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TV on the big screen, movies on our phones – does size even matter anymore?

After viewing the latest season of Top of the Lake in a cinema, Aaron Yap looks at the increasingly blurred lines between films, TV shows, and everything in between.

It’s so magical – I don’t know why – to go into a theatre and have the lights go down. It’s very quiet, and then the curtain starts to open. Maybe they’re red. And you go into a world.

It’s beautiful when it’s a shared experience. It’s still beautiful when you’re at home and your theatre is in front of you, though it’s not quite as good. It’s best on a big screen. That’s the way to go into the world”.

– David Lynch.

On July 30 this year, several hundred people hunkered down in Auckland’s ASB Waterfront Theatre to watch an entire season of a TV show. Programmed as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, this one-off theatrical screening lasted approximately seven hours: six hour-long episodes, plus a 15-minute and 45-minute break.

It started around 1:30pm on a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon. By the time we got out and dispersed into Wynyard Quarter, it was night.

This was how some of us got to first experience Jane Campion’s crime drama Top of the Lake: China Girl – nearly a month before it screened on any televisions here. To quote festival director Bill Gosden, it was “enthralling”.

The occasion was nothing if not unusual. Of course, it’s not unusual that a homegrown-championing film festival would want to show Jane Campion’s latest work. And it’s not a duration thing. They’ve never shied away from films with extremely lengthy run times. Earlier this year, their Autumn Events programme screened the four-hour director’s cut of the classic concert doco Woodstock; last year, the Japanese film Happy Hour clocked in at five hours. It’s unusual because Top of the Lake: China Girl is the second season of a TV show which we were watching in full, in a festival setting, in a cinema.

It hasn’t been touted as a six hour movie in the same sense that David Lynch had been describing Twin Peaks: The Return as an 18 hour movie. China Girl has been clearly structured with episodic, cliffhanger-punctuated TV in mind. NZIFF weren’t the only ones to do this. China Girl had its world premiere at Cannes theatrically, as did the first two hours of Twin Peaks: The Return.

In an even more curious event, this month we get to see two episodes of Marvel’s newest TV show Inhumans at IMAX. That’s right, IMAX. One has to wonder if these screenings will hint at an ongoing blurring of the mediums.

I liked the first season of Top of the Lake fine. It was a skillfully crafted Nordic Noir-via-Down under gloom-fest. More so, it was heartening to see a New Zealand filmmaker making the most of the creative freedoms afforded by an international prestige TV production.

But the initial allure of this screening wasn’t so much, “Damn, I NEED to see Top of the Lake: China Girl right now on the big screen,” but more, “Wouldn’t it cool to see a complete season of this show in this environment?” It was a novel experience, but this was not a show I would immediately deem necessary to be seen in a large theatre.

For example, there have been recent TV episodes I’d rather watch on the big screen ahead of China Girl. The Expanse’s “CQB” with its stunning zero-gravity firefight. Game of Thrones’ “The Spoils of War” with its spectacular army-decimating dragon attack. Twin Peaks: The Return “Part 8” with its cosmic, brain-melting origin-story-of-sorts. You can imagine the sound and imagery of these set-pieces gaining a sensory boost on an outsized screen in a darkened room. A character-driven mystery show like China Girl won’t lose much seen on your laptop.

That said, China Girl made for a highly enjoyable and memorable theatrical experience, if not necessarily cinematic. If you’ve ever been to a movie marathon before, it’s not dissimilar. You’re just watching the same programming at a more consistent, quicker pace. There’s the delightfully cosy aspect of huddling together with like-minded strangers who’ve come armed with coffees and packed bags full of snacks, prepared for the long haul. The unmistakable feeling of “being in this together”, accompanied by audibly engrossed audience reactions, was a refreshing alternative to the increasingly isolating TV-by-convenience trend that’s more common today. This was a communal binge.

Whether such an experience will catch on in the mainstream, or become a norm at film festivals, is less certain. I’m all for the strategy of making specific, event-worthy episodes available in a theatre. Season debuts, finales. It’s a valid marketing ploy to drum up hype for your show. But given that the masses have now become accustomed to flat-fee, or free, content-on-tap-type consumption, it’s unlikely many will be enthused about paying $50 to watch a six-part mini-series at Event Cinemas. And yes, big HD TVs are everywhere now, and you don’t have to deal with loud morons in your living room.

For anyone like myself – who like to stubbornly believe in purist, romantic notions of cinema – wrestling with the aggressive, complicated cross-pollination of TV and film come be a confusing time. It’s exciting that TV has adopted cinema’s auteur theory, and allowed actors and filmmakers to toggle between mediums without stigma. At the same time, it’s also contracted cinema’s reboot/remake bug. Cinematic franchises from the likes of Marvel and DC lean exhaustingly on TV-style serialisation to tell their stories. Meanwhile, TV favours long-form film-style narrative arcs over old-fashioned self-contained episodes.  

Many shows  Masters of None, Glow, Fleabag, The Handmaid’s Tale to name a few  now attempt a faux-cinematic look, shooting in widescreen aspect ratios of 2.35:1 or 2:1 (which ironically, were introduced in the ‘50s to give cinemas an experiential edge over the boxy dimensions of television). But we’re also seeing web trailers for 2.35:1 movies that are butchered to a square 1:1 ratio in order to maximise prime real estate on mobile phone screens.

I get it  you want more eyeballs. But it’s the principle that irks. The belief that humans are simply too lazy or stupid to flip their phones horizontally to watch a trailer in the correct aspect ratio. Does no one remember the evils of pan and scan?

It’s not unimaginable that we’re heading to a future where the boundaries of film and TV will dissolve. Screen size and formats will cease to matter. The maxim that “content is king” will, well, be king. It’s just a bunch of stuff for people to watch on their devices at their own convenience. We’re already seeing hints of this with Netflix’s shady, ubiquitous branding, “A Netflix Original”. It’s a nearly meaningless term. It doesn’t tell us whether the content is something Netflix has produced from scratch, or if it’s licensed from another studio. It doesn’t credit the filmmaker, and hell, it doesn’t even tell us if it’s a film or TV show.

The scenario poses a catch 22. For all the attractive carte blanche luxuries that Netflix can offer that a normal Hollywood studio can’t, the factors above – along with the service’s disruptive distribution model – indicate it’s not in the business of preserving the romance of cinema.

Those paying $13 a month just to watch stuff probably won’t bloody care. Me, however, I’m already fretting over whether Twin Peaks: The Return would be more at home on an end-of-year TV or film list.


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