The Ultimate in Pay TV

The smash-hit success of the Sex and the City movie makes this the second summer in a row that a movie based on a recent TV show, with the original cast, has had a surprisingly strong showing at the box-office. Last year it was The Simpsons Movie, whose opening weekend also far exceeded the studio’s expectations.

Hollywood has known for years that movies based on older TV series, with all the parts re-cast, can be successful; we’ll soon get another one, Get Smart, which looks like it should do well. But feature-length versions of shows with the same cast as the TV series have usually been limited to: a) Star Trek movies and b) Cheap quickies rushed out while the show is still running, in order to cash in on its popularity. You probably remember the somewhat disappointing Batman feature rushed into theatres to capitalize on the success of the series, and other shows didn’t even make an actual feature; they’d just take a two-part episode and release it as a movie. (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. did a bunch of these.) Even more ambitious TV tie-ins like the X-Files movie — the first one, I mean, not the new one that’s coming out soon and that I can’t really bring myself to care about that much — were essentially TV tie-ins; they were expected to do well but not be gigantic blockbusters. Or they’d just flop, like Serenity.

Now we’re getting TV tie-in movies, for a show that’s still on the air and one that’s only been off the air for a few years, that are proving their ability to compete with the Big Boys. When a TV tie-in beats Indiana Jones, it not only proves that women actually go to movies — and isn’t it hilarious how studio executives are slapping themselves on the forehead, Bull Shannon style, as if it is a new revelation that you can actually make grown-up movies for women — but that a TV tie-in movie has box-office potential that they haven’t fully exploited. And, as a bonus, these movies aren’t all that expensive to make by Hollywood standards, because they use TV stars who don’t command salaries that are quite as big as a bona fide movie star. (SATC cost an estimated $65 million, which is a hell of a lot of money but not that much for a big lavish Hollywood movie these days. I mean, it’s only about 1/3 of what Indiana Jones cost.)

Expect to see more of these tie-ins in the future, though I can’t really predict what shows will be selected. They can’t just be your ordinarily successful shows; they have to be shows with a really strong and loyal fan base and shows that appeal to specific market segments — since a movie, which is seen by fewer people than a TV show, needs to find people who like this kind of thing enough to pay for it. Family Guy is a likely candidate, and there have been persistent rumours that Fox wants a feature if the writers can find a suitable subject. Pay cable shows like SATC are good candidates because they attract loyal, demographically-desirable audiences that are willing to pay extra for their entertainment; The Sopranos is an obvious candidate for a feature, but I honestly don’t know if it would work (and David Chase seems to be more interested in trying to make a feature about something else). Among network shows, I’m not really certain.

One warning about these TV tie-in movies, though: they can be a little disposable. Take The Simpsons Movie. Big hit last year. Not much staying power, though, culturally; except for “Spider Pig,” the movie hasn’t had a lot of cultural impact, and the show has gone right back to being the same always-there, middle-of-the-road entertainment it’s been for years. And the flaws of that movie have become more obvious in retrospect; it’s better than the show is now, but despite the bigger budget, I don’t think most Simpsons fans would take it over the first 7-8 seasons. A TV tie-in movie may be a bigger-budgeted episode, but it’s still an episode, and an episode made either late in the run or after the run is over. It’ll have better quality control than the average late-period episode, but it will usually have some of the same problems as any episode made 10 or so years after the show began: the been there, done that feeling, or the feeling that the characters are less appealing than when we first knew them. TV tie-ins are rarely going to feel like the Best Episode Ever. At best they’ll usually feel like a pretty decent episode for the post-shark-jumping period

See also Roy Edroso on the reactions of conservative bloggers to their favourite cultural demon, the promiscuity-promoting SATC. (Those who hated the movie get to bash it for corrupting America; those who enjoyed the movie have a trickier task: convincing themselves that this is really a conservative movie at heart.)

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