Here’s a Crazy Idea: Bring Back the Movie Serial

Photo: HBO, Getty Images

With this week's Sound and Visions series, Vulture explores the future of movies and the movie industry. We hope you’ll plug us directly into your cerebral cortex.

Movie theaters are faced with a vexing problem: How to ensure that, in the future, they continue to be a place you go to watch movies. They used to be the place to watch a movie, of course, but between rising ticket prices, amped-up home theaters, a shrinking theatrical exclusivity window, and the fact that, if you so desire, you can watch Snowpiercer on your phone while on the toilet, there are fewer and fewer reasons to go to the movies. The most frequently floated solution to this problem is to make moviegoing an ever-more-spectacular “event.”

The dilemma with this thinking is that it creates a paradox: The more spectacular and “special” the event is, the less likely it is to become habitual. Now, I want you to step back for a moment and think about True Detective. That show was pretty much an across-the-board jackpot for HBO. It became Sunday-night appointment viewing and a social-media phenomenon, and it was exactly the kind of show (whatever you think of it in hindsight) that made you exclaim, “Man, I have to get HBO-slash-get someone’s HBO Go password.” In the TV world, where the problem is supposed to be an ever-splintering viewership with ever-increasing options for viewing, a show like True Detective proved that, given the right experience, a relatively significant group of people will still carve out an hour each week to sit down and watch something communally.

Movies still rely on this sense of immediacy, too — Jeffrey Katzenberg claimed earlier this year that 98 percent of movies make 95 percent of their revenue in the first three weekends of theatrical release. And as any movie-watcher will tell you, the hype cycle on films has completely reversed — we spend way more time talking about films in the months before they’re released (the casting news! The teaser trailer! The tweet about the teaser trailer!) than we do in the weeks after they’ve officially opened. With all of that in mind, I’m going to suggest a different and radical, yet intriguingly familiar, way forward for movies: movie serials.

Imagine if True Detective, which aired as eight one-hour episodes' worth of cinema-quality entertainment, had instead been packaged as four two-hour installments of cinema-quality entertainment and released in theaters on the first Friday of every month.* And imagine if, for the first three weeks after each release, the only place you could see the new installment was in a movie theater. After that, each installment would be released to VOD (Katzenberg’s proposed three-week theatrical window), so that people could watch it at home if they desired, in preparation for the release of the next installment in theaters. Sure, many people would wait the extra time just to watch each installment at home — just as some people DVRed True Detective and watched it at their leisure, or waited for the whole series to hit DVD or HBO Go. But, presumably, many people would go to their local theater to see the new installment on opening night (or soon after) — especially if that enabled them to participate in exactly the kind of subsequent social-media conversation that spurs people currently to watch a show on the night that it airs.

Or to use a more recent, and more conveniently titled, example: Take the podcast "Serial." Of all technological delivery systems, podcasts seem the most inherently well-suited to be consumed at your own pace — to fill the idle hours of a commute or weekend cleaning project. Yet "Serial," for its fans, has become so compulsively listenable — and the allure of the post-listen online debate is so strong — that one magazine dubbed Thursdays (the day each installment is released) a “Must Listen” event, and the show has now notably inspired post-podcast podcasts.

There is, of course, at least one glaring hiccup with this approach: movie theaters and the companies that own them, which have nothing to do with which movies get made and when, or how often, they are released. But studios and distributors do have an ongoing interest in keeping movie theaters healthy — mostly because, as a studio, you still make a lot more money convincing four people to pay $21 each (the Imax price in NYC, to use one price point) to go see a film at a theater than you do when they spend $5.99 in total for the whole family to watch it at home. This is the whole conundrum of the movie theater: Everyone in the supply chain of movies, from creators on down, desperately wants you to go out to see movies, except for you.

The serial cliff-hanger has a proud tradition in culture, and especially so in films. Theaters regularly showed short 15-to-20 minute serial films before the main feature, with new installments every week, starting either with The Adventures of Kathlyn in 1913 or What Happened to Mary? in 1912 (depending on whom you ask), with the most famous example being The Perils of Pauline. Part of the reason the beloved Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises even exist is because George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan wanted to harken back to cliff-hanger-filled serials of yore.

To this day, Hollywood still employs a kind of slo-mo serial model with film trilogies like The Hobbit, in which three films that make up one story line are released in installments, one per year. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1 has topped the box office this winter, and part two will be released this time next year. So it’s actually not too hard to imagine — or reimagine — a kind of Perils of Katniss model, by which the eight-plus hours of total running time for all four Hunger Games films was instead parceled out in 90-minute installments, once a month, for eight months. That would naturally have a radical effect on storytelling methods and the dictates of scriptwriting, not to mention cast and crew availability. But you’d build on momentum and save on marketing. You’d make each new installment a mass event. I admit, this sounds outlandish, and I still totally think it should happen anyway.

The serial-installment model has the advantage of both making attending the movies something that must be experienced immediately (“I have to see what’s next!”) as well as a habit (“See you next month for the latest chapter”). It encourages social engagement (“Did you see the latest?”) and repeat attendance (“I’m going out to see the latest!”). In fact, this model, which is older than the movies themselves, is already working in pretty much every other medium except the movies, which is ironic. Will any movie studios and theater chains just take my advice already and experiment with serials in time to find a way to save themselves? As with any good cliff-hanger, we’ll just have to wait to find out.

* This article originally stated that True Detective season one was comprised of ten episodes. It was not. It was eight.