The Bigger Screen – Game of Thrones in IMAX and Cinematic TV Coming of Age

game of thrones tyrion

Ever since it’s beginnings in the early 50’s, televsion has been locked into battle with cinema for supremacy in the viewer market.  Movie attendance dropped significantly once the first TV screens made their way into living rooms across the world, but that only inspired Hollywood to invest in new technologies that helped to push the medium into new and exciting territories, like the introduction of widescreen and surround sound, and in turn audiences came back in large numbers.  Over the course of this new cinematic revolution, TV more or less became standardized, and in some ways reduced because it was still restricted by the still primitive technologies that made television broadcasts possible.  There was just no way to compare the experiences of seeing Gilligan’s Island  on the small screen with seeing Ben-Hur (1959) on the giant wide screen.  Cinema was the mature artform, and television was just light entertainment.  But, with recent advances in digital photography and high definition home presentations, television has now reached a maturity point where they can now once again compete with the cinematic experience.  Noticeably in the last decade or so, we’ve seen television redefine the rules of storytelling and deliver some of the most groundbreaking and buzzworthy narratives ever seen in the medium.  Sitcoms have have dropped the obviously fake canned laughter and instead gotten their laughs through the single camera format.  Hour long dramas have likewise moved outside the soundstages and have taken us on journeys to the far reaches of the world, and even beyond. And now it’s even common to see a network show that has a substantial CGI effects budget. All of this, combined with some of the recent implosions in tent pole filmmaking, has led to an era where the best minds and talent in the industry are now looking to Televsion as their desired destination. And no TV series right now has challenged the cinematic experience more than HBO’s megahit, Game of Thrones.

Adapted from the novels by George R. R. Martin, and produced by creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones is perhaps the most cinematic TV series made to date.  It has generated a following of fans around the world, including yours truly, and has generated an enormous amount of revenue for the cable network.  And now in it’s fifth year, the show has taken the unprecedented step of promoting itself on the largest screen possible, courtesy of the IMAX format.  Airing a television series on a movie screen is not unheard of at this point.  Fathom Events has done the same thing for several years now, playing classic episodes from popular TV series in the past in order to mark an anniversary or special date.  There was also a special simulcast recently of the 50th anniversary event for the BBC series Doctor Who.  But HBO’s choice to put Game Of Thrones in IMAX theaters is a major step towards showing how far television has come, and it really makes a statement about the kind of regard the network has for the show.  By doing this, HBO effectively is saying that their show can indeed compete with the big dogs on the largest format possible and indeed even be more worthy than some of the other films that have been given the IMAX treatment.  By making this statement, we are now seeing a true testament to the maturity level that television has reached, showing that it is no longer just a simple form of entertainment, but a place where real art can be created.

But, the real question is, did the presentation really do what it set out to accomplish. I was fortunate enough to take in the show at my local IMAX theater for this one week only engagement, which I saw as worth the ticket price even though I had already watched most of the show itself when it first aired.  The showing was made up of the final two episodes of Season 4 (the most recently aired) and it included a teaser trailer at the end for the upcoming Season 5.  The two episodes in question were called “The Watchers on the Wall” and the season finale titled “The Children.” Both are excellent edpisodes and they each featured some of my favorite moments from last season.  But, what struck me most about the IMAX presentation is how it benefited one more than the other.  While “The Children” has its epic moments, it was obviously the more subdued of the two episodes, relying on quieter character moments over spectacle. “The Watchers on the Wall,” however, was a bit of a revelation on the IMAX screen. When I first saw this episode on TV, I was a tiny bit underwhelmed by it.  It never felt like it was big enough to match the moment that it was depicting.  Now I understand why; my 42-inch TV screen wasn’t big enough to convey the moment effectively. When projected on the nearly 100 foot IMAX screen, the episode really came to life, and it gave me a much better appreciation for the episode.  I immediately felt the difference when the screening showed that first wide angle shot over the show’s monumental Wall, as well as the first time you see a giant riding a wooly mammoth.  It was clear from that point exactly why HBO made the choice to bring Game of Thrones to IMAX; a first for any TV series.  It’s because no other TV series could do justice to the format.

Overall, the screening was an absolute success, and my hope is that it’s just the beginning. While I’m still a believer in the special experience of watching a movie in a theater, I am also aware of the fact that some of the best filmmaking happening right now is on TV.  And Game of Thrones is just one of the many example of TV shows that have pushed the bar in recent years. Indeed, I believe that this is just the beginning for screenings in IMAX theaters.  While I doubt you’ll see the likes of Mad Men in IMAX, I do see other epic scale productions like AMC’s The Walking Dead or BBC’ Doctor Who making their way to larger formats.  But, it has to take a certain kind of show to make that transition. Most of the TV series of the past are unfortunately restrained by the limitations that they have had to work with. Even epic productions like Star Trek are still bound by their broadcast standard look.  Really, only TV series crafted under the more cinematic standards of recent years could hold up on an IMAX screen, and even still, it has to have the right kind of vision behind it. It’s a very recent phenomena of TV series that are able to hold up visually with their big screen counterparts.  HBO led the way for that transition with their visually spectacular shows of the past like The Sopranos, Deadwood and Rome and even they had to mature their looks over time. The TV shows of today are built on the shoulders of these groundbreakers and they continue to refine the look of modern TV, even pushing production quality into unexpected areas like video streaming.   And with tent pole productions becoming increasingly less reliable as investments, it seems logical that theater chains would look to popular TV shows as a way to draw in the crowds.

For many years, it would have been seen as impossible for a TV show to match up against a big screen movie.  But, the tide has changed considerably as TV shows have become the safe haven for creative freedom and experimentation while movie studios have largely tried to play it safe.  Up until this time, the seperation was very different.  TV shows just didn’t have the budgets to compete.  They were only filmed on cheaper film stock and the idea of preserving them for longevity was seen as laughable.  Even TV shows that managed to gain enough notoriety that they spawned a movie adaptation were also cast aside into a niche category.  For many years, if there was a movie adaptation of a TV series, it was usually a comedy meant to mock the outdated conventions of the original show, like The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) or Starsky and Hutch (2004).  The only films in that time that managed to make the trip to the big screen with any sliver of dignity and faithfulness to their original form were the films in the Star Trek franchise (some better than others) and 1993’s The Fugitive, which actually was honored with a Best Picture nomination.  Nowadays, more and more TV shows are given respectful big screen translations; sometimes even shepparded there by their original creators like 1998’s The X-Files or 2005’s Serenity.  Televsion has also benefited from even more film to TV translatisions, showing that some stories can even prosper in a longer story format.  Big screen classics like Fargo, From Dusk Til Dawn, and even characters like Hannibal Lector have made it successfully to small screen and have shown that the medium can indeed support stories and characters that have already proven themselves on the big screen.  All this has shown the increasingly blurred line that separates film quality from TV quality.

Another sign of this change is present in the fact that more and more talented people are choosing to steer their careers into TV broadcasting.  Before, television work was looked down upon by A-listers in the industry.  In the early days, you moved up from television work into and never looked back, unless your career was in a down turn and it was the last option left to you. And indeed, the early years of television production was a great incubator of the great filmmakers of tomorrow.  Directors like Stanley Kramer, Arthur Penn and Steven Speilberg all got their start working on TV shows, as well as many future groundbreaking writers like Paddy Chayefsky or Charlie Kaufman.   Now while many people who start in television still move on to movies today, there is also a growing trend among filmmakers who are going from the big screen to the little screen in order to satisfy their creative tastes.  Case in point, David Fincher’s recent forays into TV production.  Thanks to his clout as a director, he managed to get the hit series House of Cards onto the small screen, with award winning stars like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright on board as well.  Actors are also going back and forth between film and television, with none of the disdain they would have shown for the medium in the past.  Game of Thrones in particular has an especially large number of cast members itself that balances their film careers with their work on the show.  He stigma that television has had in the past is gone for most people in the industry, and now some will even look to it as a more desirable avenue to pursue than a film career.  Imagine if the same had been true in the early years of television.  Can you imagine seeing the “Duke” John Wayne headlining a weekly drama or Jerry Lewis producing a sitcom. This is certainly one of the biggest signs of television’s maturity as an entertainment art form.

But, the one big thing that still separates cinema and television is the level of production that it receives.  Even with all the ambition that TV producers put into their shows, their budgets will still fall short of the big productions, and it sometimes shows in many of the visual effects.  Even a show as highly budgeted as Game of Thrones has to make due with what HBO is able to allocate them.   Sometimes they pull it off, while other times you can’t help but feel that a moment falls short.  The Battle at the Wall seen in the IMAX showing of Thrones is a perfect example of this compromise that the show’s producers had to deal with.  You can tell that they were trying their hardest to make it feel like a big moment, but even they had to cut corners and downplay the moment from how it originally appeared in the source novel.  But what helps the show in the end is not how sharp or big it looks, but rather how they utilize their effects.  And honestly, the makers of Game of Thrones us their visual effects with more care and effectiveness than most blockbusters.  It’s giving the production the illusion of grandeur and making the production feel even stronger and more epic than its budget would have you believe.  They do this by putting the emphasis in the performances and then storytelling, which in turn makes the imaginary world of Game of Thrones feel even more real to the viewer.  And given that the show presents a continuing narrative in a serial format, it has actually made the show feel all the more epic.  I was actually stunned by how small The Lord of the Rings trilogy felt the last time I saw it, because it’s 12 hour plot line now feels dwarfed by the nearly 40 hours we’ve spent in the world of Game of Thrones; and were not even at the halfway point yet.  That is a testament to how well a TV series can overcome its budget limitations and even surpass its big screen competitors.

So, my hope in the future is that we see more of this mingling between television and cinema.  Yes, some of the allure of cinematic filmmaking is being lost in the process, but that’s only because television has upped it’s game and has met the challenge. In some odd way, this is something that could save a fledgling movie market, at least from the vantage point of theater owners.  Watching something epic in your own living room has advantages, but there is nothing quite as great as watching the same show on the biggest screen possible. And there’s nothing bigger than IMAX.   Game of Thrones is the perfect test subject for this experiment, and I feel like the experiment was well worth it in the end.  My hope is that HBO does the same thing next year, and that other networks with epic scale shows like AMC, FX, and Showtime follow suit.  It of course has to be the right kind of shows as well; just like with the movies, you need spectacle on screen to justify the larger format.  Another good idea would be to not have to wait for the whole run of the show to be over, and instead maybe consider simulcasting the broadcast of the show when it airs on the big screen.  The complications of that could be troublesome for both theaters and the studios,mbut you never know especially if demand is high enough.  I for one welcome the competition between cinema and television.  Competition between the two mediums allows for a more diverse set of choices for the viewer and it allows for many production companies and producers to take chances.  As of now, HBO and Game of Thrones are setting the standards high for Hollywood and it’s already leading the market to reevaluate how to present certain projects.  But, no matter how you watch the show in the end, quality comes from a great story, and having the gumption to make it work.  And as a result, any size screen will do.