The Era of Peak TV and Movie Events is Over. What Comes Next?
By Christian Thrailkill
The excitement of the geek world is palpable in the air this week. This Sunday, The 70th episode of Game of Thrones, The Battle of Winterfell, touted as the longest continuous action sequence committed to film, will serve as the climax to the most influential TV show of the decade. Meanwhile, This Friday, the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame, will open, break all kinds of box office records, and serve as the culmination of more than a decade of movie storylines. Game of Thrones and Marvel dominated the pop culture landscape of the 2010s, and these finales represent not only the pop culture zenith of the decade, but the end of the traditional film experience.
We’re in the middle of a radical transition of traditional TV and moviegoing experiences as we know them. For many readers, this might seem like an obvious statement, but these two franchises are important case studies of this transition. For instance, Matt Seitz wrote over at Vulture about how Game of Thrones served as the bridge between the end of the Cable Era and the start of the Streaming Era. And there’s been endless think pieces about how Marvel transformed the concept of long-form storytelling in film. The 2010s for film have largely been about the end of physical media and fixed viewing, and the rise of streaming and flexible viewing options. Take a moment to remember that binge-watching as a concept wasn’t even in the lexicon until about 2013.
This transition has been largely shepherded by these two franchises. Game of Thrones and Marvel simultaneously embraced being appointment viewing and being binge-worthy series worth meticulously combing through over and over. This resulted in an endless loop of hype, viewership, and post-premiere discussion. This cycle has resulted in both series gaining viewership with each passing installment, with the season premiere of Game of Thrones being the most watched episode of the series, and each new installment of Marvel franchise films gaining box office profitability. This dichotomy of being event television and films, while embracing streaming services and technology to gain and retain viewership, has acclimated viewers to the changing media landscape, to the point that even Baby Boomer and Greatest Generation fans have become comfortable with streaming services.
The direct effect of this phenomenon has seen streaming services have absolutely decimated the Cable and Movie industry viewership, forcing both to adapt to the rise of Netflix and other streaming services. Increasingly, audiences are opting to wait for movies to be available at home and cutting cable subscriptions altogether. Companies like Nielson have had to adapt and accommodate for streaming numbers and non-real time viewers. The once ubiquitous network shows that would reach tens of millions of viewers each night are now struggling to make those same numbers, relying on an increasingly older demographic. In comparison, Streaming shows are dominating these numbers. Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix have not only captured viewership, but they’re also cleaning up awards shows once dominated by cable and network TV. The benefit of original streaming content becoming must-watch TV, in addition to the convenient curation of the most popular films and TV from all decades of film, have made these services juggernauts of entertainment.
This year, in addition to Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, two serious contenders are coming for the throne in the form of AppleTV+ and Disney+. These 5 major streaming service will be in a major competition for content in the form of movies and TV from legendary filmmakers and showrunners alike. What was once a monopoly on the streaming industry in the form of Netflix has turned into a war for internet supremacy, similar the way that Cable and TV channels used to vie for views. In the mad rush to gain a competitive edge over their rivals, the role of Movies and TV will basically amount to the difference between a viewer wanting a long form or short form narrative for their viewing pleasure. As of writing, Disney+ is spearheading the most fundamental challenge to the TV/Movie split. The future of Marvel will look to specifically reimagine how we interact with TV and film.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has already had numerous TV spinoffs over the past decade that take place in the same universe as the movies. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stars fan-favorite Phil Coulson, and guest starred numerous movie supporting characters like Lady Sif. Agent Carter was all about the titular side character from Captain America: The First Avenger. And of course, the Netflix shows referenced events that took place in the movies. However, the events that took place in the TV shows were all but ignored in the movies. One just has to look at the complete ignoring of anything regarding the ill-fated Inhumans to see this issue with the suspension of disbelief across both TV and Movies in the MCU. However, this is promising to change. Kevin Feige has gone on the record stating that the events of the Disney+ shows, such as the upcoming Hawkeye series, will introduce characters and events that will actually affect the cast and events of the Marvel movies. This promises a future in which event Movies also become Event TV and vice versa.
Even the previous Marvel shows might start to meaningfully connect to the movies. The well-received and ingloriously canceled Defenders franchises will most likely find new life on Hulu, along with sister franchise The Runaways. It isn’t hard to imagine Daredevil and Hawkeye working together, or Falcon meeting with Quake. This would culminate in a big-small screen shared universe where movies, miniseries, and TV shows would all interact and affect each other, completely erasing the artificial barriers between viewing screens once and for all. This is the future of film as Disney sees it.
It’s not just Disney, however. HBO has ambitious plans for Westeros following Game of Thrones. Amazon is throwing money at its own multi-series and movie Lord of The Rings franchise. Netflix is fighting for its financial life to figure out how to reshape the network’s original programming to make up for the potential loss of marquee shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and The Office. The next decade will certainly see other companies, such as Warner Brothers and NBCUniversal, launch their own competing streaming services. Networks, movie studios, online services, and tech giants will be in direct competition with each other to find the content to compete with each other’s libraries and retain audience viewership, and that means there will be enormous upheaval in the world of film, with new concepts of content delivery, A-List and unknown talent being recruited side by side to make shows, and more media than ever for viewers to choose from.
Of course, there will always be movies meant for physical theatres, TV shows meant for traditional TV, and shows meant for the streaming experience, but it looks increasingly likely that the next decade of film will be spent on attempts to fully erase these barriers that were severely weakened in the 2010s. This opens up exciting opportunities for the future of visual storytelling that were impossible a mere generation ago. I’m excited to see how future directors and screenwriters take advantage of this new, post Game of Thrones and Avengers landscape. Just as cable allowed for stories that were untellable on TV a generation before, I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the 2020’s we’re looking back at our current generation of TV and film as surprisingly anachronistic.
Christian Thrailkill is a musician and graduate of Southern Methodist University. He lives in Dallas, Texas.