We lie in the midst of a major shift. Although we’re consuming a lot more stories today than we have in past decades, theatrical films are comprising a shrinking piece of that pie. More of our story consumption experiences take place elsewhere on mobile or at home where we control what we watch, when, and for how long. We are slowly defining a new viewing experience for storytelling, and one that demands a new format. The feature film, the dominant form of cultural storytelling for the past 100 years, a format born from the theatrical viewing experience, just might fade with it. And in its place, something new is destined to emerge.
When Film Was an Event
First, we need to understand where the feature format came from. Not long ago, movie theaters were the only place for engrossing, transportive experiences. The feature film was an event. And as with other events like a concert or a live performance, we made an evening of it. We got dressed up, drove there, parked, had dinner, then settled in for an evening of entertainment. Thus, the feature film format was born from the theatrical experiencedesigned to mimic the length of other performances at 90-120min. The perfect length to satisfy the intersecting needs of business and biology.
But that magical theatrical experience that defined the feature has slowly lost ground. Since 2002, US theatrical ticket sales per person are down 22.7%. While our phones are making stories more convenient and our home HDTV setups are making them more immersive, that old theatrical film experience hasnt really changed much. Add in the easy access to content on Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon, the rising costs of theater tickets, and the diminishing number of original films and the reason to go to the theater isnt as clear cut as it once was. Today, there are more instances where going to the theater is losing out over other options.
Over the last 8 years and especially the mobile explosion of the last 4 years, our story consumption habits have changed. We are now in control of when and where we consume stories. Many of us spend our days reading ebooks, following friends feeds, watching YouTube clips, and generally wandering into stories we never consciously sought out. In other words, we are surrounded by stories. We consume dozens every day without really knowing it.
There are many times where we find ourselves searching for shorter experiences. Something we can watch on the train ride home or after dinner without killing an entire night. Television is popular for many reasons, but one that is often overlooked is that a 22 or 45 minute episode simply fits into more viewing opportunities in our lives today.
And yet, there are times where we want morea lot morehence the growing phenomenon of binge viewing. We watch one episode, then another and another. A new TV season can be like a good book that you can’t put down all weekend. All of this control over how short or how long we want to spend with a story makes the set 90-minutes of a feature film feel a bit arbitrary by comparison.
The feature film has survived many onslaughtsfrom the introduction of television in the 1950s to the home video trend in the 1980sbecause it has long held the torch as the place for filmmakers and storytellers to tell the deepest, most complex stories with the richest characters and most realistic worlds.
But while this once was the territory of feature films, it has since been surpassed by today’s golden age of television. Even a modest 5-season show like Breaking Bad has 3000 minutes to tell its story. Compare that to the most successful film series of all time, Harry Potter, which comes in at just 1176 minutesless than half that time. The Star Wars series, considered by many to be one of the most elaborate visions brought to film, had only 800 minutes (and that includes the new films). The Godfather series with all of its rich characters and plot twists, comes in at 537 minutes. Meanwhile, shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos are set on creating not just stories but entire worlds with a level of detail, rich characters, and subplots weve never experienced before.
All of this shift in depth has another consequencetalent. Many of Hollywood’s finest are moving to TV for bigger, culture-defining roles. They see the shift coming.
Where does this leave the feature film?
It may be a difficult pill to swallow, but the days of the feature film as the dominant mass-market medium for storytelling may be behind us. This is not a question of quality. There are many great features released every year. But technology and our habits are changing. The power to watch what you want when you want it, now sits in everyones pockets. Thats something that cant be undone.
While most of the film industry seems focused on the feature film as their ticket into digital content, television may actually be a better model for how we move forward. The web series, a format written off by many, has all the right ingredients but lacks the funding and attention. A few brave filmmakers push it forward like Kirby Fergusen with This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, Jossie Malis’ Bendito Machine, The Beauty Inside, and Drunk History. Sundance and IFP have both added television and web series to their labs.
Meanwhile, those of us who grew up idolizing the feature film as the pinnacle of storytelling need to take a step back and ask ourselves about what drew us to filmmaking in the first place. Years ago in high school I had an assignment to write down my life goals. I wrote down my dream to one day make a feature film. Back then, I wanted to tell an expansive story that could touch the world, and I still do today. It’s time we shape what comes next.
“Why are you trying to make a feature film? If youre doing it because you think its the dominant story medium of our time, or because you believe its the way to a mass audience or because you think youll get rich, you need a healthy dose of artistic and personal self-examination. Telling stories through media of some form, yes. But buying into the conventional feature-film format and all its legacy business practices that is no longer something you do by rote.”Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker Magazine