These movies are too long. These movies are too short. These movies are just right.
This theme, echoing the assessments of fussy Goldilocks, can be found in a recent New York Times series of interviews about the future of commercial film-making, collectively summarised as How Will the Movies Survive the Next 10 Years? It’s informative for theatremakers to get insight into what film artists, producers and studio heads are thinking about their medium.
Even though movies and theatre differ in significant ways, they are both part of the same entertainment continuum, even if theatregoing predominantly tends toward limited local audiences while movies can reach global audiences.
Joe Russo, co-director of the last two Avengers films, suggests that binge-watching television programming is changing audience expectations. He told Kyle Buchanan that, by way of example, Stranger Things is “training audiences to expect a greater pay off from their commitment than they might get from something that’s two hours. We’re not sure the two-hour, closed-ended film is going to be the dominant narrative moving forward for this next generation.”
Jeffrey Katzenberg, a founder of the Dreamworks studio, takes the opposing view from Russo, thinking viewers want a two-hour story, chopped into easily digested segments. He told the Times: “I believe the third generation of film narrative will be a merging of two ideas, which is to tell two-hour stories in chapters that are seven to 10 minutes in length. We are actually doing long-form in bite-size.”
Producer Jason Blum took the middle road, saying: “The two to three-hour storytelling format has existed since the beginning of time. That’s how long the plays were that the Greeks went to see. If a story is two hours and has a beginning, middle and end, I can’t see how that becomes obsolete. By the way, I may be a dinosaur.”
This column has previously explored how binge watching equates with longer than usual shows, as well as multi-part plays that are seen months or even years apart, mimicking the passage of time within the plays themselves. The closest theatrical equivalent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which built a series of films into the finale of the united Avengers movies, may well be Richard Nelson’s hyper-intimate The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels trilogy.
Seeing film-makers worry publicly about drawing audiences away from their couches and movie theatres is surprising, since this has always been the imperative for all theatres. However, even as Broadway posts record highs, the movie box office is down for the year. Of course, the overall scale is different and there’s much more theatre in the US than just Broadway, but the trends are fascinating, especially since the price points for most theatre productions are several multiples of the cost of a movie ticket.
Maybe the streaming revolution has created similar fears to those that gripped the movie industry in the 1950s, as television became a behemoth. Hollywood has had two major flirtations with 3D, once in the 1950s and then again in the past decade. The 1950s iteration proved a fad at best and the current craze for 3D films seems to have faded – in part because audiences don’t want to pay a premium for the experience.
It was heartening to read Jason Blum’s references to theatre and its traditional form, but it shouldn’t allow us to rest on our laurels. New ways of devising stories, of connecting artists and audiences, of breaking beyond the constraints of the amphitheatre or the proscenium remain essential. After all, theatre faces the same competition as the movie industry.
There may be something reassuring in discovering that theatre and film face similar challenges, even though the fundamentals of the form, as well as the scale and finances, are vastly different. But we must be ever vigilant. The days of electronically reproduced, holographically exhibited theatre performances are just a couple of decades away.
Our unique selling point, which has never really changed since the earliest days of drama, is that the story tellers and those consuming the story must occupy the same space and breathe the same air. Long or short, simple or elaborate, expensive or economical, the essence of theatre is people willingly entering a room together at an appointed time and that is something that recorded music, radio, television or movies can never touch.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/