I think it’s worth admitting, now, that “television” has become one of those legacy words, like “phone,” that we use to point at a thing, without really fully describing it. What do you mean, now, when you say “television”? HOUSE OF CARDS and HEMLOCK GROVE? HAUNTING MELISSA on the iPad? Serialised (periodical) narrative? Shot for a small screen? Maybe. It certainly doesn’t mean what it used to [WEDC].
I stumbled onto this quote by author Warren Ellis that beautifully sums up something I’ve been speaking loudly about lately. Of course, Ellis is referring to the disruption of television, but I think what he say’s extends itself to movies as well.
Prior to the last 3-5 years (give or take) we used the words television, music video, film or movie to describe the most popular forms of media entertainment. But, recent trends in new media have challenged the use of these terms. For starters, when we go to the movie we are not watching film. The term film referred to a bunch of photographs running through a light source at 24 frames per second (more or less depending on the film). Today, most theaters don’t show film at all. With some exception, the images we see in today’s movie theaters are digital. Moreover, they are visual representations of numerical data. Sure, we still use the word film to describe a movie, an occupation or a discipline but it’s a term of nostalgia. Film is dead.
But, even the term movie doesn’t mean what it use to. Ten years ago the idea of a movie was simple. I’m painting with broad strokes here, but typically a movie would be 90 – 120 minutes. It had a clear beginning, middle and an end that followed your classic three act structure. It was shot by a film crew (there goes that word again) and distributed into the theaters by a film studio. The viewer would watch it in one sitting. After its theater run it would show up in video stores across the country (in DVD, VHS and later BD formats). Finally, within a year that same film would show up on free television and/or cable television channels like HBO or Showtime.
That was the way things were in my young adult years. In the last few years we’ve been experiencing things (I’m not quite sure what to call them) that defies category. The recent popularity of 7-15 minute film shorts streamed through YouTube, Vimeo or Short of the Week, for example, has disrupted the way we talk about movies. Now that we’ve grown accustomed to streaming our video entertainment through TV and mobile devices do these shorts qualify as movies? What is the difference between watching 2 hours and 34 minutes of Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon on Netflix via an iPad and Spider, a 9 minute short from Nash Edgerton, on the same device?
In regards to television, is Netflix orginal, House of Cards a television show or a 728 minute movie told in 13 chapters? Is Dennis Dortch’s Black&SexyTV a television channel on YouTube or is Dortch making a movie in short intervals? I think it is brilliant that The Couple, Hello Cupid, The Number, That Guy and Roomieloverfriends are connected and each series, if you will, tells the story of different characters in this world created by Dortch, Numa Perrier, Desmond Faison and Issa Rae. If you take each show in its entirety it feels like Robert Altman’s narrative approach in Gosford Park, but the filmmakers don’t have to squeeze multiple storylines into two hours. The characters have room to breath and the audience can get comfortable with them. Are these new age examples of movies? I don’t know, but you wouldn’t be entirely wrong to suggest they are.
But, these are easy examples. Haunting Melissa, described an app-only interactive horror movie, was created by Neal Edelstein, producer of The Ring and Mulholland Drive. To mimic a person being haunted by a ghost the movie is distributed in an unpredictable release schedule. The first two episodes are free (although episode 2 requires the user to give it some social media love) and after a few views I can confirm that there are a few noticeable differences each time you watch it. What category do you place Haunting Melissa in? Isn’t it safe to say that app-only interactive horror movie is a placeholder for now?
How would you categorize The Walking Dead: The Game? Although, it clearly falls in a video game category if you take out the interactivity it’s an animated version of the television series. This fall developer Quantic Dream will be releasing Beyond: Two Souls, a video game/interactive movie starring William Dafoe, Ellen Page and Kadeem Hardison. I’ve played their previous title, Heavy Rain, and let me tell you, video game doesn’t really do it justice.
These are but a few examples of new media that has challenged the way we talk about our visual entertainment. Is it appropriate to call them movies? Interactive movies? Video games? Television shows? Movies? Web series? Honestly, I could care less. I’m not interested in answering these questions. What fascinates me is the fact that we are asking these questions to begin with. It means that no one really knows, and that means there are no masters in today’s new media. The idea of a gatekeeper is not what it used to be. The old rules no longer apply.
Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas can barely get a movie made. Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino are threatening to retire. Spike Lee is on Bloomberg’s “Smart Street” yelling at Trish Regan for challenging his decision to start a Kickstarter campaign. Lee has always demonstrated a short fuse when it comes to ignorance. He’s old school in that regard. What Regan failed to understand yesterday is shared by a lot of folks. Traditional movie making is over.
To that I say, “Good! It’s about fucking time.” I say, we embrace these new trends. Dismantle these antiquated ideas of film and television. Consider the benefits of interactivity without being influenced by the limiting ideas of a video game. I say, we look to our mavericks: Haile Gerima, Sam Greenlee, Julie Dash, Oscar Micheaux and Spike amongst many others. They couldn’t have left us a more clear blueprint on how to navigate through this disruption. I say, we stop hero-isizing people like Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels. The most exciting black filmmakers working today are the aforementioned Rae, Dortch and Khalil Joseph. Finally, I say, we stop fussing and start working. The traditional gatekeeper may be absent at the moment, but you best believe that someone is trying to figure that part out as I write this sentence. We have a chance not to get left out this time. Go get it. And, for God’s sake bring someone with you this time.