In the year where everything beloved died, I’m taking a stand to say television kicked film’s ass. In the past decade, there’s been a continuing debate as to whether or not TV had finally surpassed film. This argument has been evolving for years. Every time there is a great wave of TV or a slow year for the film some critic writes this article. But, they often only care about the winner when the real question is why.
How can the largest medium for over a hundred years be bested by the idiot box?
Let us begin by looking at the top ten grossing films of the year according to BoxOffice Mojo.
Three featured female leads, including the top two. Of those three women, one is white, Felicity Jones, one is a fish, and one is a bunny. Both the fish and the bunny are voiced in English by white women, Ellen DeGeneres and Ginnifer Goodwin.
Suicide Squad was lead by a Black man, Will Smith. The Jungle Book was led by the Indian-American male, Neel Sethi. The last five films on the list were led by white men.
Five of the films featured end-of-the-world scenarios. The other five, Zootopia, Deadpool, The Secret Life of Pets, and The Jungle Book are all centered on acts of revenge.
So, the diversity scales are not what we would call balanced. But, perhaps it’s not fair to base the success of films entirely on profit. Let’s look at the movie critics top ten list.
02. Hell or High Water
05. Love & Friendship
06. The Jungle Book
07. Finding Dory
08. Kubo & The Two Strings
09. Manchester by the Sea
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
01. OJ: Made in America
02. The Lobster
03. Green Room
05. Hell or High Water
08. The Fits
01. La La Land
02. Eye in the Sky
03. Hell or High Water
04. Hacksaw Ridge
06. Hidden Figures
07. Captain Fantastic
09. Sing Street & Edge of 17
10. Manchester by the Sea
02. La La Land
03. Manchester by the Sea
05. Toni Erdmann
06. Hell or High Water
07. O.J. Made in America
08. The Handmaiden
Critics, always helpful in a pinch. The only film that made all four lists is Moonlight, the Barry Jenkins exploration of a black youth growing up in Miami. It ranked first, fourth, eighth, and tenth.
These lists prove one thing: there’s no homogeny in the film industry. We’ve been inundated with one safe and surefire product after another. Moonlight deserves to be on every major list because it is a deeply personal piece of art that resonates with all viewers. It is a shining diamond in a coal mine of sameness.
I loved La La Land but the claims of a significant original work are laughable. It’s an homage to classic Hollywood and therefore cannot be considered new or unique. Need proof?
Need I say more?
Television, on the other hand, has managed to shine brilliantly in 2016 by addressing many of the mainstream issues Americans have with the film industry.
How many articles have been written about the lack of female director’s in cinema? How many articles have been written about the lack of diversity both on-screen and behind the camera? We’ve had the debacle that was Doctor Strange. We’ve seen it in the Gods of Egypt and Jem and the Holograms. Attention need barely is paid to understand that Hollywood has a diversity issue.
Viewers of color, with an LGBTQ status, with mental health issues, the disabled, and the poor have been able to find a steady stream of content that caters to their world view on television.
Speechless serves up a teen without speech living with a family who will do anything to make sure his silence isn’t mistaken as an absence but will not hesitate to make a joke at his expense. In American House Wife an entire family picks up their lives to live in a posh neighborhood so their youngest can attend a specific school. She has OCD and her parents are adamant about keeping her off medication but still struggle to figure out the right way to set limits.
The number of Black creator owned shows that were released in 2016 were a ray of hope for what might be possible in the future. Atlanta, Insecure, Chewing Gum and Queen Sugar all had US releases this year. The shows featured predominantly black casts, writers room, and directors. Queen Sugar can even boast an all-female directing staff.
These things matter in a society where social media has brought us into the cars, trailers, and living rooms of our favorite celebrities. Creators through Patreon, private funding, and direct outreach to millions of fans have created the world in which studios cannot ignore the outliers they used to avoid.
This is not to say that creators on the peripheral have it easy. Look at the long, sorted, trajectory Issa Rae had to take to move from a successful YouTube series to a television network. Compare that to Lena Dunham’s one film turn around. But the Awkward Black Girl web series was no joke. Outreach to fans happened daily, often through a simple question.
Television’s ability to combine quality storytelling with incredible special effects seals a crack critics have complained about for years.
Films like Avatar and Transformers prefer spectacle to a good story. These films are guaranteed to put butts in seats. Those butts tend to be there for one or three reasons to hate-watch, to submerge themselves in fanaticism, or because it was the best family film out that day.
What has been made clear is the film industry has found a formula on which it can subsist forever. Giant sci-fi blockbusters will continue to support the foundation. Tent poles continue to do their job, and instead of making meaningful small films, formulaic medium budget films are spewed out a nauseating rate to keep everyone afloat.
Game of Thrones “Battle of the Bastards” dealt a humbling blow to film this year. Perhaps the best reenactment of war since Saving Private Ryan belonged to a television show. The suffocating nail biter had long time stands screeching victory and doubter pleasantly surprised.
A similar blow was dealt by BoJack Horseman. The little-animated-show-that-could defies norms released an episode with almost no dialogue and a story of discovery that was both bittersweet and hysterical with “Fish Out of Water.”
The truth is both the cinema and whatever screen you have at your convenience are great mediums in which to produce quality content. However, t.v. has the upper hand because the element of surprise is on its side. When 50% of films are dealing with the end of the world scenarios the stakes have been played out. Emotionally there’s nowhere else to go.
But the renaissance of television has shown us a chemistry teacher fighting for his life turn into a terrifying villain. The Knick gave us a voyeuristic view into a turn of the century hospital. Donald Glover showed us a surrealist look into Atlanta at a time when most productions try to use it as faux New York City.
The final cinema sin is the remake. Once again a sure fire way to earn some cash, but usually a big disappointment to fans. Nothing can top the high for the first time. This year’s most financially successful remakes, Finding Dory and Rogue One left fans torn as to whether either could stand up to it’s original.
Even the remake is better on TV in 2016. Westworld, though not a perfect show, created an official and well-crafted remake. Usually, in a remake the themes, character types, and locations stay the same. Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan decided to play with the film’s original idea, man vs. technology, and flip it on its head.
Technology vs. man is a theme only recently explored. Wall-E loved what humankind used to be and hoped to save them from their laziness and stupidity. The hosts of Westworld, made in humanity’s image, are striving for revolution against the tyranny of men.
Fans debated whether or not the hosts should be considered human. Storylines played with choice over pre-programming. If you go to the Westworld fan page on Reddit, you’ll see hours of content debating single sentences of dialogue, set pieces, and an in-depth exploration into an accurate timeline. The conversations are heated and passionate.
That passion is why television had a better 2016 than film.
HBO gave Westworld the space to reshoot and figure out the story it needed to tell and the payoff was great. The sheer number of quality programming coming out can be contributed to the fierce competition between network, streaming, and cable.
There is time to make the product not just well, but unique and for a specific audience because without it’s base a show will fail. Fans talk directly to creators and the changes they seek often find their way into the show.
Film, unless attached to a giant tent pole, cannot hope to make this impact if it not also unique. Take the consistent favorites this year, Moonlight, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea. Each stands on its own as a piece of art. One, a personal exploration of gay Black youth in impoverished Miami. The following a return to the classic Hollywood musical, the final an emotional tumble into grief and family. Each beautifully shot, superbly performed, and with a definite opinion.
If films in 2017 can’t find different opinions from diverse creators, then television will continue its reign of superior content.
Here in lies the problem. Cinema is no longer unique. Long gone are the days of unique perspectives. Most movies are shot the same. Moonlight’s dream like close-ups makes it an instant standout. Even movies we consider great suffer from the banality of image. The combination of the Arri Alexa 65 and the Ultra Panavision 70 lens have been used in tandem to film Hateful 8, Rogue One, The Revenant, Live by Night, and Doctor Strange.
Despite this banality film finances will remain unconcerned because even if TV has had a better year creatively cash is still king and movies are making more money than ever.
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Joelle Monique is the co-creator and writer of the webcomic Harsh Mellow, a podcaster with Black Girl Nerds, a proud Hufflepuff, and a member of the water tribe. She resides in Los Angeles but her heart resides in Chicago.