Why TV Is Pummeling the Movie Industry

The short answer: Writers are fleeing to the small screen.

Actor Jon Hamm (Reuters)

Even though he’s been in the industry since he was 19, United Talent Agency CEO Jeremy Zimmer is a little surprised by what’s going on in Hollywood: Television is totally outperforming film.

Why has this happened? For one thing, writers have found a better gig in television, Zimmer said in an Atlantic interview in Los Angeles on Thursday.

“There’s been an explosion in appetite for media,” he said. “New players coming in like Amazon and Netflix – people who really believe that in order to drive their technology and drive their online platform, there’s a need for great content.”

That has created a strong demand for good writing–and better jobs for Hollywood’s formerly starving artists. “A bunch of writers that have been disenfranchised by the movie business have gone into television,” he said.

Successful shows like Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad have made news for their long story arcs and creative storytelling, and industry analysts have pointed to changes in technology that have allowed television to take on more ambitious stories. While that has created a lot more choices for viewers, it has also left filmmakers scrambling. “We forgot that more people will sit at home and watch a story on a small screen than go out and watch a not-good story on a big screen,” Zimmer said.

The movie industry has also gotten comfortable with an uncreative business model. Big production companies have increasingly looked to prequels, sequels, and triquels to bring in a reliable flow of cash, but if they want to attract better writers, Zimmer said, that has to change.

“We’ve reached franchise fatigue, to some degree,” he said. “I think a lot of the big franchises that people have become dependent on have played out. I think there’s skepticism that every cereal box deserves to be a movie.”

Although moviegoers loved special effects in movies like Inception and Life of Pi, a fixation on technical wizardry has overpowered investments in good movie storytelling, Zimmer thinks. “Technology became the opportunity to do things as a filmmaker with digital technology with CGI, with 3-D. You create this over reliance on scale and hoopla and sound effects and special effects and noise, and you become less dependent on the story.”

But all of these disadvantages don't mean the movie industry won't recover. Zimmer is optimistic that this season is going to prove that film can still keep up with television – maybe because it’s his job, or maybe just because he’s previewed all of the fall blockbusters already.

“There is a great crop of movies coming into the theaters right now,” he said. “I think the conversation we’re all going to be having toward the end of this year, beginning of next year is, ‘Wow, the movies are back.’”

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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