So I usually have the TV on in the background when I'm on the computer or doing household stuff, and tonight it was tuned to MGM's HD channel, which runs a awkward hodgepodge of the studio's intellectual property: legitimately great movies like the original Taking Of Pelham One Two Three and Some Like It Hot, as well as made-for-TV cheese like Sometimes They Come Back... Again and Peter Benchley's Creature, the bulk of the studio's classic catalog having been sold to Turner in the '80s. Often they fill out their schedule with justifiably forgotten flicks from the '90s and '00s, like Red Corner, At First Sight, and the Walking Tall remake with the Rock. Tonight they had another total obscurity, the 1999 movie version of The Mod Squad, which was popular in the late '60s, but is now remembered more for starring Rashida Jones' mom than anything else.
It was pretty obscure even fifteen years ago, which might explain why the movie tanked at the box office, despite starring a twenty-year-old Claire Danes, still riding high on the cult popularity of My So-Called Life and the box office success of Romeo + Juliet. Today, if anything, it's like a time capsule of everything that people have forgotten about the late '90s — the cinematic equivalent of a Shawn Mullins or Eagle-Eye Cherry tune. But that was a really good period for movies based on TV shows that were often older than their target audiences. In just 1998-99 alone, there was The Avengers, My Favorite Martian, Wild Wild West, Star Trek: Insurrection, Dudley Do-Right, Inspector Gadget, Lost in Space, The X-Files, and South Park, to name a few. And the boom continued into the '00s, with Charlie's Angels, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Serenity, The Simpsons, and Dukes of Hazzard, among others.
But it's slowed to a trickle in the last few years. You have a couple of big tentpole series like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, but at this point moviegoers might think of them as film franchises more than TV adaptations. There were some comedies, like 21 Jump Street and Dark Shadows, that didn't really play too heavily off their TV origins so much as the leads' star power. And there were some significant underperformers, like 2010's A-Team movie and last year's Lone Ranger, which were supposed to kick off franchises but ended up stillborn. On top of that, there aren't many TV-based movies being made based on the major shows of the '80s and '90s — no Moonlighting, no L.A. Law, no Twin Peaks, no Law & Order, no Homicide, no ER. Usually there's a twenty-year nostalgia buffer, but nobody seems interested in remaking the biggest hits of 1989-1994.
I have two theories for this: First, there are very few "mid-level" studio films anymore, which is what most of the TV flicks of the '90s were. If it can't be a giant mega-franchise, like Star Trek, nobody's interested. Contrary to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's predictions, the blockbuster isn't going away; if anything, it's the standard for modern Hollywood filmmaking. But on a deeper level, TV shows post-1990 are adaptation-proof. During this time, dramas moved heavily into serialization, and you started to see the kind of slow-burn narrative style that can't be condensed into a 90-minute popcorn film. (That's why Serenity and the X-Files movies were extensions of the TV franchise, and not reboots.) Secondly, it's a generational thing. When I was a kid, it was just taken for granted that TV shows were inherently inferior to movies. Today, after the Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, it's harder to accept that as a given. In fact, a two-hour movie version of those narratives seems a lot less desirable than several seasons' worth of storytelling.
I think it's entirely possible that at some point, more studios will adopt the Marvel mode of having TV shows that are extensions of existing franchises; Star Wars is the next likely candidate. As studios invest more money in fewer movies, and VOD comes to define the TV experience, the line between television and movies will begin to blur, especially once cinema-quality 4K HDTV becomes the standard. I think it's entirely possible that within twenty years, blockbuster movies will be just a component of franchises based heavily in television franchises, but the question of whether they originated on TV or in theaters will be entirely beside the point.