Here’s a tidbit of news from the last few weeks you might not have seen but which perfectly encapsulates one of the biggest changes VOD has wrought (and has the potential to wring) on TV and movies.
It was in a profile piece by the Hollywood Reporter on the Duffer brothers, the creative brains behind the critically acclaimed Netflix series Stanger Things.
If you haven’t watched it yet, believe the hype. It’s a tonally on-point mash-up of styles from vintage Spielberg, Stephen King and John Carpenter and as well as being set in the 80s it contains more 80s aesthetic styles than you can poke a stick at, from the Carpenter-esque twang in the score to the charming performances by adorable prepubescent leads.
But there’s an offhand comment somewhere in the interview where one of the duo says ‘Our episode length adjusts per episode. Episode seven is like 38 minutes. That’s amazing. You can’t do that on network TV, and you can’t do that theatrically.’
How does that signify a sea change? Since the advent of TV in the mid 1950s, everything about the content of the shows has been dictated strictly by running times and ad breaks. If you’re younger than 20 you’ll probably have noticed while watching TV episodes on digital services that the action reaches a dramatic crescendo after several evenly-spaced segments, the screen momentarily going blank before we return to the action again.
Those used to be where ads used to go, kids, and they used to be the reason TV was so widely available and popular for your parents and grandparents – those 30-second spots paid for all the shows the network bought or produced.
Of course, as a Netflix or Hulu subscriber you’re the one the content provider is trying to please because you’re paying for it. For the longest time the transaction was completely different – your attention was the product the content provider was selling to advertisers. In other words, it’s only in the VOD era that the viewer has truly been the customer.
But that’s the topic of a much longer dissertation on the socio/politico/economics of mass media we’ll do another time. For truly for the first time – to coin a phrase that become quite overused and nonsensical in the Web era – content is king.
With no constraints or mandates around ad breaks or running time, the script is completely free. It can build tension for as long as it wants, it can structure elements of the narrative for as long as it wants and it can take as long as it wants to tell the story of an episode. The rhythm of story will be the driver of drama.
The high water mark of episodic TV – Breaking Bad – was a particular achievement because it featured incredibly tight writing with not a scene or line wasted even within those constraints. Now, freed of the last vestiges of the old styles of pacing and running time, series like Stranger Things are leading the charge to make it even better.
On VOD now or soon, remember Alicia Silverstone, who burned hot and bright in the 1990s and now advocates some very weird parenting practices? She’s back on screens with Aussie star Ryan Kwanten in Who Gets the Dog? a romantic comedy about a couple who get divorced and have to decide who keeps the family dog.
Jean Claude Van Damme returns to the franchise that made him a star with Kickboxer: Vengeance, and the 1991 classic The Commitments comes to DVD and digital.
Of particular interest this issue is Nola and the Clones, a low budget verité Irish production about a young homeless girl on the streets of Dublin and the men she meets along her journey. It’s also been made available for free on YouTube and has the support and endorsement of some very big names.
In the tradition of great tech industry docos like Alex Winter’s Downloaded or Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine comes Silicon Cowboys, all about the formation and impact of Compaq Computer and how it took on the industry giant IBM.
A great cast of Hollywood Grande Dames – Jessica Lange and Shirley MacLaine – head up Wild Oats, Mel Gibson returns to the screen after a long absence in Blood Father and Independence Day: Resurgence lands on VOD, so with all that your viewing should be sorted for weeks.