Theatrical Event Television

In the contemporary television industries, it is rare but not at all unheard of for television programming to be exhibited in the theatrical spaces of cinematic exhibition. Many exhibitors, for example, have made their theater screens available for viewing live television sporting events. Film festivals, too, have served as sites of exhibition for television programming. Many television mini-series and specials from around the world often end up showing at international exhibitions, as has, for instance, Lars Von Trier’s mini-series Kingdom (1994-1997). The theatrical exhibition of television programming inevitably raises a question of timing: only in rare cases like sports and other live programming do theatrical screenings unfold simultaneously with television presentation. On some occasions, theatrical exhibition has preceded the debut of programming in broadcast, cable, or online channels of distribution as part of promotional events meant to create publicity and prestige for forthcoming television series. At other times, these exhibition practices have sought to create new opportunities for unique viewing experiences that only come after release in these more traditional television venues. The HBO series Game of Thrones offers instructive examples of both cases, having been exhibited theatrically at times both before and after its television debut.

On the one hand, HBO used a very limited form of theatrical exhibition to build up hype for the premiere of new seasons, including the eighth and final season in 2019. These “red carpet” events served as celebrations for professionals working in the television industry, rather than public screenings for general audiences. Held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the April 3 premiere event served as a gala under which to gather the cast of the series and parade them before onlookers in the entertainment, celebrity, and fashion presses. Publications like Bazaar and Elie could then feature photo albums of images from the event, providing a glimpse into how stars like Emilia Clarke, Sophie Turner, and Maisie Williams were attired (Bowenbank 2019; Dibdin 2019). Such stories focused exclusively on the on-screen talent behind the series, featuring 30-some images each of cast members from across all eight seasons who had been invited to the event. From this perspective, this one-night showing of the Season Eight premiere existed as an excuse to hold step-and-repeat photo shoots on the red carpet in order to maximize the visibility of the series in the world of celebrity fashion.

A parallel report in Insider, however, suggests that the function of this theatrical premiere went beyond capturing the fashion choices of on-screen stars: the red carpet was only the first stage in this carefully curated event. Insider’s Kim Renfro (2019) documents an hours-long event that continued into the screening room in which HBO programming president Casey Bloys, showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, and author George RR Martin addressed their colleagues and collaborators, “paying tribute to the hard work and faith of the entire HBO and ‘Game of Thrones’ family.” Renfro further relays that following the speech, the curtain on stage parted to reveal the fully assembled cast of former and present actors that had attended the event that night—implicitly revealing that despite the fashion press’ focus on on-screen talent, the audience for this screening consisted of a much wider population of industry professionals and their guests. Insider’s photo captions estimate an audience of6,000 in attendance, and while Renfro refuses to offer spoilers, she nevertheless reports on the screening as one that elicited both cheers and moments that were “deadly silent, focused on the unfolding spectacle.” In this account, the experience of having seen the episode, even for an audience largely of television professionals, was no mere formality, but a visceral, powerful, and potentially unruly form of engagement with television content. Having debuted the Season Eight premiere in this theatrical setting almost two weeks ahead of its forthcoming premiere on April 14, HBO now sought to manage the power of the audience to share their response. HBO distributed to this audience buttons with a photo of Game of Thrones spy master Lord Varys that read “keep the secrets,” while Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams announced that if spoilers did spill from this event, master assassin Arya Stark would step from the screen to “f-------kill”

the assembled crowd (Renfro 2019). Of course, the event did not end here, and the audience (or at least some part of it) gathered at the Ziegfeld Ballroom for an after-party featuring a replica Iron Throne, “Cold Fashioned” cocktails, and more opportunities for celebrity watching.

Taken as a whole, then, such theatrical premieres for television content represent a form of entertainment industry event that both creates publicity valued by the hype machine of promotional departments and enables a form of community building and celebration within the television business itself. Theatrical exhibition serves in these multiple ways to create new value for television programs. In some ways, these opportunities are entirely unremarkable if we compare the hoopla around Game of Thrones’ eighth season to the red-carpet events held regularly for every major Hollywood film release. Part of the mythology of the US film industry centers on the glamour of movie premieres held at venues like Grauman’s Chinese Theater on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. From the theatrical screening itself to the after parties, these television-focused events are hardly any different from their cinema counterparts—with the exception, of course, that no theatrical run is scheduled to follow such a premiere, and the wider public release of the content will be via broadcast, cable, or streaming services. Thus, not only exceptional programs like Game of Thrones have enjoyed theatrical premieres; in 2019—2020 alone, similar events surrounded the world premiere screenings for the first season of Star Trek: Picard (2020-), the third season of Westworld (2016-), the second season of Big Little Lies (2017-), the second season of Killing Eve (2018-), the first season of The Mandalorian (2019-), the limited HBO series Watchmen (2019), and many more.

This is not to suggest, however, that all television content has access to this kind of value creation via theatrical performance. It is no coincidence that HBO series like Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies, Watchmen, and more all debut through this promotional and celebratory detour to the film theater. HBO has long traded in the value of television that is perceived to be more “cinematic” than its competitors in the broadcast and cable arenas (McCabe and Akass 2008; Newman and Levine 2011; Santo 2008). Streaming services like Netflix challenged HBO by laying their own claims to the quality distinctions of the cinema (Tryon 2015), and that pattern has continued as services like Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and more join the fray. These claims to quality all rely on distinguishing select services and programs from the larger pool offered by the television industries. Thus, while association with film brings added value to television, this articulation works only if it is a limited set of television programs that enjoy that cinematic status. It is not surprising, then, that it is the high production value, scripted television projects produced for premium services, where budgets rival those in the film industry and claims to cinematic quality pervade, that more often make their world debuts in theatrical settings replete with red-carpet treatment and celebrity news coverage. In fact, that attention helps to render television actors more clearly as “stars,” which—as discussed in the next chapter—can announce and establish cinematic status contra television. By contrast, few, if any, reality series screen content theatrically; even juggernauts like The Bachelor (2002-) franchise that center on premiere events do so in ways that embrace the liveness of television in contrast to the idea of a film screening. While celebrities gather in a theater to screen the final, “in the can” cut of Game of Thrones, The Bachelor gathers audiences in a studio setting to participate in season-ending live reveals. Even Survivor (2000-), which stages its finales in large theatrical spaces, stops short of presenting the reality TV experience as a cinematic one. Instead of emphasizing its potential as an exhibition space for filmed footage, the theatrical space is used to assemble the cast, their family members, and a cheering crowd to watch the live drama that unfolds on a set onstage. The reality TV auditorium is more a stage for theater than watching filmed entertainment. So while the theatrical debut is increasingly a significant promotional event and professional ritual in the television industries, it has been unevenly applied within the medium, focused on spaces in which overtures to cinematic style, stardom, and prestige are already in play.

Beyond these invite-only, staged red-carpet events, the television industries have also looked to theatrical exhibition as a way of directly engaging audiences in new forms of public participation and new kinds of media transactions. Here, too, Game of Thrones provides a useful example. In 2015, select movie theaters throughout the United States, including some operating under the AMC chain, offered cinemagoers a “Game of Thrones IMAX Experience”—a very limited engagement screening that made two fourth season episodes available for theatrical exhibition. Selected were the last two episodes of the season, starting with episode nine, “The Watchers on the Wall,” a spectacle-driven episode that depicts one uninterrupted battle as Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch protect Castle Black from invading Wildlings. Following this was “The Children,” a season finale that changes focus to characters like Bran, Tyrion, and Daenerys in other locations in the fictional world. These episodes had already aired on HBO seven months prior in June 2014; yet for one night only on January 30, IMAX patrons could see them on the big screen. The selection of these episodes is not surprising; the series had developed a reputation for memorable and spectacular penultimate episodes each season, and “Watchers on The Wall” represented a significant investment in resources to deliver a visceral combat experience. As described on the website, the episode boasted “one of the fiercest and most intense battle scenes ever filmed for television” (AMC 2015). Implicit in this summary is an argument that the worthiness of the episode for the big screen treatment lies in a scope and a production value that exceeds televisual norms. AMC treated “The Children” more descriptively, but here too the selection of this episode had strategic value beyond continuity with its predecessor. With the premiere of the fifth season only three months away, this most recent episode served to prime viewers to soon return to the narrative threads left unanswered.

However, as a one-night event accessible only to theater-goers who had access to IMAX screening venues, the Game of Thrones IMAX Experience may seem limited as an attempt to generate significant visibility or revenue for the series. The special event itself would most likely have been designed to serve the superfan willing to seek out special viewing opportunities and pay the premium ticket prices to see content they had likely already paid for via their HBO subscription. After all, a theatrical screening of the 39th and 40th episodes of a highly serialized television series hardly bears potential for building new interest; if attracting new fans was the aim, HBO would have been better off releasing the first two episodes in this IMAX format. Instead, the primary intent here seems to have been to offer a novelty to existing fans, and to do so by seizing on the single episode most likely to prove compatible with the norms and expectations of cinematic presentation—the biggest, loudest, most epic spectacle that the series had yet produced, where the norms of television storytelling based on ensemble casts are even suspended in one of the selected episodes in favor of a more singular focus on one setting and one protagonist. However, in supporting this claim to cinematic status, the event also had some power to build value and interest in the series beyond this one-time screening. Any other filmgoers present that evening who saw posters and witnessed other cinemagoers gathering to watch Game of Thrones could have had their interest piqued. Meanwhile, the promotion for the event, and fan discussion of it, could live on online and in social media posts, amplifying the notion that HBO programming like Game of Thrones warranted this cinematic treatment.

This was not the last experiment with theatrical exhibition of Game of Thrones. After organizing special theatrical screenings of the Season Six premiere, HBO developed for the seventh season a strategy that made somewhat clearer the value that theatrical release did and did not have for its television business. Because of the intensive labor that went into the production of the eighth and final season, fans suffered a 20-month wait for new episodes after the conclusion of Season Seven. It was during this time in December 2017 between the release of seasons that HBO organized a limited number of event screenings of “The Spoils of War”—billed as the “most action-packed episode of Season 7 getting the big screen treatment,” echoing the criteria by which previous episodes made their way into cinematic spaces. Although reports suggested that these special events were meant “to distract us from our clock-watching,” the scope of the “us” invoked in that claim proved to be quite select indeed. HBO organized eight screenings in only three cities: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. If all of these screenings had been held in venues that rivaled the largest in the world (Spain’s Kinepolis-Madrid Cuidad de la Imagen has a screening room that seats nearly 1,000), these eight screenings would provide access to a maximum of only 8,000 fans nationwide. Even assuming ticket prices double the $9 national average at this time (Kilday 2018), this is a maximum box office potential of $144,000. Real revenues would likely be much smaller than these generous estimates. Therefore, it again appears extremely doubtful that HBO’s priorities centered on box office revenue alone.

Instead, what was offered to fans was not just an enlargement of the content they were able to see at home, but also an experiential form of engagement with the series that could only take place in shared, physical spaces. Replicas of the Iron Throne as well as the throne and map table of Dragonstone were to be put on display in each of these three venues to provide fans with an opportunity to enter not just a theatrical exhibition space, but also the space of the fantasy world itself. While the episode screening itself would last less than two hours, organizers promised that the event space would be opened a full three hours beforehand, “so that fans have time to work their way through the various photo opps onsite” (Prudom 2017). For exhibitors, this would increase the chance that loitering patrons might avail themselves of concessions, too.

Notably, this sense of the theatrical screening being only one part of a longer social experience echoes the industry rituals of the red-carpet events. While red-carpet celebrities may not have been present, the theatrical screening creates a pretense for gathering a community and building shared interest around a television series; in both cases, the same symbols and iconography—like the Iron Throne replica—work to mobilize these shared feelings of interest. This may not translate to direct revenue, but it can have value in promoting and generating visibility for the series (especially in a time of extended hiatus between seasons). Although the pool of fans who might have access to these screenings was extremely limited, coverage of them on Mashable and in other venues could indeed provide a vicarious distraction from clock-watching for a much larger group of viewers.

Lest it sound like HBO ignored financial concerns in favor of its viewers’ affective desires, it should be added that this strategy carried a second dimension related to the home video release of Season Seven. These screenings were “only available to fans who bring their Season 7 DVD or Blu-Ray or proof of purchase with them” (Prudom 2017). In this way, theatrical exhibition offered a potential perk for those already investing a significant amount of money in the domestic consumption of Game of Thrones. With a manufacturer’s list price of $59.99, the DVD adds a significant amount of per-consumer expenditure to the value proposition here: $144,000 in theatrical revenue turns into $624,000. That still may not seem like a consequential sum—especially when these revenues must be shared with theater partners selling tickets and retail partners selling discs. Yet the existence of these screenings and their visibility in the entertainment press now provides greater visibility as well for the home video product sold between seasons—even for those who can or would not attend the screenings, but might be reminded to pick up a Blu-ray.

Indeed, this connection to the home video market seems to have driven other televisual experimentations with limited theatrical exhibition. On April 25, 2013, for example, CBS Home Entertainment, in partnership with NCM Fathom Events, organized a special one-night screening of the two-part Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Best of Both Worlds.” These episodes had originally aired in 1990 as the third season finale and fourth season premiere of the series, but were slated to be released in new digitally remastered, high-definition home video formats. The third season Blu-ray was due to retailers five days after this theatrical screening on April 30, while the fourth season would follow on July 30 to resolve the famous season-ending cliffhanger in which Captain Picard is kidnapped and assimilated into the Borg collective, and a steely Commander Riker orders the Enterprise to fire a weapon expected to kill Picard along with the Borg. However, for fans eager to have both episodes in their collection, CBS Home Entertainment released simultaneously with the third season a single-disc Blu-ray (and Ultra-Violet) presentation featuring the complete two-part story. On the one hand, this was a cynical bit of repurposing in which CBS surely expected that many eager fans would buy the single-disc version in April to be able to see Part 2, and then purchase the fourth season Blu-ray two months later to get the episodes that followed (effectively buying the season premiere twice). On the other hand, the single-disc presentation of “Best of Both Worlds” offered something unique compared to the complete season packages. In addition to exclusive special features, the “Best of Both Worlds” disc presented the two-part episode as a single, uninterrupted presentation, excising the cliffhanger ending so that Riker’s order to fire the weapon is immediately followed by its surprising failure. This unified presentation allows the viewer excited to follow the action to move seamlessly into the next story without having to change discs and sit through or skip over the “previously on Star Trek: The Next Generation...” segment that begins “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2” in its complete fourth season Blu-ray presentation.

However, as Caetlin Benson-Allot (2021) argues, the re-editing of television content for presentation on home video can result in transformation and even a loss of televisuality. By doing so, CBS Home Entertainment could market this television program by promising a fundamental change in the nature of the fan favorite episode: this new version “transforms the beloved two-part TNG saga ... into a reedited, 90-minute feature-length presentation” {Star Trek 2013). When Riker’s line “Mr. Worf... fire!” is no longer followed by an ominous cut to black, a crescendoeing score, and the words “to be continued...” appearing on screen, the experience of watching this story is fundamentally changed. Whether experienced over the course of the summer of 1990, a change of Blu-ray discs in 2013, or the brief moment in which the “play next episode” interface appears on Netflix more recently—this cliffhanger break carries a particularly televisual quality in which one episode ending can sit heavy and viewers can breathe while anticipating the next installment. By contrast, this unified Blu-ray presentation imposes a different kind of narrative effect over these episodes, turning these moments of rupture and uncertainty into something more continuous. The transformation that CBS marketers promise is explicitly one of television becoming cinema, where the partitioned, episodic stories of the former are morphed into the unified feature format of the latter.

While this Blu-ray presentation reformats the television story to represent it as feature cinema, the subsequent theatrical exhibition ofit equally transformed the experience of consuming that content. Like the Game of Thrones screenings that would follow later in the decade, this one-night, US-only screening on April 2013 was an extremely limited event, to be held “in select theaters around the country” {Star Trek 2013). In a blog post published on the official Star Trek website, fan Jordan Hoffman (2013) offers an account of the event that details the way in which the theatrical experience could alter the consumption of this familiar television content for many viewers. First and foremost, Hoffman presents the experience as an expanded one, in terms of both “seeing it big” on a larger screen and a greater scope of social experience where the episodes could be shared “with 200 of your new best friends.” This latter quality defined the bulk of Hoffman’s observation about the event, in that she reflects on the moments that everyone laughed at, spectators shouting at the screen, and rounds of applause when actors like Whoopi Goldberg appeared on screen. Nevertheless, Hoffman’s commentary also makes significant claims about the cinematic nature of the big screen showing. She reflects on the way in which the eye rolls and sighs that communicate the conflict between Commander Riker and Borg expert Commander Shelby “play even bigger than they do on TV.” The transformation of the two-part episode into a unified presentation also supports claims about its new cinematic quality: “This special ‘feature-length’ presentation of‘The Best of Both Worlds’ plays through like a movie. As such, the gap we experienced in summer 1990 doesn’t exist.” Jordan is not necessarily celebratory of this change: she waxes nostalgic for the “freak-out moment” and swelling orchestral stings of the television cliffhanger now missing in the film presentation. But her acknowledgment of the episodes’ claim to the cinema implies a necessary loss of the temporalities of television. “Eh, you can’t have everything,” she concludes. Her account ultimately reveals the theatrical exhibition of television as something felt to be transformative.

Returning our focus to Game of Thrones’ experimentations with theatrical exhibition, then, we can consider such transformations not only as they impact the text and the experience of it, but also in terms of evolving industry strategies for distributing that content. Both HBO and CBS Home Entertainment have used limited theatrical runs as a means of supporting home video distribution businesses, where the aim of putting content in theaters is less to adopt the business strategies of the film industry and more to promote another television profit center. In that way, television’s move into cinematic spaces of exhibition and retail has often aimed to reinforce television’s status as a domestic medium and position home video (however successfully or unsuccessfully in an age of streaming subscriptions) for stronger revenues. Television enters public consumer space only on the way to moving through another distribution window in the private consumer sphere. At the same time that theatrical exhibition has been used to support a home video television industry, any experimentation along these lines has also had to be mindful of protecting other established windows of television distribution. Media industries cannot allow the transformation of television into cinema to cannibalize their existing markets. For example, HBO considered early on releasing the final season of Game of Thrones not via subscription cable and streaming service, but as a trilogy of three theatrically released films instead of six individual episodes (Hibberd 2018). The rationale for such a seismic shift held that only a wide blockbuster showing via theatrical exhibition could justify the outsized cinematic budget and ambition of that season. However, in 2017, HBO backed away from this possibility, realizing that such a release would put the cinematic experience of Game of Thrones in competition with the television experience that anchored its subscription model. “This is for subscribers,” programming president Casey Bloys explained (Gennis 2017), making clear that whatever experiments might transform Game of Thrones into cinema, it could not be allowed to transform into something other than television. Bloys thus ruled out a model in which Game of Thrones could be film and television simultaneously—but he did allow for the possibility of the series transforming into theatrical product “after the series wraps up” (Gennis 2017). The transformation of television into theatrical content thus has to be carefully controlled, coordinated, and scheduled to maximize its profit potential in each perceived state of being. A more freeform state of media flux would disrupt the perceived boundaries and markets baked into media industry logics. Together, these cases show that while theatrical exhibition can alter the textuality, experience, and values surrounding television, this transformative potential is perhaps most disruptive to industrial structures that insist upon their differences.

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