Critics have been decrying the inventive decline of Hollywood pretty much since D.W. Griffith left the scene. “It’s just that the most sophisticated stuff is showing up on TV screens”, Edward Jay Epstein says.
Epstein tells NPR’s Guy Raz,”We’ve had a role reversal”. “Now, people go to television, especially pay television and premiere cable television, to watch their favorite programs like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire and Damages. And they go to movies to see comic books: Spiderman, Batman, Superman and Avatar.”
Epstein wrote the book The Hollywood Economist: the Hidden Financial Reality behind the Movies. He says the dichotomy in Hollywood these days is a product of fundamentally different business realities between the big and small screens.
“The movie business is basically driven by marketing departments that have only one audience that they can guarantee to turn out on Friday and Saturday nights,” he says. “And that audience is teenagers and youth.
“Television, on the other hand, especially pay television, runs on a completely different business model. They have to stop people from canceling their subscriptions. So they have to reach the head of the household, who pays the bills. … So they have basically put more and more money into original programming to keep the adult audience paying the bill.”
The fundamental mission of a network like HBO — which pioneered original dramas on cable with The Sopranos, The Wire and now Boardwalk Empire — isn’t to make “art” or even to build viewer numbers.
“According to the top HBO executive ” Epstein says, “that they would rather have a program that had very low viewership but highest critical acclaim, especially in The New York Times and elite media, because when people read those kind of stories about The Sopranos or The Wire, their reaction is, ‘We cannot give this up!’ “