Why is science fiction so much hotter at the movies than on television? People have wondered for a while. Recently, the universally panned Jumper and the blah I Am Legend and Cloverfield have hit big. But the well-received Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is on the brink of cancellation. We explain this strange phenomenon, after the jump.
1) TV and movies show the same pattern. Sarah Connor Chronicles had record-high viewership of 18.3 million for its first episode, but has since dropped to around 8 million. The same thing, more or less, happened to Bionic Woman and the second season opener of Heroes. When this happens to a TV show, it's a disaster. But a movie that makes buckets of cash in its opening weekend and then drops is considered a success. Movies don't have to hold people for future installments, they just have to hook you once and then go away.
2) Movies can afford way bigger special-effects budgets. This one is obviously a no-brainer. But actually, it's the least of the reasons why a TV show would have a hard time winning over audiences. Look at the two most successful scifi shows of recent years: Lost and Heroes. Neither show wears its visual effects budgets on its sleeve, and you could easily mistake them for soap operas or "vanilla" dramas a lot of the time. There's not a lot of bling on the screen in your average Lost episode, compared with, say, Transformers. Or Sarah Connor, which has tons of VFX.
3) Endless plot tangles. Joss Whedon famously said that a television show is a question, but a movie is an answer. That's why Firefly spun out tons of mysteries, like what happened to River in her special school, or what was the deal with the Reavers. And Serenity, the movie based on the TV show, had a self-contained plot and answered all your lingering questions in the course of two-ish hours. TV shows, especially in this era of arc storytelling, spin out endless plots that reward obsessive viewers — and scare away casual ones. (This is why I'm still wondering if J.J. Abrams can do a Star Trek movie that doesn't feel like a tease.)
4) Scifi TV is actually cheesier than movies. The cheesiest SF movies nowadays tend to go straight to DVD, or at most appear in a few festivals. Yes, a movie like Transformers is incredibly cheesy and dumb, but it does feature an A-list lead actor (no matter how you may feel about Shia LaBoeuf.) If Transformers was a TV show... well, it would be Knight Rider.
5) The networks. Sure, there are plenty of things the movie studios and distributors can do to mess up a movie's chances. They can market it horribly, or not at all. They can release it during a packed weekend. And countless amazing SF movies have died in the development "process." But nothing the movie studios or distributors can do could be as horrendous as what Fox and other networks have done to strangle promising SF shows in their infancy.