It’s difficult to quantify just how enormous last weekend was in pop culture. Within the span of just a couple days, we saw two of the most highly anticipated culminations in two of the most popular franchises in media finally premiere; one on the movie screen and the other on television. For the big screen, we saw Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame not only break box office records, but crush them, grossing $357 million domestic in three days, as well as an astounding $1.2 billion worldwide. And then, a short two days later, the popular series Game of Thrones premiered it’s much anticipated climatic episode titled “The Long Night,” which presented a much hyped showdown that has been teased ever since the very first episode back in 2011. Though one was wrapping up it’s story-line while the other was hitting it’s apex, the thing that they had in common was that these were moments that had been building up among their fan bases for nearly a decade, and it’s just by coincidence that they coincided on the same, late April weekend. And the reactions to both were intense, becoming the most talked about points of discussion for the entire week that followed, and will most likely continue for months after. But the other thing they have in common is that they show the power of communal viewership in helping to drive up the success of each film or show. People came to the movie theater and tuned in to HBO because they wanted to be there right at the beginning to experience this moment in time with others who share their fandom. Most likely, the biggest driving force is that people watched so that they wouldn’t be exposed to spoilers, but there’s also the fact that watching something together as part of a crowd experience has it’s own kind of appeal. And that fan experience is something that Hollywood has tried hard to manage as the habits of movie goers and the demand for content has changed dramatically over the years.
The industry has given a term to the kinds of movies and shows that generate the kind of fan anticipation that we saw from this last weekend; that term being the “water cooler shows”. This refers to the expected interactions that people have at their workplaces talking to their friends or colleagues about what they watched the night before on television or at the movies, usually taking place around the office water coolers. They are just casual discussions between everyday people, but those water cooler talks do impact the hype built around event movies and TV episodes, with “word of mouth” becoming it’s own valuable tool. The industry surprising relies heavily on these kinds of interactions to help get their products the right amount of exposure, but because they can’t influence every single viewer out there to say the right thing, it’s also can be an unreliable resource for building hype as well. Social Media has helped give studios a better inlet into helping guide the fan to fan interactions; as evidenced by Marvel’s “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” hashtag that went around the internet prior to the film’s release. And remarkably, fans responded in unison to the demands from the filmmakers to not spoil the details of the movie; even to the extreme extent like what happened to a poor fan in Hong Kong. But, even with the tools that better allows for coordination within fan communities, Hollywood is still finding itself having to work at a disadvantage when it comes to bringing new eyes to their products. Audience viewing habits, as they have always done, have changed from generation to generation, and right now we are witnessing yet another shift in that flow, and it’s one that is starting to entirely change the way we watch media in general. This is the beginning of the streaming era in entertainment, and on demand entertainment is starting to bring an end to things like appointment viewing, which has been a staple of the industry for most of it’s history. And now, the movie industry is beginning to wonder if it’s even worth putting so much money behind these kind of big events anymore. The sad truth is that in order to make these colossal fan experiences happen, whatever production company behind it has to pour in a lot of money, and fewer of them are able to take that risk anymore. But, by understating the appeal of sharing a moment of fandom with other people and stating that this kind of appointment viewing is the only way to experience it, it may be the only way to save the traditional movie-going and television viewing experience from going away in a world dominated by streaming content.
It helps to look back and see how Hollywood has developed it’s interaction with audiences over the years. In the early years of the industry, studios not only produced the means of creating movies, but also the means of presenting them to the public. Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, and other major studios all owned movie theaters across the country, and through this they were able to manage exactly what was going to be available to see in every market across the country. It didn’t matter what was being shown, just as long as people were buying a ticket every day at one of their theaters. Because of this, audiences would never stay and watch an entire program at the theater. It was a more casual come and go as you please place to escape for people, and audiences were there more to see the movie stars and less for the stories, though this era did produce it’s fair share of great movies. The advent of television and the breaking up of the studio system ended the monopoly of studio owned theaters caused the studios to rethink their strategies dramatically for the first time, and that led to the addition of gimmicks to bring audiences out of their homes for something that could only be experienced on the big screen. Some of those gimmicks took hold, like widescreen, while others didn’t, like 3D and Smell-o-vision. But, even though they helped bring viewers back into the theaters, audiences still behaved the same way as they did before, coming and going as they pleased. It wasn’t until Alfred Hitchcock made his ground-breaking thriller Psycho (1960) that this audience behavior began to change. Hitchcock demanded that every theater showing Psycho had to put up a warning for audiences stating that if they didn’t watch the movie from beginning to end, then they wouldn’t have gotten the authentic experience; referring of course to the movie’s famous mid-film twist where the main character played by Janet Leigh is killed in the shower. Word got around and audiences took Hitchcock at his word, and it turned Psycho not just into a box office hit, but a culturally significant moment. And, because of it’s example, audiences began to change their viewing habits at the movie theater, making sure to arrive before a movie begins in order to experience the whole thing in one sitting, just in case it had a mid-film twist like Psycho. Over time, this became the norm, and audiences have never returned to that original casual viewing in theaters ever again.
Though Psycho changed the way we watch the movies in the theater, it was really the era of the blockbuster that cemented the theater going experience as something paramount to the fan experience. There were movies released over the next couple decades that demanded to be seen in the theaters, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for it’s visuals and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) for it’s ability to scare audiences to death. But it would be George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) that would change the movie going experience completely that still has it’s ripples felt throughout the industry today. Borrowing inspiration strangely enough from the serials of Hollywood’s early years (you know, those years when audiences came and went as they pleased) Star Wars built it’s narrative over multiple films, leading to the formation of a fanbase that not only kept returning to the theaters to watch movies over and over again, but also could be relied upon to return whenever they had something new. Star Wars became the template for all future franchise building in the decades that followed, and you can see it’s influence in everything from The Lord of the Rings, to Harry Potter, to even the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones. All these monster franchises succeed on their own merits, but the one thing that they all took from Star Wars is the notion of treating the audience as an integral part of it’s existence. These franchises don’t just create movies or shows, they create communities, allowing fans to discover one another and bring them together. And most importantly, they know how to satisfy and prepare it’s fan base for what’s coming next. Star Wars in particular has accomplished this to remarkable effect, as evidenced back in 1998, when people bought tickets to a movie just so they could view a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). Couple this the fact that people would camp over several nights outside a movie theater just to get the best possible seats just shows how pivotal fan bases have become to building a franchise’s power within the industry.
But, there is something in the industry that has changed the way we watch movies and television, and part of this has stemmed from the many drawbacks that going to a movie theater has. When we go to the movies, we have to accept the fact that we are going to be in a dark windowless room with a bunch of strangers, and not all of them are going to have the same kind of movie theater etiquette that you do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my viewing experience spoiled because the people behind me decided it was appropriate to carry on a conversation while the movie is playing. Not only that, but there are all the other pet peeves like noisy kids, people kicking the back of your chair, a cell phone ringing during a quiet scene in a movie or worse somebody turning their phone on and the bright glare flashing right back in your eyes. Also, not every theater has the best level of upkeep, and you often might find yourself walking through aisles with sticky floors and stray pieces of trash all around. I myself had to work as an usher in a movie theater, and though I tried my best to be thorough, there’s only a short window of time to get the job done between showings, so some things would often fall through the cracks during clean-up. Over time, the movie going experience has more or less become commonplace in our culture, and it no longer has the allure of being something special in our lives, especially in an era when multiplexes have put the old ornate movie houses out of business. Because of this, more people are just content to stay at home and watch a movie from the comforts of their living room, with theaters reserved only for special occasions. For a time, Hollywood could manage with this decline in audience satisfaction, because the movie theaters were still the only place that first run movies could be seen. But with the recent increase in original content coming from the likes of Netflix and Hulu, with Disney and Apple about to take the plunge as well later this year, multiplexes are finally being confronted with the possibility that they may lose their audiences for good.
Here’s the conundrum for audiences going into this new era of film-making. Streaming content has opened up a wealth of new things to be excited about, as platforms like Netflix are putting their money behind bolder and more risk-taking projects, the kind that movie theaters tend to shy away from because it brings uncertainty of box office returns. At the same time, there is something that gets lost when people have all their content available whenever they want. Appointment viewing is something we’ve taken for granted over the years, not really realizing just how instrumental a part it played in making someone a fan. The water cooler talks that we would have at work, school, or wherever were all about sharing experiences and shaping a bond with others through a shared fandom. But, that fandom usually built over time through anticipation for what was going to come next. In the case of TV shows, you could have a week’s worth of hyping yourself and others up for what was going to come next, all of which was creating the result that more and more people had to watch the next episode all at the same time, or they would be missing out. That’s why so many of these fan bases are so devoted, because for many of them, this has been a shared experience that becomes so much of their life. But that’s starting to change now that we’ve moved from an appointment viewing culture to a binge watching culture. Now people are watching all their shows and movies in big chunks, which while it still allows the person to appreciate the quality of the film or show, it takes away the feeling of anticipation that would usually come between episodes, when audiences were left to wonder over several days about what’s going to happen next. It’s that down time to process the story that helps to give an extra amount of appreciation that we’ve seemed to take for granted. Sure, Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things have their fan bases to be sure, but you wonder if Netflix had mandated a longer roll-out of their programming like you see on traditional TV for their shows that they may have grown even more audiences over time. The Netflix model has also taken away some of the shared audience experience as well, as binge watching has become a far more solitary experience for people since they are doing it all on their own time, and not when the platform says they should see it.
For some, this is an acceptable change, because they were never happy to watch a movie in a theater nor a show at a time that was inconvenient to them. And those audiences have finally found their ideal form of content consumption with streaming entertainment. But, there are many fans who prefer the in theater experience more than anything else, and that has many people concerned that streaming platforms are causing the industry to abandon the traditional forms of presentation that have been so crucial in bringing fan communities together. This is more so a problem with television than with movies, because TV shows are definitely skewing more in the direction towards satisfying binge watchers rather than appointment watchers. It almost makes Game of Thrones feel like the last big hurrah for appointment viewership, because there really isn’t another TV series on any network or cable channel that has continually grown it audience to this kind of level. In time, we may see an end to the idea of the water cooler show, as more and more people watch their television at different speeds, either all at once or over the course of a long period. And that could result in no show ever reaching that same Game of Thrones level ever again, which could change the fan making communities that Hollywood relies on into something very different. In order for the industry to retain a little bit of that traditional sense of fan appreciation, they should look at the things that Game of Thrones did right for so many years, which is build an anticipation of unpredictability over time. When the infamous “Red Wedding” episode premiered, it shook the industry like never before, but what really worked in the show’s favor was that it let the moment simmer over a week before the next episode, allowing audiences to absorb the shock. Now, Thrones fans know to not take anything for granted and to watch every episode from here out just in case something even more shocking happens. That’s what each show should really understand, that every episode matters, and each one should have just enough time down time in between to let the story sink in. With binge watching, you really appreciate the narrative, but with appointment viewing , you appreciate the moments in between even more.
The last thing I think that the industry should consider when reaching it’s audience is to make them excited that they are all discovering a thing together. What really stuck out to me when watching Avengers: Endgame at the movie theater last week was just how intense the audiences reactions were. It becomes even more than just about getting ahead of spoilers; it’s about feeling the excitement in the room with your fellow fans. I know that there are some out there that hate it when people cheer in a movie theater, but when the film earns it and is specially formatted to allow for cheering audiences like Avengers is, then it works to enhance the experience overall. There’s one part in Endgame that I won’t spoil, but it led to an almost continuous two and a half minutes of cheering from an enthusiastic audience, and it felt good to join in with them. That’s something that I wish was spotlighted more when it comes to promoting these kinds of movies, because the level energy from an audience creates it’s own kind of entertainment. Game of Thrones likewise is able to do that. If you watch reaction videos on YouTube, you can see a wide variety of live responses to what happened in each episode. Last week’s episode in particular, “The Long Night” has a moment at it’s conclusion where a character makes their big move, and some of the reactions online to this moment are just as dramatic. There were some videos taken from bars and even theaters reacting to this episode, and people reacted to this character moment like the person had just scored the winning goal in the World Cup. If HBO, or any producer for that manner, wants to find a way to create another show or movie that has the same impact, just look at what these large gatherings of people respond to. Fan communities are a powerful force in generating the direction of entertainment, and finding exactly what makes them all stand up and cheer at once is the key to finding your biggest successes. The past weekend showed us why it’s important to understand the role an audience plays and that appointment viewing is a necessary part in letting appreciation for an art-form grow over time. Movies and shows are there to make us laugh, cry and cheer and it’s better to do it together than by ourselves. Sometimes an audience just needs to let go and trust that the wait will be worth it in the end.