Episodic Blockbusters = Commercial Magic

By on May 11, 2012 in Tinseltown | 1 comment

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(Revised! See the afterword below!)

The recent box office success of The Avengers got me wondering: why don’t blockbusters ever start on the small-screen? Why can’t the stories behind these tentpole movies (which are often novels or comics) be reformatted episodically and aired as limited-run series? Wouldn’t advertisers be tripping over themselves to put their commercials in such a broadcast? Wasn’t the six-part Roots adaptation one of the highest-rated television events ever?

That got me to running some numbers. Let’s imagine the final Harry Potter book as a 36-part series by arbitrarily splitting the story into the novel’s 36 chapters (grouping the epilogue in with the last chapter). Such a series would run nicely between the beginning of September and the end of May—the span of the normal broadcast TV season—even if the series took a week off for the winter holidays. And for the gross, let’s use that of the last must-see TV event, this year’s Super Bowl.

Granted, maintaining a Super Bowl-sized audience over the span of nine months would be tough, nay impossible! So let’s say advertisers were only willing to pay half that. So, to compensate, the network would have to allocate six minutes for commercial breaks. But that’s still fine, since most TV dramas air around three times that amount of ads per hour—usually 18 minutes or so. So just for funsies, let’s adjust the model to that norm.

  • Total number of 30-second commercials in a Harry Potter series, even each of the 36 episodes had 18 minutes for commercial breaks: 1,296
  • Total gross for 1,296 commercials, with each one priced at $1.75 million (half the Super Bowl price): $2.27 billion
  • Total domestic gross of both Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow films, according to IMDB: $676 million

But really, it would make more sense to just let one advertiser have exclusive rights to an episode’s commercials. (Often, a company will sponsor a TV episode with limited commercial interruption if theirs are the only ads run.)

Okay, but what about the production cost?

  • Reported budget for both Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow films: $250 million
  • That production cost split over 36 episodes: just under $7 million
  • Average budget for a broadcast drama episode: $2-3 million

Not so impressive, I admit But let me refer you back to the gross of 2.27 billion!

Let’s think about the other benefits.

  • At least 1,500 minutes of running time, more than five times the 276-minute running time of both films—and the latter count may even include each film’s ten-minute credit scroll! Think of how richer, how fuller, and how truer-to-the-book a TV adaptation could be with that much breathing room.
  • Whichever network runs the series could bank off of its mammoth audience every week, succeeding each installment with an episode of a show in dire need of exposure… like an ambitious series about a detective leading parallel lives in intersecting universes… or an exquisitely-worded, modern-day parable based on David and Goliath. (Just examples, naturally)
  • And oh man, the DVD profits! A movie is usually released on DVD for $20. A 22-episode television season runs $45. So a landmark 36-episode series? $60 a pop? $70?

Now, I’m no expert at the actual business side of television, so this is all conjecture. And surely if this were a feasible model, the studios and network would be brokering deals already. But can someone explain to me why this wouldn’t work? Can someone explain to me why best-selling authors have to be offered movie options instead of television options? Not to slight the movie series, but it seems to me that if Harry Potter’s cinematic saga played out on screens small instead of big; the ratings, profits, and benefits would be spellbinding.

Edits: My friends Liz and Omid raised excellent points. Liz countered that a Harry Potter television series couldn’t match the movie series in budget per unit of time—as in, the amount of money spent on each glorious frame. Splitting that budget across five times the screen time would certainly desaturate the of visual effects, so to speak. But, as I said to Liz, I think that the Potter movies contained the most pivotal scenes, which were probably also the most climactic and effects-heavy. The omitted scenes—scenes that a TV series would have time for—are likely to consist of characters in rooms talking to one another. And even if more effects were needed, the huge potential profit would be more than enough justification for a slightly higher budget.

She also argued that a TV series wouldn’t be as enticing to big-name actors and directors. That’s a fair point, not because TV is less prestigious than film nowadays—in fact, more and more A-list talent is migrating to the small screen—but because of the time commitment. It’s hard enough wrangling TV actors to work 10 months on a season of 22 episodes, each running 42 minutes; let alone one that’s comprised of 36 episodes with longer running times.

And Omid broached the economics of the Internet. Indeed, Hulu, wondrous as it is, is hardly profitable; and the comfort of knowing you could catch each installment of a Harry Potter television series online the next day wouldn’t exactly make the episode appointment viewing on the night it airs. So until Hulu makes beaucoup moolah, maybe a blockbuster series should be only available for download and viewing on stores like iTunes.