What Hollywood Could Learn From TV
Imagine this: you have been watching a show for years, and at first it was great. The characters were memorable, the plotlines were fresh, and the dialogue was fantastic. But as time wore on, the show lost its edge. Maybe it became routine, maybe it went off the rails, but either way it wasn’t the same. Does this sound familiar? Chances are if you are reading this, you have experienced this story before. The film industry, now more than ever before, is facing this future. With the growth of cinematic universes and the explosion of sequels, in the next few years several franchises might meet the same fate as ill-fated TV shows. But since television has run into this problem so many times, there are many examples of how to avoid this outcome. If Hollywood can learn to craft franchises with definite and satisfying endings, we could see a golden age of cinematic universes and sequels.
When television shows are created, they are typically built without an idea for a solid ending. Often writers will pitch a premise without knowing how the show would conclude. Even if they have an idea of how to end the initial plotline, they often are clueless on how to conclude the entire series. This is why shows will often start with one story, but end on a completely different one. For example, take the CW show Arrow. It started with a simple premise: Oliver Queen returns home and decides to clean up the city that his father had ruined. Now where does Arrow stand? Although I haven’t watched it for a while, when I stopped watching Oliver Queen was fighting monsters with the Flash.
The fact that the show evolved isn’t the problem. The problem is that the show clearly had no plan to evolve after Season 2, when Death Stroke, the villain they had set up in Season 1, was defeated by Oliver Queen. After that happened, the show resorted to forming a relationship between Oliver and his co-worker Felicity, and it turned into a soapy crime/fantasy show. Arrow had a well fleshed out two season story arc, but after that the writers ran out of ideas and started grasping at straws.
That is the problem with this medium: some stories are only meant to last two seasons, but few successful shows ever do.
You have probably had an experience like mine with Arrow. But this problem isn’t just limited to television, it plagues the film industry as well. There have been dozens of franchises that lost their way after a barrage of awful sequels: The 80’s and 90’s Batman films, The Godfather trilogy, and the Die Hard franchise all began with well received films, but all of them ended on a low note. Yes, Batman and Robin is considered to be worse than The Godfather Part III, but the same trend can be seen.
This problem affects television more than film because television networks cannot afford to only make miniseries. Every year they must make a show that has been around for multiple seasons feel fresh. A second season to a show is really just a sequel to the first, and so television thrives off sequels. Hollywood on the other hand, hasn’t found itself in the same situation until recently. In the past few decades the number of sequels released has exploded. Here you can see research done by Dr. Stuart Henderson, which charts the percentage of films that have been a sequel or a prequel.
With the changing landscape of Hollywood, franchises are now beginning to morph into something even bigger. With the arrival of cinematic universes, which can now have dozens of films that are all part of the same timeline, the film industry is beginning to merge its format with the tried and true television formula.
And since TV has been doing it longer, it has learned a few things.
When developing a television show that will stand the test of time you have two options: design the premise so that the show can easily evolve over time, or create a show with a clear beginning and a clear ending.
For an example of the first, look at Doctor Who. That show has an immortal character as its star, who can change his face every time he dies. This was a stroke of brilliance. Because of this premise, the show has turned from a small British television show to a program watched across the world. Head writers have changed, actors have come and gone, as have plotlines and music themes. The ability of the show to change over time has been written into its DNA, so when it changes it doesn’t feel unnatural, it feels expected.
This doesn’t mean there haven’t been bad seasons of Doctor Who, there certainly have. But the show has lasted over fifty years now, whereas many shows get dropped after eight or nine seasons.
The second option may not be as financially lucrative, but it has been done masterfully. A perfect example of this method is Breaking Bad. The shows starts with a chemistry teacher, sick with cancer, joining the meth business so that he does not leave his family with crushing debt. And (spoilers:) it ends with its protagonist dead (or near dead) because of his work, and his family gaining a massive supply of money.
Breaking Bad only lasted five seasons, but it is considered one of the greatest television shows of all time, and has generated money for AMC through re-runs and season 5’s enormous ratings.
Both of these approaches work, even though they yield different results. Now that Hollywood is mirroring television, it has to choose how it will build its cinematic universes with care. The film industry will likely have franchises that are only intended to include two or three sequels, while others such as the MCU are built to stretch across decades. But if Marvel really wants to make films until 2028, as the studio has insisted on, it needs to learn how to craft such a massive franchise from those who have done it before.
The MCU has lasted longer than many believed it would before the release of Iron Man, but that doesn’t mean that it will last as long as Disney and Marvel Studios want it to.