vary, and Donnelly 2020). Yet in that single service, film and television remained fundamentally linked as equivalent choices for the isolated consumer browsing the Netflix menu.

The COVID-19 pandemic thus intensified the boundaries felt between film and television even as the mode of their delivery blurred those same boundaries. Even at the level of production, television could be observed to recover differently than film. While both film and television production largely shut down at the same time in 2020, the latter recovered more quickly. As domestic delivery had been unbroken, television distributors had continued to burn through their program supply at a quick rate (whereas many films simply sat in limbo awaiting the reopening of theaters). Given that, television distributors faced a greater demand for content sooner, and began developing new socially distant strategies for making television. To continue production of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (2016-), the eponymous comedian enlisted her family to serve as crew and resume production in her backyard. Other late-night hosts, including Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, began filming from their own homes and using digital communication tools like Skype and Zoom to connect with their guests. Channels like Nickelodeon began signing YouTube influencers to produce “made-from-home” series (Tuchow 2020). All these strategies worked to get the supply of television flowing again while big-budget films continued to wait for release. In adopting aesthetics and production strategies borrowed from YouTube and other spaces of amateur production, “made-from-home” strategies seemed to highlight television’s difference from the blockbuster spectacles of film. Yet this transformation of television form equally revealed the ways in which the boundaries around media are rarely fixed or stable. Just as television began to transform, analysts predicted that film, too, would change in response to the pandemic (Zeitchik, “Pandemic” 2020). In their forms and in their delivery, film, television, and new media are highly fluid, and that dynamism allows them to frequently overlap and converge with one another even as the experience of them can unfold in very specific and divergent ways.

All this is to say that there is no reason that the boundaries we see around “film” and “television” are natural or inevitable. They have to be made to seem so.

And yet, in spite of the changes that have often put these media into closer relationship in the 21st century, film and television are still regularly depicted as rivals or antagonists—at best distant relatives and at worst, it now seems, differently evolved entities adapting to cataclysm on the basis of their inherited traits. Perhaps precisely because the real boundaries between the two media have been crumbling, many film or television watchers, makers, and funders have worked to reinforce the discursive boundaries, to insist that film and television are wholly different meaning systems and experiences, with vastly different claims to the status of art, vastly different modes and spaces of experiences, vastly different roles to play in society. Even as most of us probably engage in the watching of both film and television, discursive boundary maintenance can suggest two different types of viewers, posing the differences in spectatorship or audiencehood as if they are as disparate as the acts of sleeping and running a race.

A recent eruption of this discursive boundary maintenance occurred in August 2019, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors met to discuss whether Netflix movies should be eligible for Oscars. Steven Spielberg missed the meeting, but offered his thoughts nonetheless. In particular, he noted:

I feel people need to have the opportunity to leave the safe and familiar of their lives and go to a place where they can sit in the company of others and have a shared experience—cry together, laugh together, be afraid together—so that when it’s over they might feel a little less like strangers.

I want to see the survival of movie theaters. I want the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture.

(Pedersen 2019)

Such a statement offers no explicit criticism of television; indeed, Spielberg preceded it by insisting that “Big screen, small screen—what really matters to me is a great story and everyone should have access to great stories” (Pedersen 2019). Rather, he framed his comments as concerned only with the continued vitality and viability of movie theaters. However, a lot more is being said implicitly. First, his comments gently imply that living rooms across the globe are not also places in which people sit in the company of others and have a shared experience, crying together, laughing together, being afraid together, and that the Internet’s and social media’s various discussion forums are not also places that could allow viewers to share their thoughts about films and feel a little less like strangers. Second, one might ask whether movies weren’t already benefiting from such living rooms and digital discussion forums significantly; whether experienced on VHS, DVD, or now streaming video platforms, certainly a vast number of audiences have been just as enchanted and beguiled by Spielberg’s films as those who watched them in theaters. Third, as critic Mike Fleming, Jr. argues, theatrical exhibition is hardly the context in which Academy members make their evaluative judgments: “most of you [Academy] voters bound to protect the sanctity of the theatrical release are making decisions based on watching screeners on our television sets. Isn’t there a bit of hypocrisy here?” (Bart and Fleming 2018).

Above all, though, the threat being posed seems outlandish: how would movies being screened on Netflix becoming eligible to win Oscars lead to the shuttering of movie theaters? The logic that connects this cause and effect involves a steep slope wherein the movie industry’s preeminent award is seen to play an important role in validating what is and isn’t a movie; should that validation be given to movies intended for home viewing, the Oscars would contribute to the fatal devaluation of the movie theater. On one hand, therefore, an overestimation of the Oscar’s powers envelopes these comments. But on the other hand, and looking past that quaint reputational inflation, Spielberg clearly sees home viewing as threatening to movie theaters. In purely financial terms, this argument is specious—home viewing has added billions in revenue to Hollywood’s coffers for many decades, creating a thriving “secondary” market for films across broadcast or cable exhibition rights, VHS, DVD, downloads, and streaming that regularly eclipses the supposedly “primary” market of the movie theater and its box office. But Spielberg only alludes to the financial, instead framing the issue as one of experiences, wherein the romanticized vision of a theater full of viewers leaving as brothers and sisters is held up over the presumed alternative, and calls out for the Academy’s defense. The statement is more than a little paternalistic, moreover, in posing that the Academy may need to protect audiences and the industry from themselves, withholding Oscars so that producers withhold movies so that audiences are forced still to frequent movie theaters rather than giving in to their urges to stay at home. Spielberg’s statement doesn’t name television, but television looms large as the plucky threat nipping at film’s heels, not financially but culturally and experientially.

Admittedly, Spielberg’s comments met a mixed response, but they had many defenders, and were echoed repeatedly in the critical galaxy. Among the defenders was Variety’s Owen Glieberman (2019), who opined grandiosely that the “Spielberg vs. Netflix battle” was “A Preview of the War for Cinema’s Future.” Spielberg, Glieberman insisted, “is trying to isolate and hang onto the DNA of cinema—to preserve an essential definition of what movies are, as distinct from what we watch on television.” Media essence is invoked, and far from welcoming Netflix as a movie company, Glieberman oozes contempt for the company’s own public statement that they “love cinema,” instead quickly classifying them as a television company. And he builds up to a rhetorical question that scoffs at the idea that television could ever be good enough to deserve to be classified alongside “true” Oscar fare:

Is the technology of streaming now going to redefine what movies are? Because if a movie just streams, then what makes it a movie? Why not allow hundreds of films that are made for television to qualify for the Oscars?

Palpable in both men’s concern about Netflix is that television is invading movies, not as business but as cultural and aesthetic system.

Certainly, Spielberg was just scratching an itch that had bothered many filmmakers, cultural critics, and observers for a while. Earlier debates about Netflix’s eligibility for Oscars had surrounded both Mudbound (2017) and Roma (2018), rehearsed at Cannes too. What’s interesting in reading through many think pieces, columns, hot takes, and tweets about Netflix’s award eligibility, though, is how rarely anyone asks the seemingly just-as-prescient question of what Netflix’s movies means for television awards. MediaPost’s Adam Buckman (2019) is one of very few critics to ask why Roma isn’t eligible for an Emmy, and yet even then he offers the question as a hypothetical, exhibiting no need to offer an answer or opinion. When in 2016 Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation (2015) won a Peabody Award, an award given for television, radio, and electronic media, the award was reported by all the usual trade press outlets; yet none balked at movies invading television or worried that either the televisual experience or television’s essence was in jeopardy. And thus as television and the movies grow closer together, numerous voices express loud concern that television is threatening the movies, but few conversely appear to worry that movies are threatening television.

One could in theory see the story of Netflix as one of the movies threatening television. Between the above-noted trends driving the industries, their personnel, and their audiences together, and with the rise of streaming platforms known as much for their movie selections as for their television selections, a centripetal force drives the two media closer together. And yet culturally, few have characterized this shift as one of the movies going to television, and fewer still have felt the need to insist, defensively, that the movies are not going to television. Rather, we’re constantly hearing either that television is going to the movies or impassioned boundary maintenance insisting that it is not. This book thus focuses on this moment: on how the ways in which television goes to the movies reveal the maintenance of boundaries between media as well as the system of values attached to those boundaries.

Going with Television

Given our choice to follow television’s role in crossing all of these boundaries, it is useful to reflect on the meanings and politics of “going” across these lines. What exactly does it mean for television to go to the movies? One can go to a place with no intent to return, whether as migrant or intended conqueror. One can go as a visitor, whether on a holiday, for purposes of academic study, to attend negotiations, as a trader, as a guest, or perhaps even as a spy. The distance traveled may be short, as when one pops over to a neighbor’s house, or long, as when one voyages across the globe. Going can be purposive, but wind, waves, or currents might also cause unintended drift. Going may be transformative too, a merger or becoming. And some goings are envisioned to be spiraling collapses into failure (going down), while others are promotions or evolutions (going up).

Within these pages, we hope to examine a wide range of goings (and comings) related to television’s voyages to the movies. Television Goes to the Movies offers a travelogue of those voyages, tracing the journey as television encounters film in different cultural and industrial contexts. More specifically, Chapter 1 considers television exhibited at movie theaters, with television as product going to the movies as a physical place. In this case, television goes to new spaces of consumption beyond the space of the living room or other domestic, private spaces in which it is more commonly envisioned to exist. Chapter 2 considers films about television, with television as subject and the movies as representing medium. Here, television goes into the world of the cinema by becoming the content of its representational practice. Chapter 3 considers a transformation of form and style as television shows are adapted into movies, but also considers television going to the movies as if the movies were a well or resource, conversely adapting movies into television. And Chapter 4 considers television personnel going to work in the movies, examining the case of former television producers developing writer-director credits in film. These creative professionals go across industry lines and in doing so both disrupt and reinforce the spheres of film and television. But along the way we’ll consider other passages, too, and we’ll consider barriers and obstacles to movement, in the form of discursive attempts to insist upon divergent ontologies. Rather than pontificate on what it means to us for television to go to the movies, therefore, our primary interest lies in examining what that motion has meant, represented, and portended in wider 21st-century cultures of media production and consumption. Examining multiple sites at which television and the movies interact, at which television goes to the movies, we study what these tell us about broader societal evaluations of each media individually and of what relationship they are perceived to have to one another.

To put our cards on the table, we come to both media with an awareness of their considerable possibilities to earn positive and negative evaluations alike. If lazy critics have fashioned clickbait out of arguing which medium is best, which is worst, we believe that in absolute terms the task of ranking them is absurd. We take the position that by almost any fair metric one would care to propose, each of television and film has produced some truly excellent work, and some truly abysmal work. Both produce beautiful, important, socially relevant, moving, and brilliantly written texts, just as both produce drivel. To some audiences, movies are Heaven-sent, television infernal, while to others television elevates them and film drags them down. To many more, we suspect, each medium succeeds at some points, fails at others, and that is where we find ourselves. We are each more regularly classified as “television studies” scholars, and hence may seem devious in posing neutrality, but we are neutral because we find the battle tedious. Television and movies are not perpetual combatants in a never-ending, Sisyphean little league baseball championship series. But since they are often posited as such, both by some on the field and by self-fashioned parents yelling from the stands, this book focuses on why, and on the natures of their discursive positioning and the discursive odds placed upon this championship. Indeed, in tracing television’s journeys to and through the cinema, we aim not to choose a team, but to problematize our perception of fixed sides.

Identifying (with) Film and Television

Despite these goals, our book cannot move forward without acknowledging all the side taking that defines television’s journeys into cinematic realms. If television going to the movies apparently worries or disturbs considerably more commentators than it delights, and if movies going to television don’t even register, television would actually seem to have been winning the most recent innings of its mythic competition with film. But from the outset we note that often discursive capitulations and professions of momentary defeat betray a larger belief in overall victory, and thus we will be careful to attend not just to the score of such a competition, but to the commentary that accompanies it. Doing so reveals how the opposition imposed between these media does more than facilitate score keeping and comparative competition; it also supports a form of identification in which texts, spaces, and people accrue meaning, value, and social position. The journey by which television goes to the movies is one that determines who and what has value, in what ways, in relation to whom.

Witness, for instance, the slate of columns and think pieces that insist television is better than film. These include prominently James Wolcott (2012) of Vanity Fair’s “Prime Time’s Graduation” and Gavin Polone (2012) of Vulture’s “The Main Reason TV Is Now Better Than Movies.” Both seemingly declare that television is winning, yet their titles already equivocate. If prime time is “graduating,” clearly it was envisioned to be still taking instruction, and film’s status as fully educated adult is presumed, while Polone delineates that the winning is only recent—“now”—and hence yields that earlier television was by no means winning. Moreover, while both offer compliments to some television, their judgment is clearly swayed by their joint belief not so much that television is winning as film is losing. Consider Wolcott’s comment that

Movies will never die, not as long as a director like Terrence Malick can make every green blade of grass sway like the first dance of creation, but TV is where the action is, the addictions forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders,

which allows film the status of sublime beauty and art, while television forms addictions, and is likened to a great big factory machine. And if film is losing, to Wolcott, it’s because of its own factory machine in the form of franchising:

for those of us who have fallen out of romance with movies, its franchise blockbusters seem to be leeching off the legacy of pop culture and cinema history, squandering the inheritance with endless superhero sequels and video-game emulations that digitize action stars into avatars and motioncapture figures, a mutant species with an emotive range running strictly in shades of bold.

Film comedy, meanwhile,

has become a plague, a blight, and an affront to humanity. The gross-out element in film comedy (puke, poop, sperm, breast milk—any bodily fluid with projectile possibilities) has gotten so prevalent and predictable that it’s as if filmmakers had their heads diapered.

To Wolcott, the film industry has lost its willingness to take risks, to strive to be or surpass its better self (even if the Malicks are boldly fighting the fight), and thus if television has caught up, it’s largely because most film isn’t even trying any more.

On this point Polone concurs, answering his implied titular question by stating, “The most significant reason TV is favored has to be the overall malaise that has taken hold of the movie audience, which is illustrated by the oft-heard phrase, ‘There is nothing out worth seeing.’ ” A.O. Scott (2010) of The New York Times treads a similar path in an article whose title asks, “Are Films Bad, or Is TV Just Better?” worrying about whether audiences still care about film. Little of Scott’s article even mentions television, as it serves more clearly as a hand-wringing warning about film. And echoes of these worries are heard elsewhere, as in Brian Rafferty (2016) of Wired’s tellingly titled “Could This Be The Year Movies Stop Mattering?” We thus see a familiar gambit of film critics using the semblance of praise for television to in truth bemoan the state of film. Even if we take that praise at face value as authentic, the critics in question are still clearly bothered that film is losing, since to them it should be winning. Their articles, complete with provocative titles (admittedly perhaps authored by provocative editors), aim to shame film, shock it from its slumber, by the mere suggestion that television is winning.

Even with such a seemingly obvious rhetorical purpose, these articles, though, provoked many a response from other film critics insisting that, no, television was still losing in spite of it all. In “Why Movies Still Matter,” for instance, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody (2016) responds directly to Rafferty by suggesting that if television is talked about, this is largely due to a combination of critics creating an echo chamber and the medium cynically yet unartistically playing for that alone. “Many series,” Brody sneers, “seem to exist only to present topics in ready-to-debate form; they are built to give rise to ‘think pieces,’ which have become the dominant, if easily parodied, critical mode.” Television incessantly and annoyingly demands attention, he suggests, but is artless and, worse yet, inspires bad criticism (unlike his and his film critic colleagues’ own cerebral work, it is implied). Or Slate’s David Haglund (2013) offers a more pointed, if rather childish, plea, his title imploring “Stop Saying That TV is Better Than Movies These Days,” while then pivoting to suggest that “sophisticated viewers” should know better.

Within this genre of provocative insistences on film or television being better, much of the discussion is about film. When the critic mentions television, too often it’s to quickly compliment an assortment from within the very restricted list of The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), Mad Men (2007-2015), and Breaking Bad (2008-2013), then either to leverage those to shame the current state of film or to note how the medium as a whole is still relatively debased (Newman and Levine 2011). We find ourselves, though, empathizing with Melissa Maerz, who in a staged debate on the topic, “Are TV Shows Better Than Movies Right Now?” for Entertainment Weekly with Chris Nashawaty, begins with evident frustration, “Do we really have to argue that television is better than film? Can’t we just agree that this is a golden age for both?” (Maerz and Nashawaty 2015). The battle is always staged for specific rhetorical purposes, often to do with the clucking of the critic’s tongue at film for allowing television to rival it in any way, but why must we choose a winner for something that shouldn’t be a battle?

Paul Young suggests that much pitting of film against other media occurs not so much to declare one medium champion but to police a specific, classicist notion of what film should and must be, serving as “an ongoing institutional defense of classical form, address, and spectatorship” (2006, xxviii). Young examines what he calls film “fantasies” and “phobias” of other media—and hence we’ll return to Young in Chapter 2—but refutes that these are based on economic rivalry, or “the sour grapes argument,” as he dubs it. Young points to a wealth of work by scholars such as Michele Hilmes (1990), Janet Wasko (1994), Christopher Anderson (1994), and William Uricchio (1998) that shows how close and interdependent the two media have been since television’s infancy. Instead, he argues, “If Hollywood films exude suspicion about TV—and they do so constantly—whatever relationship these films have to the industry’s self-definition must be more complex than economic fear and loathing” (2006, xviii), and sees such films, and the discourse of film as television’s superior, as “rhetorical defenses of classicality against those newer media rivals that offer very different, more deliberately social forms of reception to their users” (2006, xxvii). We might add, as Young only implies, that the defense is also against other films that eschew classical style and veer toward more deliberately social forms of reception. And applying Young to the many debates of whether film or television is better, we’d note how often television’s “water cooler effect” of being talked about proves central to critics’ anxieties about and disapprovals of television’s cultural ascension (as with Brody above). Even the nominated examples of television’s successes—the holy quaternity of The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad—work well for such critics inasmuch as they operate within a more classicist style (where, we ask, is the column that posits Sesame Street [1969-] or General Hospital [1963-] as television’s pinch-hitters in its little league match against film?). Hence these programs can be held up as doing classicist film style better than the superhero films and other blockbuster fare that such critics see as forfeiting the game to television.

While seeing a lot in Young’s explanation, we think these discussions point to more than just a defense of classicist film style. Young’s discussion of fantasies and phobias delves into the psychological, almost to offer a psychoanalysis of a medium and its struggle for identity. But what of the identities of the actual people? Behind the discourse of film’s and television’s supposed battle for supremacy, we see a performance of identity, by those making films, those criticizing them, those consuming them. Thus while finding Young’s explanation compelling in ways, we propose shifting the focus from style to identity.

On a basic level, the battle for medial supremacy is very Bourdieu-ian. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu conducted survey work in France in the 1960s asking about people’s cultural preferences, favorites, and dislikes, and in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), he concluded that taste performed class. Bourdieu saw class as burrowing into taste, so that it could avoid being tied to money alone, and saw taste as a realm in which “cultural capital” was instead created, with the bourgeois passing down, and in some cases recalibrating, a system of preferences that would mark the speaker or feeler of such preferences as either a nobler or baser type of person. Bourdieu’s system stumbles in being attached to social class alone, not allowing that tastes perform multiple other forms of identity too—think of the disdain for young women singers that performs masculinity, for instance, or of other dislikes that perform race, sexuality, nationality, generation, or more. His system also allows for few other reasons for like or dislike, taste or distaste (see Gray 2021). But a central point that scholars have rescued from Distinction—that taste can perform superiority—can obviously be applied here.

This loosely Bourdieu-ian schema allows us to revisit the political economist’s fear that corporate consolidation would lead to all parts of a conglomerate working together in synch by instead reasserting the role of humans in that system. First, fear of conglomerate functionality is somewhat naive to the many logistical challenges faced by any organization of the size of Disney or Comcast, as much as they might want all divisions to be working in synch. Cross-promotion, for instance, may be a dream of any conglomerate, but in practice making it happen can be hard (Coppie Smith 2012). Second, though, in any conglomerate, we should expect to see thousands of staffers who work not just at the pleasure of the CEO, but also to fashion their own careers, identities, and senses of self. Especially in industries such as film and television in which many personnel at all levels will likely work for multiple companies across a career, and in which all have front row seats to the very obvious performances and careful, planned construction of star images, we should expect individual performances of identity to be heavily infused in, or outright driving, many decisions and moves. From a purely political economic standpoint, film and television should be working together, each other’s best friend and closest economic colleague, but the humans in the system often have other ideas, scripts for identity, and notions of what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Sometimes these will be classed, per Bourdieu, as the language of what is and isn’t “classy” can pervade comparisons of, say, “cerebral” movies and “trashy” reality shows and their presumed audiences. But at other times the performances will simply be of superiority writ large.

At this point, one might wonder, though, why film producers, critics, and fans seem to care so much more about performing a distinction between film and television than do television producers, critics, and fans. Of course, some might respond with their own performance of identity—because “film is better”—so television producers, critics, and fans are well served by being placed alongside film in a cultural pantheon, enjoying an unearned promotion. We pose, instead, that on one hand, television was born on a lower rung on the cultural hierarchy ladder than film, so the medium, its producers, critics, and fans have lived their lives under film’s shadow, a position which may irk them but that means they have heard and seen all the performances of superiority already, many times over. On the other hand, film has regularly identified itself with a rhetoric and aura of magic, as evident, for example, in Spielberg’s above-quoted romantic notion of strangers coming together in Theater 11. Moreover, as Spielberg’s comments (and the reasons behind him offering them in the first place) also show, that aura of magic has been tightly articulated to the space of the movie theater. We don’t mean to be cold-hearted observers either, as certainly we both feel that aura at times. But film’s proposed identity and ontology therefore rely more centrally on distinction, and on superiority, than does television’s or video games’, comics’, radio’s, or mobile media’s, for that matter. That identity needs defense, and heightened defense against the barbarian at the gate that is television, unless it is to give way to another identity. And thus we see why even conglomerate CEOs may either endorse or tolerate the performance if they regard their movie division as selling not just movies but the aura of movies, even if that performance comes at the expense of continual derision of television, especially since television has thrived in (spite of) that cultural shadow.

Our book focuses on the performances of identity that swirl around the discursive boundary maintenance between film and television. When television goes to the movies, what cultural work is being done to variously construct or break down the discursive barriers between movies and television, to perform superiority and identity, to keep the two realms forever distinct?

Let's Go

The story we tell is decisively an American one. That is not to say the story isn’t exported across the globe, like so many other American products and discourses. But our focus is on American films, filmmakers, and critics, and on American television, television creators, and critics, with only a few exceptions. Performances of identity, after all, are always situated within many other performances, cultural scripts, and specific social settings. Even when American discourses and performances export to other countries, therefore, we avoid assuming they will function in the same way, and instead are cognizant that they will likely interact with other scripts in interesting ways.

In particular, we note that the aura of magic that surrounds theatrical exhibition that is in turn key to the creation of identity for American film, likely requires significant cultural translation in other settings. Certainly, the hand-wringing from the likes of Spielberg, the Academy, or American film critics about the threat that Netflix supposedly poses to that aura assumes a setting in which films regularly have been released theatrically before becoming widely available by other means. But a history of staggered release windows and/or regulatory regimes that otherwise delayed release dates, wherein Hollywood films wouldn’t find themselves playing in a cinema in Melbourne, Kunming, Chennai, Cairo, Sao Paolo, or elsewhere until months after they had screened in the United States, was a history that created a thriving network of global piracy. The knowledge that one could get a film on VHS, DVD, or later online for a fraction of the cost, and the knowledge that the film was arriving six, eight, or twelve months “late” at one’s local movie theater—even while discussion of the movie had continued and in many cases ebbed in the popular press or online—surely dispelled some of the magic of seeing a movie on “opening” weekend for much of the world. Theater quality, too, ranges from country to country, town to town. In many places, a “theater” was and is a room fitting 20 to 40 with a television hooked up to a VCR or DVD player. Viewing contexts vary in other ways, too, as theaters in some places have served as vibrant meeting places, with no expectation of silent, reverential viewing. And of course local film and television industries grew around the world from various starting points, in ways that might radically or subtly shift the terms of engagement between film and television, and between film, television, and other media. Movies and movie theaters may well hold many other auras of magic around the world, as might television, but we cannot assume they are constant between countries. These other contexts and tales should be held in mind when considering statements about the ontologies of film and television by Americans and American films, since they remind us that those ontologies are never set, always variable. But practically for this book, we therefore eschew a universalist mode, and underline here that our focus is on discourses of boundary maintenance in the United States, offering a consideration of what happens when American television goes to the American movies.

Our awareness that television and the movies are different beings in different countries also strengthens our refusal to see one or two media’s “essence” as in any way responsible for this story. While Marshall McLuhan surfed his way to public intellectual status amidst a wave of aphoristic declarations that each medium has a determined character—“the medium is the message,” he pronounced (1964)—we follow Raymond Williams’ (1974) eschewal of such technological determinism. Technologies certainly offer affordances, but those affordances will change with context—a different regulatory system, a different structuring of the industry, a different audience, a different set of creators, and many other factors can always re-write a medium’s destiny in any particular social setting, and might operationalize some affordances while rendering others hard. As a result, absolutely any statement one might care to offer about what television or the movies “are,” now and always, will immediately rub up against exceptions, counter-examples, or at least alternate futures, pasts, and existences. If a medium seems to “be” something at a specific point in time, that is not only because it has been fashioned as such by particular industries, policies, audiences, and creators, but also because it is still being fashioned. Discourse, and how we talk about media—what we see as their possibilities, nature, goals, and best and worst instances—is one of the key elements that fashions, hence our focus here upon American discourses of television and the movies in the last 20 years or so across a variety of sites.

We begin our journey by turning to the space of exhibition, exploring a few of the moments in which television content has been repurposed for theatrical exhibition. Chapter 1 reveals how industry strategies construct the boundaries that define media, but at the same time suggests how practices of exhibition that extend from those strategies have often destabilized those distinctions. It explores the theatrical screenings that have served to promote home video releases for television series like Game of Thrones and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), and, in doing so, offers insight into what kinds of programs are deemed valuable enough, to whom, and in what ways, to make the journey into cinematic spaces. As a point of historical comparison, the chapter also explores the theatrical exhibition strategies used to reposition US television in film releases during the late 20th century, revealing how the discourses that define these boundaries are both geographically and historically contingent. With that fluidity in mind, it turns to more recent instances in which the value of theatrical exhibition has been challenged, and, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, reworked in significant ways. When the idea of “going to the movies” loses its magic, television movement into that space necessarily takes on new meanings and identities.

From there, we turn next to what happens when television enters the space of film storytelling as the subject of its representations and narratives. If the first chapter zeroes in on where television might be exhibited in relationship to film, Chapter 2 reflects on what the cinema presents television to be. Film texts have generated a complex, ongoing discourse that works to define television, shaping and eliminating its potential identities and values. In other words, film does significant discursive work to shape our perceptions of television. To explore how film does this, the chapter analyzes a large body of films that take television and the worlds of its production and consumption as their subjects. The result of this process is regularly a highly critical perspective on television that is suspicious of its materiality and its supposed artlessness in favor of commercial interests. While this is perhaps not surprising given all the competitive dynamics already explored here, the chapter reveals a significant imbalance in the way that television seems comparatively disinterested in building a critique of the cinema (even as many television programs look inward to question the values undergirding their own medium). In highlighting that imbalance, we can see how the journeys of crossing boundaries between media are not neutral or equal in comparison to one another. Instead, they reflect the power and positionality of the fields being crossed.

Continuing this focus on the content of the film and television industries, Chapter 3 turns to the question of adaptation and the way that television becomes not just the subject matter of film, but also a resource to be manipulated and transformed via cinematic forms. These adaptations grapple with questions about what essential qualities define each medium, and in doing so reinforce the very boundaries that they cross. Once again looking for patterns across a wide body of movies and television shows, this chapter explains how the adaptation of television series into film projects, and vice versa, reconfigures the importance placed on stardom and celebrity in media marketing. Similarly, it provides significant data to show how filmmakers adapting television series assume that the process of adaptation must turn on action, spectacle, and an amplification of adult appeals in order to transform the televisual into something more cinematic. Meanwhile, adaptations of film to television back away from such qualities, seeing in television a medium better suited to more personal stories situated in the private realm, and adaptations of comics into film and television similarly betray a sense of film and television each being able to cope best with certain types of stories told in certain ways. Whether it is film adapting television, television adapting film, or either medium adapting comics, the adaptive process says much about the assumptions that media makers have about film, television, and their supposedly essential qualities.

Chapter 4 moves away from exhibition strategies and the construction of media texts to consider journeys between the work worlds of film and television. Although media convergence has led to significant overlap between personnel working in each industry, movement between these industries is not entirely fluid. Given how unequal the values and identities surrounding these media are, the ability to move between them professionally often depends on the status and privilege necessary to allow it. At the core of this chapter is an investigation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the way in which its production has often relied upon directors who trained in the realm of television production. An analysis of the industry conversations surrounding these hiring practices demonstrates that television has fostered a culture of creativity that positions some kinds of creators—typically white men—for a perceived permanent promotion to the supposed big leagues of film. At the same time, however, the chapter reveals how the improved valuation of television in these industry narratives opens the door for professional identifications with television that resist the idea of a permanent transformation. Instead, many television creators, including women and people of color, work across film and television in fluid ways without this investment in a permanent transition to film work. In the process, the hierarchies of value in which film and television are embedded could be challenged rather than reaffirmed. At that final leg in television’s journey of going to the movies, we can see how the distinctions at the heart of this relationship articulate to the identities of specific communities.

Having offered these case studies in border crossings and border maintenance, we then offer a brief Coda asking whether it is high time to let go of these entrenched distinctions between film and television.

It’s common to bring a lot of stuff with us when we go to the movies. We might bring our friends and loved ones. We might bring some money to buy an $18 Manhattan and some snacks, or sneak in our own from home. We bring the concerns and feelings that occupy us throughout the day. And we bring certain anticipations and expectations for the experience based on what we saw in trailers and in other promotional material. No matter what, we bring some kind of cultural, social, and industrial baggage with us. And when we leave, we bring things home with us too—memories of the parts we liked, conversations with our filmgoing companions, or even just the ticket stub that serves as a memento of the experience or a receipt of the transaction.

It is not that dissimilar when television goes to the movies. The journey is wrapped up in the cultural, social, and industrial hierarchies in which television circulates, and we cannot explain the relationship between these media without reflecting on the baggage that is brought into and out of the encounter. These moments are shaped by assumptions going in about what television is, who television viewers are, why television does (or does not) have value, and more. Coming out, both television and film can be transformed. Their interaction might reshape what we perceive to be the essential formal qualities of a medium, the proper spaces and technologies in which it should be experienced, and the identities of who might produce and consume it. The encounter between film and television is one in which we see the calcification of assumptions about media cultures; but it is also where we might see them reimagined and transformed.


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