Is this the Dawn of the Golden Age of Super-Prestige TV?
How much fucking money does HBO have (or rather how much does Time Warner give them)? It’s crazy, I think about it all the time. If anyone knows, please tell me roughly what kind of budget they are working with. They are in development deal with literally everyone. Their current roster of programming includes mega names like: The Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Damon + Affleck, Vince Vaughn, Rachael McAdams, and go fucking look at the cast of the upcoming Big Little Lies. HBO throws money around like it’s fucking nothin’.
But, it wasn’t until the other night that I realized…fuck…HBO has more money than God. I had just finished watching the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. For those unfamiliar with the penultimate episodes of GOT, they are consistently the craziest battles in the history of the fantasy genre. Last night’s GOT had a slow-mo horse shot that blew the theoretical yamaka off of post-Braveheart-Mel Gibson’s head. The POV-CGI shots of the arrows made Peter Jackson’s kiwis explode. GOT’s per-minute production value is on-par with nearly every major studio movie released in the last couple of years. GOT’s production is old news though, everyone knows how fucking crazy it is to pull off a 10 hour blockbuster every year. It wasn’t GOT’s budget that made me question whether or not HBO’s capital rivals the GDP of Bali, this was:
^Look at that shit. Look at Westworld. It’s like Mike Lombardo looked at Cowboys & Aliens and thought: “let’s make that… but way doper...with even crisper production value.” I’ll remind you that Cowboys & Aliens had a budget of $163 million dollars!!! This is just a teaser, and it clearly will have less stupid (but expensive) CGI than Cowboys & Aliens, but this has the makings of a fucking TV series! TV Shows are not supposed to have a quarter of this much scope. In theory, this show checks off all the boxes: CAST- A+, as in Anthony Hopkins plus Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Ed Harris. IP- Considering the studio film landscape, this is incredibly interesting and hot IP. Studios are trying to bring back westerns right and left; Michael Crichton’s concept has an intriguing SciFi element, and it could really benefit from the powers of modern filmmaking. Westworld is being hyped up as the heir-apparent to Thrones, and if it is even 60% as successful, it will beg the question: Are we entering the golden-age of the Super-Prestige TV show?
Up until the rise of the new OTT subscription players (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu), HBO had operated in a totally different realm than every other media company in the world. Their subscription-based model required them to keep their cupboard stocked with interesting content; content that appealed to a typically high-brow, wealthier subscriber base. They were just doling out money, and taking their time to make sure they had the fucking best content on TV. Eventually they created The Sopranos, and they reinvented what a TV show could become. We call this reinvention; the Prestige TV Show. This sparked the beginning of a “golden era of TV” with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, Homeland,etc.
These shows came at an opportune time of media in which studios stopped making the “middle-tier” films. Your $20–$40 million dollar dramas, weren’t economically sustainable for the Big 6. This left a surplus of talent without a channel for doing work that appealed to both their creative passions and their agent’s Katsuya habits. Crime Dramas, Mysteries, Period Pieces…these genres all flocked to the warm confines of cable and premium cable channels. The “stigma” of an actor working in TV was quickly dispelled by the McConaissance. TV writing was just great, and great show runners like Vince Gilligan, Shonda Rhimes, Carlton Cuse, and Matthew Weiner elevated themselves into household-level celebrity status. TV evolved into a more director-friendly space; it became a place to build a career, and reinvigorate a career. TV broadened in distribution channels and content, while the film industry became extremely polarized. But, as the two industries shifted they have never completely butted heads in terms of the content that best suited each medium. This might no longer be the case.
What is Super-Prestige TV? Super-Prestige is the granddaddy of TV, it is a subset of shows that are ambitious enough to rival the box office. Pretty much whenever a TV channel/OTT service goes full boar on a show that is in a genre that film studios still actually slate: Fantasy, Western, SciFi, Superhero (I’m sorry Melissa Benoit and Grant Gustin, I’m not talking about that cheap, watered down, Disney-Channelesque superhero shit that the CW programs). I will also throw in super ambitious War or Gangster shows. GOT was/is the patron-saint of Super-Prestige TV, but other current Super-Prestige shows of varying success levels include: The Walking Dead, Marco Polo, Narcos, Preacher, The Man in the High Castle, 11.22.63, etc. As much as Marco Polo fails to live up to its ambitious scope, it was not for lack of money. These shows don’t all enjoy the special effects laden production of GOT, but all of them give their productions the type of quality at or near the level of the median movie in that genre.
Sorry Daredevil and Jessica Jones, you are great shows, but the Superhero barrier to entry is just crazy high right now. Preacher slid in because even though it’s a comic book/hero show, it kind of falls under the Western genre.
The places that have the resources to program this level of show are: Netflix, HBO, AMC, Amazon, Hulu. FX and Showtime would seem to have the resources to pull off a Super-Prestige show, they just haven’t really. These distributors have benefitted from the prestige show/golden age and they found out how valuable quality bingeable content really is. Naturally shows got more and more ambitious, until the two most prestigious channels: HBO and AMC, took a chance on two big time shows: GOT and The Walking Dead, and voila Super-Prestige was truly born. The overwhelming success of these two shows prompted others to try their hand at big risk/reward programming.
So what is next? What is coming?
I believe that the fight between TV and Film is going to get fucking fierce. Disney and HBO will battle it out for the best IP available. Sony and Netflix will strangle one another over development deals and top-end talent.
Short aside for the Mini-Series. I acknowledge that Mini-Series are the closest amalgam of TV and Film, but Mini-Series are all pretty boring. The only people excited for John Adams are old people whose tastes have evolved/devolved into only historical-based media, and 11th graders who get to watch it when their history teacher doesn’t feel like “doing life” today. Although networks might position their shows as such for Emmy considerations; no one refers to Fargo as a Mini-Series, no one referred to True Detective as one either.
Listen, I love going to the movie theatre, and although exhibitors are experimenting with the communal experience, I don’t profess that the institution is going anywhere anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean the movie studios shouldn’t be afraid of the sheer money that Netflix and HBO have to play with.
I didn’t even mention Amazon. Bezos could honestly brandish the checkbook anytime he fucking wants and make everyone in media, short of Disney, shit their pants. He prefers the artsier fare, but if he can cash in on something that could sure-fire help Amazon.com, he’d do it.
The question for Bezos, HBO, and Netflix is really how they handle content. All three of these big subscription-based players handle both films and series. Certain IP can’t simply be turn into a series, but believe me if they have a chance to stretch a book into 3–5 seasons, they will do it.
Let’s play a thought experiment for a second. I want to talk about the kind of IP that will be fought over in the future. Let’s time-travel back to play with some really fun IP. Imagine Harry Potter, okay? Imagine we are in the turn of the century, and the Harry Potter books are not up for option. Unrealistic, yes. But, JK Rowling is soooo rich, and she waits and waits to option the whole series until right now. Big power-trip move by Rowling, I know, where does she get off, right? We are talking about a multi-billion dollar piece of property, and she just holds onto that golden ticket. She lets the big media conglomerates wait like hungry dogs, real Sansa move (or Ramsey move, this simile is gender/sociopath neutral). Okay, so initially you will get the movie studios fighting over it, but now we introduce the big time OTT players. HBO and WB are in the same media umbrella, so they won’t really be fighting over it, rather the TWC higher ups will have to crunch the numbers on where to direct the IP. Most likely, WB would still get it, blockbusters probably drive the most value. That being said, GOT was a pretty big piece of IP, and Warner Brother didn’t claim it. HBO is really the only big cable or OTT service that would have a conflict of interest with a movie studio (Fuck Hulu, am I right?). AMC is its own boss…but this property is way too steep for their blood. The studios might worry about Netflix pushing all of its chips into the middle, but then the question becomes: “how many chips does Netflix really have?” Amazon might sense that this is their time to seize the mantle, and make the big call to Bezos to open up his Gringott’s account. These are all fun Hollywood businessy type questions, but the real question is which platform would consumers enjoy most? Would Harry P work better as a 7–10 season show? Would super-fans rather camp out all night in costumes every year, or binge-watch entire seasons in a night? How much would HBO or Netflix have to raise their monthly subscription costs to make the economics work? How many more Harry Potter books/beach towels would Amazon be able to sell?
The Harry Potter thought experiment is fun, but it really highlights how different media is in the ~15 years since the series was licensed to Warner Brothers. Super-prestige shows represent the last step in muddling the difference between whatever TV has become and the film industry. Anyways, content will still be dope, and as long as we don’t pirate all the shit, people will still get paid to support Netflix and chilling.