Will Covid-19 Be The End Of Feature Films & Movie Theaters?

I’ve been writing & producing feature films & TV shows for 35 years. Boy, has this business changed. And then changed again.

In 1985, when I arrived in Los Angeles from the East Coast, the feature business and the TV business were strangers to each other. One did not cross over freely from one to the other. If one went from TV to features — that was you graduating to “stardom”. If you went from features to TV — that was you dying a slow death.

Back then there were 3 major TV networks and Fox — more still a novelty as a network than an actual network. There was cable TV and a smattering of satellite.

Cable was the low rent district of TV. If you couldn’t sell your idea to ABC or CBS or NBC (or Fox), you went the syndication route that distributed shows to mostly independent stations that played your show at two a.m. sandwiched between bleak reruns and even bleaker ads.

There was also HBO and a newish rival called Showtime. HBO was slowly evolving away from being purely a premium movie channel. Their big hit show at the time was called “Dream On“. It was an okay situation comedy chock full of TV references and occasional nudity.

That was it. That was the landscape. The goal — become the next William Goldman (who wrote one of the best screenplays ever “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” in addition to “The Princess Bride“, the screenplays for “All The President’s Men” and “Misery“. TV was not in any way on my radar.

Why would it be? In feature films, you could do anything. Write anything. Use whatever language you felt your characters and story needed to speak. If one was lucky enough to score a feature deal (either with a studio or an independent producer with development cash), you’d get notes. But you wouldn’t ever have to deal with a Standards & Practices department. You’d never get lawyers telling you to change things in your script on the off chance that you might get sued.

HBO was the first game changer. They became a must-have premium service when they transitioned into a content provider. One of the shows that convinced HBO to keep-a-going down that road was Tales From The Crypt — which I took over and co-ran from its third season onward. Tales ambitiously pursued feature film talent — and got some pretty big names to bite: Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Tom Hanks, Kirk Douglass, Dan Ackroyd, Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig among other. Tales helped change Hollywood’s perception of TV as a place where big named talent simply couldn’t go.

The Sopranos” closed the deal.

David Chase took his mob show to every network — and everyone said no. Their problem? Who could sympathize with a mobster? How could a traditional “bad guy” be our hero? How could an audience like a guy who cheats on his wife, steals things and murders people in cold blood?

And how could a gangster have emotional problems?

HBO had both nothing to lose and everything to gain from being both open-minded and ambitious. They weren’t throwing their money at crap. But they weren’t bound by traditional TV’s traditional way of thinking either.

I worked for HBO for 5 years on Crypt. I got a total of three script notes the whole time. That’s across almost 50 episodes! You can’t imagine what that kind of creative freedom is like. Creative executives who let you be creative is rarer than you realize. At least it used to be.

Plenty of other shows on other outlets moved the ball forward.

Meanwhile, at the majors, CBS was solidifying its reputation as a network for senior citizens. Fox rose on the success of a reality show — “American Idol” but also a bit more edge: “The X-Files” and “Married With Children“. To their credit, they were pushing the envelope. But they were still handing creative people notes from Standards & Practices.

I sold a pilot to Fox — a cool show called “Fear Itself” about a group of researchers tasked with investigating why certain peoples’ worst fears were being manifested out in reality (example — an arachnophobe’s heightened fear of spiders was manifesting their nightmarish, over-sized spiders into reality where they were killing and terrorizing people). The plug got pulled however when the network head at the time (a guy named Peter Roth) feared our show would step on a show that Chris Carter (he created “X Files“) was developing for them. That’s the biz.

Game Of Thrones” finished the transformation in the public’s mind. TV was no longer the ugly duckling. Netflix made TV a Golden Goose.

Like HBO, Netflix realized that the money was in providing content, not being a glorified movie rental house. And, because Netflix had no schedule, they released their shows in their entirety. Whole seasons that their audience could binge on. The whole world changed its TV viewing habits.

Something else happened that was important. Order sizes changed.

Back before HBO and then Netflix changed the business model for TV shows, the entire financial structure was based on getting a show into syndication. Syndication was both second life for a show and (as with “Seinfeld” and “Friends“) perpetual life. Syndication worked via a 13 week schedule that “stripped” a show (broadcast it at the same time every day) during the regular week. The math’s simple: 5 episodes a week times 13 weeks equals sixty-five episodes.

“65” was the magic number. A show idea had to have at least 65 possible episodes in it to be financially viable and therefore worth pursuing. Another important facet of stripping a show — the audience must be able to drop in and drop out without feeling like they have no idea what’s going on. That means each episode must be “closed-ended”. No “continued’s”. No serialized storytelling.

American series producers went all in for the 65-episodes or bust model. The BBC, for comparison’s sake, never did. That’s not to say that the Beeb didn’t follow that model when they had a show that could fit the mold but it wasn’t their guiding principle. That’s why they only made a handful of episodes of great shows like “Fawlty Towers“. They were taking them as far as the creators thought they’d go — not to the bank regardless of how empty the idea had become.

The network model was orders of 22 episodes and up. For a while, Showtime was in the “firm 22’s business”. When I co-executive produced “The Outer Limits“, we had an amazing amount of job security. Showtime had ordered TWO 22-episode seasons. It wasn’t quite like working for IBM one’s whole career but it felt great knowing one had a job after a season finished.

And while some shows were serialized of course, closed-ended storytelling was the norm until Netflix and its full-season release concept pretty much killed it dead. From a creative standpoint, it’s the difference between writing short stories vs writing novels. A self contained episode is a short story (same as a feature film). A series (now) is a novel — sprawling and dense and expansive as it wants to be. As dark and compelling as it wants to be too.

Breaking Bad” was another game changer because it broke the rule of who a TV “hero” could be.

Look at the story of Walter White. It’s epic yet intimate. It’s scope yet exquisite detail. That’s what having “time” to tell a story does for a storyteller.

These days, the norm is anywhere from eight to twelve episodes though ten’s pretty standard. If the show’s roughly 30 minutes, that’s a five hour story we’re telling (broken up into 10 chapters). If it’s an hour — that’s a ten hour feature to plot out and write. That’s a lot of stretching out a story gets to do.

To judge by the world’s reaction, they love it. Amazon, Hulu,

Features meanwhile have stagnated creatively. They’re are an expensive risk even under the best of circumstances and movie studios are nothing if not risk averse. The sad fact is, big movie studios don’t know how to do little movies. In the early 90’s, Miramax was putting the studios to shame at Oscar time. The studios hated that (even though they had no idea how to make the kind of movies Miramax made) and bought up the little independents thinking they could simply put out arty movies under a more respected banner they owned.

But the studios — being risk averse — couldn’t keep their hands off the independent studios they’d just bought. Like network Standards & Practices censors, they immediately inhibited every bit of creativity — then wondered why there was so little creativity on the pages they were given. Within a few years, the little independents like Miramax were toast.

The studios threw in with the only thing they know how to make: spectacle and super hero movies. How many times has Warner Bros remade Superman & Batman so far?

If we took Marvel off the table, would there even be a movie business at present?

When Covid-19 closed the movie theaters, it drove a stake into the exhibition business’s failing heart. Netflix had already experimented with releasing its own features (like the Coen Brothers The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs” both on its platform and in limited theatrical release so it could still be Oscar-worthy). While other studios were forced to push back releasing the latest James Bond movie or the latest Batman movie, Netflix released its new Will Ferrell comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga” straight onto its platform — at no additional charge to its subscribers.

These days, even Meryl Streep will do TV shows. That’s like God coming to your house to hang out just because. Television has continued to mine subjects and characters it never dreamed of before. Think “Fleabag” or “Killing Eve” or even “Mrs. America” with its deep dive into the history of modern American feminism.

I admit to being biased against superhero movies. I can’t bear their sameness.

The thought of writing a feature is unappealing these days. What would be the point, really? Aren’t there already more than enough lost causes?

Aside from producing spectacle bigger than a home theater set up could create, there’s not much business left for the movie business. They gave up on intimate storytelling at least a decade ago. Intimate storytelling is finally giving up on it.

We’ll miss movie theaters — for the spectacle of course but also for the group experience. Comedy especially works better in a big house filled with people laughing uproariously. I learned that the first time I ever saw a Marx Brothers movie in a theater (as opposed to on my little TV). I’ve been a Groucho fan since the first time I saw “Horse Feathers” at 14. One of the local TV stations in Baltimore — WJZ — played classic comedy films between 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm every weekday back in the 1970’s (boy, have things changed!)

I knew “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup” and “Monkey Business” and “A Night At The Opera” and “A Day At The Races” were funny movies. I didn’t get how funny until I saw “Duck Soup” at college (for the umpteenth time) albeit with a big audience that howled with genuine delight from start to finish.

Yeah, comedy plays better with a big audience. But it plays well to a smaller, quieter audience too.

It’s going to be a while before movie theaters open and stay open. They’ll need to be “staying open” before any of the studios go to the trouble and expense of distributing product to them. The stone cold reality is, we don’t know when that will be.

There was time, believe it or not, when movie makers were certain that talkies would never succeed.

My hero William Goldman nailed it in his wonderful book “Adventures In The Screen Trade“. When it comes to making the best possible decisions, it’s simply a lost cause because “nobody knows anything”.

We’re living that dynamic every day now — not just the movie business but America. “Nobody knows anything”.

I bet the movie version will be good. The TV version will be better.

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