Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Monday Musings: Finding the Right Forum

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Dec 30, 2013 @ 11:11 am PDT

userpic=yorickIn the comments for my write-up of “Inside Llewyn Davis”, Peter Reiher made an interesting statement in response to my opinion that there were some films that were better for the small screen (television), and some that were better in the cinema:

Honestly, though, I find almost all films play better on the big screen than the small, even little B movies like old noir films. On the other hand, there are clearly properties that work on stage live and don’t work on film very well.

This got me thinking about the differences between the three venues: stage (“theatre”), the big screen (“theater”), and the small screen (television).

First, let’s look at budget and reach. Take a really expensive musical — Spiderman: Turn off the Dark. This musical cost $75M, not counting the cost of each show. It’s reach is much much smaller — for the most recent week, 12,755 people over 9 performances, averaging about $94 a ticket, for a gross of $1.2M.  Much of that gross goes to the weekly salaries and theatre rental; it certainly hasn’t returned a profit to its investors. Let’s compare this to the movie: Spiderman 3 cost $258M to make. On the other hand, it has brought in a lifetime gross, foreign and domestic, of $890M. Furthermore, the main movies costs are upfront on the production end as opposed to theater rental; for the stage (especially musicals), it is the ongoing costs (salaries for actors and musicians) that are a big factor. The small screen is similar on the cost side with large upfront production costs; the income side is different as it depends on advertisers and redistribution fees. The main point I’m getting at here is the reach: both cinema and television have an audience overall that numbers in the multiple-millions, who are seeing the exact same product that was filmed. Live theatre has a much smaller reach (only a truly long-running production will be seen by an audience numbering in the millions, and each performance is different). As a result, the amortization of the upfront cost is vastly different, and this is reflected in the different nature of the final product.

Next, let’s think about the experience. Live theatre depends on the audience reaction. When we saw “Humor Abuse“, it was noted that every performance is different because the actors play on the audience. Theatre permits a certain amount of reaction and variance. This is what makes live theatre unique and special. The energy of the audience is reflected by the actors back into the performance. The cinema also depends on the audience reaction, but in a different way. In the cinema, the audience reaction doesn’t affect the filmed behavior of the actors. They are completely oblivious and draw no energy from it (in fact, it is hard for them to even draw energy from the character’s arc, as the stories are not necessarily filmed sequentially). However, the audience itself draws energy from the audience: comedies are funnier when people around you are laughing. Peter noted this in his comments when he said:

Comedies almost invariably work better in social settings than alone. Having other people to laugh with you amplifies the fun of a good comedy. Laugh tracks for sitcoms are meant to fool you into thinking that there’s an audience around, after all, and that’s why many TV comedies are filmed in front of a live audience.

So, given that, why do dramas and action adventures work better in the theater? I think one reason is the screen size — large screens immerse you in the drama and make you feel as if you are there. Television is more detached. There is also the audience reaction of gasps and such (as well as screams) that amplify the emotions.

So given all of this, what works best on the small screen? I’d opine that it would be stories that aren’t worth immersing yourself in — certainly reality television, news, and small-scale episodic stories. I still believe that some movies just aren’t worth the big screen effort — the shared humor may be such that audience amplification isn’t required, or the story may just not be worth the large treatment.

I’d be curious about your thoughts on this subject. What do you see as the differences between theatre, theater, and TV, and do you think there are types of production best for each? Are there movies you see that you go: that didn’t belong on the big screen?

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2 Comments

  1. Peter Reiher says:

    One other thing television can do that theater and film typically can’t is to handle long stories that develop over a great period of time. The recent canonical example is “Breaking Bad.” The nature of that material would not fit into two or three hours, the typical length of a play or movie. Television miniseries that tell a complex story, such as “Roots” or “Shogun,” also fall into this category.

    Another thing TV does well is, to use an unfortunately pejorative term, soap opera, by which I mean a continuing drama in which the point is less the story and more observing the development of a set of interacting characters over a long stretch of time. This covers everything from “Days of Our Lives” to “Parenthood” to “Downton Abbey.” The nature of what is being achieved in such works requires a long form, and is perhaps enhanced by episodes appearing on a regular basis over that time. Maybe a different mode of theater could do that, but that’s not the theater we have, or ever have had, to my knowledge.

    • cahwyguy says:

      Good points. The only truly “long” theatre I can think of is Nicholas Nickelby — I think it was a total of 12 hours spread over a couple of days, but that’s nothing compared to a long running series. We have seen the return of some long-form movies — perhaps the Harry Potter series is a good example of that, but that’s still nothing compared to a multi-year, 26 episodes a year long running drama. [I'll exclude the normal sequels here, as usual the sequels haven't been as well plotted in advance].

      One thing that theatre does not do well, by the way, is sequels. I can’t think of a single “follow-on” to a major musical that has been successful — in fact, most have been spectacular flops. You may have multiple similarly themed plays (August Wilson is an example), but the plays are not set in the same universe with the same characters. [I can think of a few trilogies though -- the Neil Simon Brighton Beach plays, or the three Falsetto plays, but those weren't long running hits]

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