People have been predicting the death of the movie industry at the hands of television since about the time of its birth. The Hollywood megamogul David O. Selznick, after getting his first glimpse of the newborn TV beast in 1937, gloomily predicted: "I do not believe that television can be stopped." Selznick did his best, refusing to sell his films to TV (Gone with the Wind, made two years after Selznick's glimpse of the coming apocalypse, didn't air on television until 1976), and most other studios followed suit. It wasn't until 1961, when NBC shelled out a fortune for 31 films for its new feature Saturday Night at the Movies, that the major film studios attempted peaceful co-existence with TV.
Though Hollywood has plenty of ghost stories, nobody has ever reported a spectral Selznick wandering the grounds of Forest Lawn. But it might be time to post a lookout, listening closely for a cackled "I told you so!" There's a good chance that 2021 will be remembered as the year TV finally took over the film industry.
With the COVID pandemic almost entirely closing movie theaters from March 2020 to April 2021, TV streaming services became America's top entertainment option. Disney's new Disney+ streamer had 26.5 million subscribers when the national lockdown went into effect; within a year, it had boomed to 100 million. And even when theaters reopened this spring, viewers mostly stayed home.
As 2021 draws to a close, the collective American movie box office is down about 70 percent from the pre-pandemic year of 2019. James Bond can still pack them in, but nobody is using the word "boffo" for other expected tentpole releases like Belfast, Spencer or King Richard. Even the slobbery reviews of critical darling Steven Spielberg's West Side Story didn't put butts in movie-theater seats; Variety this week officially pronounced it "a flop." (Women in particular haven't returned to the cineplex. The Wall Street Journal reports the percentage of female ticket sales is down by about a third from pre-pandemic levels.)
Hollywood has predictably and sensibly responded by following the money to television and the streaming services. Most Universal Pictures films are now available on video-on-demand channels within 17 days, with other studios not far behind – if they're behind at all. Warner Brothers makes almost all its new films available on its HBO Max streaming service on the same day they debut in theaters. (Notable exception: West Side Story.)
The studio bosses and their nervous chums at the movie-theater chains all insist that this is a freakish situation brought about by the pandemic that will fade away when the virus does. They're certainly correct that COVID can be held accountable for part of the problem. But the trend away from movie theaters began long before Anthony Fauci was a household name. In the 1930s, 65 percent of Americans went to the movies each week; even before the lockdown, it was down to around 10 percent.
There's no mystery about where they've gone. The average American now spends more than three hours a day propped in front of the TV set. Why not? Television screens are bigger and sharper (and cheaper!) than ever, and so are their sound systems. DVRs mean you can watch a show when you feel like it, rather than slavishly follow somebody else's schedule, and you don't have to miss any decapitations, disembowelments or disrobed D-cups to run to the bathroom. Not to mention the freedom from extortionate concession prices. Will viewers abandon all these advantages to return to theaters because masks are no longer required? Let's just say I'm not buying a lot of stock in Regal or AMC these days.
If this were merely a matter of whose pockets are going to be lined, or not, it wouldn't be that interesting. But as TV becomes the dominant delivery system for Hollywood's product, that product will change technologically, aesthetically and financially, in ways that none of us can yet imagine. (Will Dwayne Johnson still make $90 million a picture for films that depend solely on Netflix subscription receipts?) And as movies become more like television shows, television shows will likely become more like movies, a process that's already under way.
Meanwhile, though the pandemic continued to wreak havoc on TV production and scheduling, the demon box still had some fine moments in 2021. The year's best:
10. Grace and Frankie (Netflix). Baby Boomers, the first TV generation, grew up on Howdy Doody, and now they're saying goodbye on this comedy about an aging Junior Leaguer (Jane Fonda) and a senescent hippie (Lily Tomlin) making an alliance as they refuse to go gentle into that good night.
9. The Big Leap (Fox). This take-no-prisoners show-within-a-show, in which a bunch of dancer wannabes are struggling to put on a live production of Swan Lake, hilariously brutalizes not just the entire reality genre but even Fox itself. But it also fashions several surprisingly touching narratives about survival, about taking life's punches and getting back up again.
8. This Is Us (NBC). A multi-generational account of the thrills and spills of the suburban Pearson family, written with grace, elegance and wit, This Is Us is the toniest soap ever and a reminder that the genre needn't be self-caricaturing dreck.
7. Yellowjackets (Showtime). A creepy and thoroughly unnerving drama about what happens when the charter flight of a girls' soccer team crashes in the wilderness. It turns out that Lord of the Flies-style decivilization may be the least of their problems.
6, Tina (HBO). The montage of TV appearances of Tina Turner dervishing and shrieking her way through "River Deep – Mountain High" is, by itself, to win this documentary a place on the list. And it's got so much more in its account of the battered but thrilling life of rock and roll's ultimate survivor.
5. Halston (Netflix). In the battle between competing projects on the depravity of modern houses of fashion, House Of Gucci may have Lady Gaga and a murder, but Halston has executive producer Ryan Murphy's incisive story-telling skills—and that's more than a match.
4. Yellowstone (Paramount). A modern western that savagely channels the stark message of the old ones: that morality is a myth, that might makes right, that—as Gene Pitney put it— "when the final showdown came to pass, a law book was no good." And give Yellowstone its feminist due: The most vicious snake of the show is the evil Dutton family's daughter (played with terrifying wicked zeal by British actress Kelly Reilly), whose rancorous villainy has spawned a cottage industry of coffee cups and t-shirts bearing the warning, "DON'T MAKE ME GO ALL BETH DUTTON ON YOU."
3. The Conners (ABC): Last year I wrote: "To my continuing amazement, Roseanne without Roseanne continues to be funny, poignant and TV's only real banner-carrier for working class America." When I'm right, I'm right.
2. The Chi (Showtime): In some ways television's most remarkable show, The Chi continues to tell tales of warmth and decency amidst the bloody chaos of inner-city Chicago, insisting on the humanity of its characters without denying the malevolence that surrounds them.
1. The Chair (Netflix): None of the millions of words the chattering classes have spilled on modern academia and cancel culture amount to anything compared to the scalpel wielded against it in Netflix's slyly malicious satire on college life. Not to mention its new interpretation of Chaucer, delivered to her indifferent Gen Z students by a bitter boomer professor: "The Canterbury Tales is network of genius. Philandering husbands, horny housewives, farting, shitting, pubic hair. Some poor schmuck asked a woman for a kiss and ends up making out with her butthole. That's fate I'm wishing for you."