Monday, September 1, 2014

Boyhood, True Detective, and the Blurring of the Film/Television Divides

As recently as last year, the differences between cinema and television felt reasonably clear. Cinema told stories by a single creative voice or team, filmed in a relatively contained time span. Television told much larger stories by vastly (r)evolving sets of creators, spanning years and years. But 2014 may go down in history as the year those divisions became murkier than we ever thought possible, to the extent that divisions may not even exist in the near future. Two works are primarily responsible for this, The HBO show True Detective, which aired in the first three months of the year, and the Richard Linklater film Boyhood, which is in theaters now.

True Detective was aired on television, but it was really an eight-hour movie. It was written by one screenwriter, filmed by one director, starred movie stars, and has no plans to continue the stories of any of its characters. Boyhood is a three hour film, but it was created and filmed over the course of twelve years, watching its actors age in real time, and each year's worth of shooting script was created at that time, based on where the creators wanted the story to travel each year of their collaboration. All of these elements of both projects are either relatively rare and risky for their medium, or complete innovations that we've never seen before. Both projects were viewed as huge risks with potentially crazy business models. Both projects yielded amazing results that could change their industries for years and decades to come.

Boyhood is the year's best film thus far, and is a mortal lock to remain towards the top of that list. It's not simply about watching a person grow and evolve over the entirety of their adolescence, but really about watching what life is at its core. When I've described the film to people and urged them to see it, they've sometimes asked me what the point of it is. Ultimately, I think the point of the film for each individual viewer will be whatever that person thinks the point of life is. As you watch a life unfold, and seemingly random, unimportant days and conversations slowly shape a person into who he will be, it provokes a self-reflection of value and purpose. What is the point of it all? How and why am I who I am? What moments happened when I was eight, or ten, or thirteen, that fundamentally created the person I am now?

A lot of great cinema has provoked these questions before; that's nothing new in and of itself. But the method is. Boyhood is occasionally being compared to Michael Apted's Up documentaries, which set out to interview the same group of people every seven years to see how their lives and goals changed over time. But while those films did allow us to see the same people at seven-years old, fourteen-years old, and so on, we had to (initially) wait seven years and watch a different film to see each age. Boyhood is a (kind of) complete life experience in one sitting.

True Detective wasn't as thematically ambitious, but it's business model of having a continuing show where each season has no characters or settings in common with the previous one is pretty radical. Yes, American Horror Story beat True Detective to the punch in this regard by a little over a year, but the key difference is in how each show used this model. American Horror Story did so almost secretively, while True Detective shouted it from the rooftops. True Detective wanted you to know that each season was its own thing, and would not be continued. It wanted you to understand that it was able to sign on A-List movie stars because of its very ability to not require an actor to be locked in for several seasons. It wanted you to know that you didn't have to commit to some five-plus-season-long meandering vision, that this was an eight-week deal, so you needn't worry about getting attached to some saga that will take five years to answer any of your questions. Everything that American Horror Story did almost incidentally, True Detective heavily advertised as key reasons to tune in.

It needs to be pointed out that this is the exact opposite of how television financially banked on itself in the past. What made successful television over the last six decades was the assurance of relative perpetuity; the idea that something was being created which could then be counted on for stable financial gain over a very long period of time. Television had always been in the real estate business. The great television shows used to be like Stan Lee's manifesto for Marvel Comics: give only the illusion of change, while actually creating a status quo that can theoretically exist forever. Of course prestige shows have been hacking that model to death for years now. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and their ilk have thrived on actual change far more than any illusion of such, but the key continuance has been the show itself. We still tune in, year in and year out, to see where these characters will go, and the networks that control them know we will. But with True Detective, whether or not we tune in again next year doesn't have anything to do with seeing where any of it will go. It's gone. That story was told, and next year will be a different one. It's television officially turning into a cinematic business model: give people something they'll pay to see, and worry about the next source of income later.

So what does all this mean? What does it mean that one of the best television shows of the year gave us a singular eight-hour experience that won't be returned to, and that one of the year's best films gave us a decades-spanning experience that was created over the same span of time as it portrays? Well, it means a lot. For television, it means that the steady branding networks have depended on for success since the dawn of television might not be important anymore in the near future. It means that instead of trying to sell talented people on the idea of signing in to projects that they'll be chained to for years, those same creative people can now be sold on the idea of creating an eight hour movie, where their "vision" doesn't have to be burdened by the realities of how long an audience is willing to sit still in a theater. Why have top tier filmmakers historically never gone to television (with the occasional exceptions of a Martin Scorsese or David Fincher directing a pilot episode, and then scaling back to however hands off "executive producer" allows them to be)? Because why would they? That would just be signing up for creative stagnancy instead of the ability to follow their muse in any given year. But the True Detective model (as it will inevitably be called) will allow for that. It will allow for their muse to be followed, with a greater freedom of depth than a standard film run-time allows for. We've already seen it again now with Steven Soderbergh and Cinemax's The Knick, which he quickly filmed like a ten hour movie. This is about to start happening very frequently, and five years from now, it may be the new norm.

With Boyhood, the major miracle is in the green light. A lot of business models require funding and investment that won't be returned for more than ten years. Good scotch, for example. But film has never been one of those. Think about this in financial terms: someone ponied up millions of dollars for an art-house director to film the same core set of four people over the course of twelve years, and then release a three-hour film with no plot at the end of those dozen years. It required beginning with a six-year old, banking that this person will grow up in a vaguely normal way, stay heathy, stay interested, and basically that nothing will go wrong. Because, you know, that's a perfectly reasonable thing to depend on a six-year old for, and to risk millions of dollars over. But… it worked (!). Boyhood is a hit. Audiences are melting over it. Critics are running out of laudatory adjectives. Personally, I haven't begged this many people to see a movie since probably The Social Network in 2010, when I spent months workshopping different ways to tell people over the age of forty that, "it's not really about Facebook." What began over twelve years ago as an asinine financial risk looks today like one of the best investments in creative vision that a Hollywood producer has ever doled out.

I don't know if the "Boyhood model" will become a thing quite as obviously as the True Detective model will. Even though it took television roughly seventy years to figure this out, it's already clear how and why the True Detective model will quickly become the new norm. The future for projects like Boyhood is much hazier. The financial risk of fronting money for something that can't earn a dime for over a decade will never become un-risky. Banking on actors--a profession where people notoriously don't stay sane and normal for long periods of time--to dependably create something over years and years without courting disaster might not ever become a common-place thing. But the business lesson of Boyhood doesn't have to be in creating a new norm--just a new possibility. That's what great art does; it keeps breaking through with new possibility.

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