The Battle Between Cinema and Television in the 1950s-
and Its Legacy Today During an Uncertain Time for the Moviegoing Experience
In these surreal, disorienting days of COVID-19, the industry of movie theaters and the experience of going out to a movie-house to see the latest flashy blockbuster or Oscar-worthy prestige picture are at risk to a degree that is practically unprecedented. However, truthfully this once sacred pastime had already diminished significantly in the last decade or so. Thanks to the accessibility of widescreen TVs and home theater systems, as well as the wide-ranging selection of streaming options via services ranging from Netflix and Hulu to Disney Plus and the recently launched HBO Max, cinema has been relegated to the living room for millions of Americans for years now. Although of course there have been exceptions, most notably the record-shattering popularity of the final Avengers film Endgame in 2019, in reality even modern icons of cinema like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Alfonso Cuarón have brought their acclaimed works to Netflix, the king of the streamers.
Meanwhile, in this outlier of years dominated by this pesky, never-ending virus, even guaranteed ¨tent poles¨ which usually seem destined to draw people off of their couches and into their local AMC or Regal, such as the live-action Mulan, the new James Bond, and Christopher Nolan´s latest sci-fi mind-bender, have been delayed or even postponed indefinitely. Smaller releases, however, have arguably found a more hospitable home in VOD services, such as the sparkly time-loop indie romance Palm Springs and the art-house western odyssey First Cow.
Not only have the format and method of viewing been affected by this health crisis, but even the economic stability of lucrative cinema chains has been in jeopardy, as the aforementioned AMC has faced threats of closure to their various nationwide branches. Despite all these ominous signs, this is not the first time the cinema seemed completely doomed- television, the precursor to all these newfangled streaming services and the Internet´s democratization of viewing content, initially seemed like a death knell to going to the movies as we knew it in the 1950s. (In a similar manner, decades later, the video-rental industry spearheaded by the once-mighty Blockbuster died out thanks to Netflix´s ingenious business model).
Yet, remarkably, cinema persevered, first through the legendary New Hollywood Renaissance powered by filmmakers like Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and William Friedkin in the early ´70s, then after the birth of the blockbuster era kickstarted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and continued by everyone from James Cameron and Michael Bay to Nolan.
Time will tell how the filmgoing experience will adapt and change following this global dilemma, but first we will take a look at how television and cinema butted heads in an epic battle for consumers´ attention (and wallets) in the post-war era.
Television and a Whole New Way to Consume Popular Media
After years of competing technology developed in the U.S., Japan, and elsewhere, RCA experimented with television broadcasting beginning in 1939, and by the end of World War II wealthy familes in The United States owned this hulking but small-screened luxury good. It was not until the early to mid-50s when television became a household gadget for all income brackets, but almost immediately it became a zeitgeist-defining, game-changing hit that changed the lives of consumerist Americans forever. Even eating had to morph to suit new habits, as ¨TV Dinners¨ arrived on the scene, quick to eat and served in living-room-ready trays, perfect to wolf down while watching Sid Caesar, The Twilight Zone, or Father Knows Best.
Tied to the innovation of television and its corresponding transformation of viewing habits was the increasing suburbanization of the country during the same period. Between 1947 and 1953, Americans fled in droves from urban metropolises like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit in favor of cozy, generic suburbs, by a notable rate of 43 percent. Without the accessibility of the downtown movie palaces which facilitated the so-called golden age of Hollywood and made films like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Maltese Falcon such must-see hits, most Americans saw no need to leave their homes and abandon their addicting new TV sets.
Although a mere four major broadcast networks were available on the air, starting in the pivotal year of 1948, their content was wisely and eclectically curated, and more importantly, completely free. TV series like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Superman, Dragnet, and Leave it To Beaver became as iconic, beloved, and oft-quoted as cinema classics starting Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn, and in a manner that reached nearly all Americans from every walk of life. Cinema was still flourishing artistically in the 1950s, as directors like Billy Wilder and Elia Kazan made truly groundbreaking films like Sunset Boulevard and On The Waterfront, and a whole new style of acting was unleashed through the intense,¨method¨ performances of Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and the inimitable Marlon Brando. Despite of this, television kept eating in to the potential audience of even the most unmissable films.
In a key sign of the times, a low-key slice of life delighted audiences and critics alike, becoming the only film to win both the Best Picture Oscar and the Cannes Palme de Or before Parasite matched its feat this year- Marty, starring a previously unknown Ernest Borgnine, who also took home the Academy Award. The film was not based on a best-selling novel or a Tony-winning play, as was and still is rather common; in fact, it was based on a telefilm.
Television was clearly not just threatening Hollywood, but arguably dominating the race. That is when the movies decided to get aggressive and develop flashy gimmicks to lure cinema-goers back to the now-abandoned movie palaces which had sprouted up in the 1920s and 30s.
How The Movies Struck Back
One of these said gimmicks had actually already existed for some two decades, but really took off in the decade of television and suburbanization. The drive-in movie theater, which in 2020 is experiencing a comeback thanks to COVID 19, offered a pleasing, entertaining alternative to television. As the increased interstate highway system and suburbs built for cars, not walking, increased the ubiquity of automobiles, drive-ins spouted up in suburbs from Levittown to Gross Pointe, as children played on playgrounds, young couples made out in the privacy of their own cars, and cheesy cartoons exhorted the moviegoers to get out of their car and get some snacks. The drive-in today is as emblematic of this nostalgia-heavy era as diners and doo-wop, and was a key component of how Hollywood was able to rebuild financially, even as the industry started to become a dinosaur in the subsequent, ¨swinging¨ decade.
Another attention-seeking ploy by the studios and cinemas alike similarly had a resurgence in 2009, thanks to Avatar and the millions of hastily-converted films in its wake- 3-D. Originally designed in the post-war age to impress the masses of Americans glued to their idiot box, 3D became a trashy but beloved hallmark of the era. As lovingly paid homage in the ´90s John Goodman vehicle Matinee, 3D was generally attached to schlocky B-movies, not prestige pictures (in marked contrast to the 2000s 3D Renaissance, which saw Spielberg and Scorsese indulging in the practice). These same sorts of films were also rampant in drive-ins, and for that reason, few were going out because they wanted to see a work of art, but truly for the larger-than-life spectacle that could not quite be captured on their tiny 10-inch television screens.
Simultaneously, Hollywood, in its big-budget, Oscar-winning ¨A¨¨pictures, increasingly relied on widescreen, technicolor spectacles like Bridge On The River Kwai, Around The World in 80 Days, West Side Story, and Ben-Hur in order to lure viewers away from their square, black and white screens and go see something that just needed to be witnessed on the big-screen in elaborate movie palaces. This would lead to bloat in the subsequent decade, even with such major hits as Doctor Zhivago and The Sound and the Music, and this subsequent burnout on the overly extravagant artifice of Hollywood epics would help give birth to smaller, innovative films like The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde.
How TV and Cinema Learned to Co-Exist
By the ´60s, even as the movie industry underwent a painful transition between the demise of the Old Hollywood and the sudden development of the New Hollywood, television and film largely began to exist in peace, two entertainment forms which served different but related purposes. Meanwhile, the two mediums would feed off each other, providing a friendly rivalry which further delighted and engaged viewers.
The innovative marriage of rock music and film found in the classic Beatles romp A Hard Day´s Night (1964) would soon give way to the pre-fab delights of TV´s The Monkees, which indirectly would eventually lead to the rise of MTV a generation later. Lifted from the comics but adapted to the small screen in a campy, gaudy, go-go ´60s fashion was the Batman series, which right in the middle of its brief but iconic run led to the 1966 theatrical release of a film adaptation. The Star Trek series, ahead of its time and over the heads of baffled TV execs, only lasted three seasons, but eventually would spawn a long-running film series starting in 1979, and multiple series ¨reboots.¨
The 1970s saw cinematic events which simply could not be replicated on television sets, from The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, to The Exorcist and Chinatown, to Jaws and Star Wars, the latter of which is the predecessor to Endgame, Avatar, and all of its popcorn ëvent¨ movie ilk. Yet, simultaneously, the number of iconic TV series (many of which would spawn film versions) was legion, among them Charlie´s Angels, MASH (based on Altman´s 1970 film), Colombo, All In The Family, Good Times, Saturday Night Live (which still continues today and led to a number of lucrative film careers), and The Rockford Files. Clearly, the two mediums were thriving both separately and together.
Cinema and Its Unclear Future in the Age of COVID
Despite all this, the 21st Century is obviously a different animal, with its abundance of consumer-driven technology that has changed the way we watch popular media to an extent far beyond that of television in the 1950s. As cinemas remain closed indefinitely and much-sought after releases become delayed until 2021, the state of the cinema-going pastime seems more in danger than ever before.
Meanwhile, the advent of streaming and the fact that people around the world remain stuck in their homes make it seem that the initial threat posed by living-room entertainment to the long-running cinema industry will finally be realized. Still, I predict a near-future in which moviegoers everywhere, with distance, masks, hand sanitizer, and home-prepared, pre-packaged popcorn, enjoy a night out at the cinema.
The world will adapt, and the beloved movie theater will survive, like it always has managed to do despite all the challenges during its more than a century of tumultuous existence.