This past year was a killing ground, but also a proving ground. Huge, massively-hyped projects crashed and burned, but there were also some surprising hits. And in the midst of this carnage, a few stark truths. Here are 10 lessons we hope the entertainment industry learns from 2013.
Top image: Oblivion.
1) If your movie's third act is weak, that's a problem with your first two acts
That's almost a direct quote from Joss Whedon, and it was never truer than in 2013. So many movies this year had third acts that fell horribly flat, or felt tacked on. We witnessed so many endings that seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie we'd just been watching, or films that seemed to have been going pretty well until the final reel. So take it from Whedon: The seeds to the movie's ending should be in its beginning. [Update: Various people have pointed out Whedon was actually quoting Billy Wilder.]
2) Dark fantasy and horror can support a lot of crazy
So much crazy. Pretty much all the crazy. This year, American Horror Story wasn't always the weirdest thing on television. Game of Thrones got even more berserk, and meanwhile there were tons of offshoots like Sleepy Hollow, Witches of East End and Dracula, all competing to see who could go the most bonkers. It was a year where water-cooler discussions could have included "penis-leeching" and "Asgardian witches." And these shows — along with the two Once Upon a Time and Vampire Diaries shows — got away with perversity that few shows in other genres could have dared attempt. (Including science fiction.) There seems to be a certain license to go way, way over the top in the fantasy/horror genre right now — and let's hope creators keep exploiting it.
3) Nobody will go out to theaters for generic pretty any more. Nobody.
One thing unites a lot of the year's biggest movie failures, from Oblivion to Elysium to Ender's Game: nondescript pretty images of spaceships and CG scenery. The thing we heard over and over about a lot of these movies is, "It looks just like everything else." It's the Tron-ification of movies: everything has the same blue-tinged color scheme and the same slow epic feel, and there's absolutely no sense that the movie is telling a unique story. Let's hope in years to come, movies are still pretty — but distinctive, and with a clearer emphasis on an original story. Meanwhile, there was a lot of talk about how "trailer moments" — like all those cities being destroyed in every movie — feel gratuitous and just thrown in for the trailer, and maybe need an actual story to support them.
4) Female heroes are made of money.
Katniss Everdeen scored again this year, but it was also a great year for Sandra Bullock. And Frozen was one of the most successful films of the year as well, with its focus almost entirely on the two sisters, who carry the story.Meanwhile, on television, it felt as though more shows were including competent, tough female characters without needing to make them cry every few minutes. We still have a long way to go, but it's harder and harder to claim that female heroes can't bring an audience.
5) Book publishing is in free-fall, so you might as well go nuts
Author Neil Gaiman made this point in a couple of speeches this past year: one at the London Book Fair, and the other at the World Fantasy Awards in Brighton. In a nutshell, traditional publishing models are falling apart, everything is failing, and nobody knows what works any more. So you might as well do what you want to. In Brighton, Gaiman advised authors that now is the time to do that crazy project that nobody thinks you can get away with — because there's no guarantee that playing it safe will result in success, either. And indeed, this was a year where some middle-of-the-road book projects that everybody seemed to think were the next big thing seemed to vanish without a trace.
6) Don't remake stuff that nobody remembers
We kind of gave this lesson last year — but it bears repeating. Who thought that The Lone Ranger had a huge following that would rush out to see a movie version of a decades-old serial? (Probably the same people who thought Dark Shadows still had a huge fanbase.) Similarly, what made people think The Tomorrow People, an obscure British series from the 1970s, had huge name recognition? We're probably never going to be able to stop the flood of remakes and reboots, but it's kind of weird when studios choose to remake stuff that absolutely nobody feels nostalgia for. Instead of these projects, we could have gotten brand new stories that included some of the same elements but ditched a lot of the problematic baggage.
7) Chemistry is everything, especially on television
When you look at the TV shows that did well this past fall, they were generally the ones which featured strong chemistry between a pair of leads. Particularly thinking of Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human here — the buddy-cop chemistry in both those shows is undeniable. These shows featured conflict and differences between their leads, but also characters who clicked and formed an unconventional friendship from the very first episode. Whereas network shows where the main character forms no strong friendships, or is at odds with everyone, seemed to do less well. To some extent, we still watch television to be with our friends, and to bask in the fantasy of having a great friendship.
8) The young-adult book boom is not going to translate to movies.
We'll see if Divergent seems to be the exception to the rule — but based on the performance of Beautiful Creatures, Mortal Instruments, The Host and some other films, I wouldn't bet on any YA adaptations that aren't Twilight or Hunger Games — both of which were books that crossed over and became huge with mainstream audiences. Even Stephenie Meyer couldn't score a non-Twilight hit this year. The one exception was Warm Bodies, which played more like a comedy and had a more modest budget.
9) Netflix and DVRs have changed everything forever
This was the year that Netflix really started to crush with its original TV series, rapidly moving from a content conduit to a content creator and scoring some major award nods. And meanwhile, you hear less and less about live viewing and more and more about "live plus same day" or "live plus seven day" viewing — because nobody watches TV the old way any more. People binge-watch, and watch on a delay, and generally skip the commercials. The old models of television production are going away, faster than anybody was prepared for.
10) Start slow, and you can eventually go pretty darn science-fictional
The first couple years that Person of Interest was on television, people kept claiming it wasn't really science fiction, or complaining that the science-fiction elements were downplayed too much. No longer. This was the year that PoI started talking a lot more about artificial intelligence and the implications of artificial consciousness, and how a self-aware computer could change everything. And its audience did not waver — it's still getting upwards of 12 million viewers every week, even with a new timeslot, because it hooked us with characters and a strong procedural aspect before slowly ramping up the science fiction elements. Meanwhile, other shows that tried to foreground their gee-whiz premises early on, or emphasized fantastical world-building over character-building, have struggled.