OPINION - Christmas will glitter with glamour after tech turned Hollywood on its head

·4-min read
 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

Life finds a way, says Jeff Goldblum’s scientist character, Dr Ian Malcolm, in the Jurassic Park movies. And so too does creativity. You never know where artistic brilliance is going to go, and where it is going to thrive. But it is as irrepressible as DNA.

Look at it this way: for film fanatics like me, these are anxious times. In September, the world’s second biggest cinema chain, Cineworld, filed for bankruptcy. Global box office returns this year are still at least 20 per cent down on the 2017-19 average. Fewer movies are being released, tickets are too expensive, and the pipeline of avant garde, arthouse and indie films has rarely looked more precarious, as studios increasingly sink the bulk of their money into franchises, superhero “cinematic universes”, and the safe bet of the tentpole sequel rather than the quirky breakout director or the chamber piece movie gem.

That’s the worrying news. The great news is that, while artistic innovation struggles in one sphere, it is positively blooming in another. Just look at the line-up of televisual brilliance available this Christmas: David Tennant in Litvinenko (ITVX); both seasons of The White Lotus (Sky Atlantic and NOW); the BBC’s dazzling new historical drama Marie Antoinette and brilliant adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Mayflies; on Netflix, Glass Onion (the wonderful sequel to Knives Out), and Noah Baumbach’s superb interpretation of Don DeLillo’s supposedly unfilmable White Noise; on All 4, the complete season five of The Handmaid’s Tale (following last night’s nail-biting finale). And so much more. Truly, we are living in a golden age of television — or, more accurately, of streaming. As the traditional film world grows more cautious so the ultra-competitive world of high-quality small-screen drama just gets ever more creative and dynamic.

The revolution that began on US cable channels is now firmly entrenched in a radical second phase on an ever-proliferating roster of streaming services: Paramount+ launched in June, ITVX this month, with HBO Max on its way.

As the American writer David Milch — the true father of modern “prestige television”, who created seminal shows such as NYPD Blue and Deadwood — says in his terrific new memoir, Life’s Work, a medium that was so widely dismissed as infantilising and stupid turns out to be much more than that. Working in the medium “requires an exotic combination of bravery and imagination”. And there is no shortage of either in the industry right now. Extraordinarily, even the glorious era of I, Claudius, Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, and Brideshead Revisited pales by comparison.

The surest sign of structural change is the direction in which talent is migrating. Take Elisabeth Moss, arguably the finest screen actress of her generation, who has developed an entirely new form of screen super-stardom — in three of the greatest televisions shows ever made (as Zoey Bartlet in The West Wing, Peggy Olson in Mad Men and June Osborne in The Handmaid’s Tale), as well as other premier league series such as Top of the Lake and Shining Girls. Instead of pursuing a conventional movie career, Moss has been positively drawn to long-form, high-quality streaming drama.

Then look at 1923, the latest spin-off spawned by Taylor Sheridan’s smash-hit modern western series, Yellowstone (Paramount+). Why has Harrison Ford waited until he is 80 to immerse himself in multi-part television, playing the character of Jacob Dutton, the patriarch of the Yellowstone ranch? Because that particular stage is now big enough, exciting enough and lucrative enough for a screen star of his eminence.

Also on Paramount: Sylvester Stallone, cruelly rejected five decades ago when auditioning to be an extra on The Godfather, is finally getting to play a mafia capo, Dwight Manfredi, in the superior comedy crime drama, Tulsa King. Again, Stallone, now 76 and twice Oscar-nominated as an actor, has waited a long time to make the leap from big to small screen. Like Ford, he is experienced enough to know where the energy is shifting.

No revolution is linear or predictable and there are surely market corrections ahead: these are going to be testing economic times for all subscription-based streaming services, and not all of them will survive.

But, for now, bask in the glow of an unexpected artistic phenomenon that undermines the simplistic claim that technology invariably destroys creativity. In this case, the opposite is true. Sit back with a mince pie, and enjoy it. Happy Christmas.