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TV on the big stage: Stranger Things

How prestige TV is making itself the main event

Dominic Ellis
Sydney Opera House

The moniker "TV show" feels less relevant than ever. Not only is the television itself starting to look like a relic from another era, but productions budgets have multiplied, movie stars have crossed over, and the once clear-cut line dividing film and TV continues to fade. But one bastion of cinema, until recently, remained steadfast: The Event.

The prodigious festivals, the late night marathons, and the distinct sense of physical, collective spectatorship that elevates some movies beyond the screen – each have remained strictly off-limits to TV viewers who are increasingly turning to their laptops for a quick fix.

For TV, the event has traditionally represented something far less tangible. It related to an imperative – a reason to tune in immediately as a show is broadcast, often taking the form of one-offs, live specials and feature-length simulcasts.

The answer to DVR and streaming has been to enhance the feeling of immediacy: tune in or risk being left out of the cultural conversation. But that was a marketing method meant for a different generation. At the end of 2015, Vulture critic Josef Adalian observed that there were over 400 scripted TV shows on the air in the States that year. In short, it’s harder than ever to keep up.

When Marvel’s Inhumans pilot premiered on IMAX screens earlier this year having been shot entirely with high tech IMAX digital cameras, IMAX Chief Executive Richard Gelfond described it as a new type of "eventisation".

Faced with the dual phenomena of all-at-once streaming and personalised viewing habits, Marvel turned to the supersized cinema screen to premiere its latest series. While Inhumans was met with resounding critical cringe, it nonetheless represented a substantial and positive change in the way that television studios are respecting the big screen potential of TV and attempting to break through cluttered commercial release schedules via the event.

"Tune in or risk being left out of the cultural conversation."

Game of Thrones' George R.R. Martin, Lena Headey and Michelle Fairley in the Concert Hall. Image: Prudence Upton
Buffy Bingeathon at BingeFest 2016
Top of the Lake: China Girl, Sydney Opera House

This trend isn’t exclusive to fan-oriented series either. In the last three years, South by Southwest, Toronto and Sundance have all introduced programming streams to spotlight new TV series, while those familiar with the Australian festival circuit would have seen shows like ABC’s Cleverman touted alongside features and shorts.

But TV’s most sought-after trophy came in April this year, when Thierry Fremaux announced that, for the first time, the Cannes Film Festival would play host to TV series alongside its regular film programmes. Cannes, the highest of high brows, turned its attention to TV, with Top of the Lake and Twin Peaks both premiering their latest seasons on the beaches of southern France – coinciding, aptly, with Cannes’ 70th birthday.

TV consumption is a tricky beast. The spectacle of TV has skyrocketed beyond recognition (as reference, compare 2017’s Star Trek: Discovery to any other Star Trek series), but with it has come a surging viewer preference for personal devices over television sets.

There’s a sobering irony to the fact that, as TV budgets escalate, often crossing the US$100 million mark, so has the millennial tendency to watch TV on micro-sized laptops fitted with paltry screens and tinny speakers. Personalisation demands some sort of counterbalance, and the announcement that Stranger Things will hold its Australian premiere in the Sydney Opera House (amidst an interactive experience and Upside Down installation) comes during an exciting year for those of us who see the cinematic potential of TV.

And what better show to grace the Concert Hall’s big screen than Stranger Things, a series deeply indebted to a Spielbergian era of Hollywood entertainment when the spectacle, in all its immersive glory, reigned supreme.

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