Is the Summer Pop-Cultural Experience Still Defined by Movies?

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Or will Game of Thrones take the season? Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

Summer used to serve as the singular landing place for Hollywood’s most hyped, robustly budgeted blockbusters, and an opportunity for television to power down into rerun mode until it was time to crank out new scripted fare in the fall.

That hasn’t been the case for a long time. As anyone with a DVR and/or a Netflix subscription knows, TV never takes a break anymore, during June, July, or any other month; the average kid in 2017 is as likely to ask “What’s a rerun?” as 1950s-era Jason Hervey was in Back to the Future. While summer remains the season most heavily stacked with high-profile, action-heavy film releases, the tentpole movie syndrome has also spread to other months on the calendar.

“This year, for the first time, there are just as many sequels, reboots and comic-book adaptations being released during the summer as any other time of year,” Wall Street Journal film reporter Ben Fritz recently noted. Kind of like TV, the movies are increasingly taking a “let’s do this sort of thing all year round” approach. Which raises questions, at least for me, about how we define summer in terms of pop-cultural consumption.

Is summer still, as first established in the ’70s and ’80s, a period that Americans think of as (Optimus) prime time for consuming blockbusters and overpriced, overly large buckets of popcorn? Or are tentpole movies becoming so omnipresent that summer movie season, as a concept, has gotten diluted? More important, is it being diluted further by television, which has enabled shows like Mr. Robot and Stranger Things to dominate the cultural conversation in recent summers, reinforcing the idea that summer is less about big-screen blockbusters and more about binge-watching poolside?

It’s cliché, not to mention pointless and reductive, to try to determine whether TV is better than movies, especially since no one really should have to choose between them. But because the two formats are often competing with each other for the public’s attention — a recent piece in the L.A. Times pointed out that members of the movie industry “are worried that when consumers talk about pop culture on social media now, they focus more on acclaimed television shows like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ … and less on summer film fare” — it makes sense to consider the two in tandem.

While television is widely considered the more adventurous art form right now, mainly because so many platforms are willing to take risks on original programming, it’s worth noting that TV programming does display some of the same tendencies — read: lots of reboots and unnecessary sequels! — that the movie business is criticized for perpetuating. During this summer alone, TV will reincarnate Twin Peaks, The Gong Show, The Mist (Spike is making the Stephen King novel, once adapted as a feature film, into a TV series), Dirty Dancing, and (praise be) Battle of the Network Stars, while also bringing us the fifth freakin’ Sharknado movie. Meanwhile, at the movies, yes, there will be a Cars 3 and a Pirates of the Caribbean 87: Honestly, Who Asked for This and Why Is It Even Happening? (Title is not real; nevertheless, it feels real.) But there will also be original stories told by filmmakers known for their ambition and visual flair, including Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and It Comes at Night from up-and-coming writer-director Trey Edward Shults. Both mediums contain multitudes, as easy as it is to forget that.

What gives TV an edge over movies in terms of generating buzz and sustaining it is the way the conversations around the two are framed. By and large, movies tend to attract the bulk of their attention before they’ve been released. That’s by design; studios want to bump up those opening-weekend ticket sales as much as possible by creating hype and excitement in advance. As I said in this piece last summer, for franchise films, the hype machine gets fired up months, and sometimes years, in advance, as tidbits of information — set photos, casting reveals, trailers and, for some damn reason, trailers for forthcoming trailers — are served up like multiple amuse-bouches before the main course. By the time you finally get to see Wonder Woman, it may feel like the conclusion of a narrative rather than the beginning of one.

That’s also why the movie business — driven by getting butts in stadium seats from the jump and therefore, reliant on the familiar — is so prone to sequel-itis. Just look at some of the movies released in the summer of 2014: Guardians of the Galaxy, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Amazing Spider-Man 2. Now look at what’s arriving in the summer of 2017 : Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Transformers: The Last Knight, War for the Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man: Homecoming. If I am permitted to quote Twin Peaks in this context: It is happening again.

Some of that repetition is reflective of production and release schedules; when a sequel is greenlit, it can takes three years to make it and get it into theaters. But even some of the non-sequels this summer have an accidental “Didn’t I see this three years ago?” vibe about them. Where 2014 gave us a movie in which Tom Cruise kept rebooting (Edge of Tomorrow), 2017 is giving us Tom Cruise in a reboot of The Mummy. 2014 had It Follows; 2017 has It Comes at Night. These movies may not have anything in common from a thematic or narrative perspective. But the coincidental parallels add to the perception that some of the people in Hollywood are just xeroxing old summer release schedules and changing some of the details.

By its episodic, multiple-season nature, TV doesn’t quite work the same way, especially in the current landscape, where high ratings, at least on subscription-based networks and platforms, aren’t as important as sustaining audience interest over time and provoking an ongoing dialogue. Where the release of a heavily publicized potential blockbuster can sometimes feels like the end of the story, the premiere of a new series or season is more like the beginning of a long conversation.

Because we all start watching The Handmaid’s Tale or 13 Reasons Why at different moments, that only extends the amount of time that a show, especially one whose episodes drop from week-to-week instead of all at once, can potentially retain cultural prominence. Generally speaking, TV audiences, as well as marketers, are playing a long game, while movie audiences and publicists — whose “products” arrive in theaters and are often swept away within weeks to make room for what’s coming next — are playing a short one. Certainly some movies hit the zeitgeist and stick, but given the nature of the business, it’s harder to make that happen. (It’s hard in TV, too, by the way. Remember all those Young Pope jokes we were making on Twitter in January? Of course you do. Remember how we kept voraciously discussing that HBO drama on Twitter in February? Yeah, didn’t think so.)

That doesn’t mean that film is no longer relevant or that no one wants to talk about great movies anymore. But if you asked me to guess whether a movie or a TV show is more likely to be the must-watch, must-discuss work of pop-cultural art this summer, I’d probably put my money on a scripted series. If I were really serious about it and actually gambled, I’d probably bet on Game of Thrones, which returns in July. (I’m like the movie business, baby. I invest in sure things.)

To be clear, the summer movie season, as a concept, is hardly dead, not when Guardians 2 is raking in millions and there are Marvel superhero sagas, Pixar features and Star Wars sequels already scheduled for the hot and humid months in 2018, 2019, and beyond. But the summer movie as a concept does not feel as special and rarefied as it once did, partly because blockbusters are not exclusively the domain of May, June, July, and August, but also because times have simply changed. The one big factor that’s fundamentally transformed over the past two decades is the amount of entertainment choice that exists in every conceivable category. It’s challenging for anything, film or otherwise, to become a major, season-defining phenomenon the way that an E.T. or Jurassic Park or Blair Witch Project did. Especially when shared experiences tend to play out primarily on our phones, a magical device that provides access to TV shows and web series, and the means to immediately discuss them, no matter where our summer travels may take us.

Has the Summer Movie Lost Its Meaning?