Why I'm Addicted to Netflix or The Psychology of Long Format Narrative
by Mandi Harrison
Something incredible is happening March 8th, 2019. Marvel Films will be releasing their FIRST female lead film. This is the first time Captain Marvel has appeared in a film, but she will be playing an intricate role in the Marvel universe. As anyone who stayed through the end credits of The Avengers: Infinity War could tell you, she may very well be the key to survival. Why is this important? you may ask. Well, for starters- REPRESENTATION. Second, it matters to me and the millions of others who have devoted their time to watching the story of Earth’s greatest protectors battle for our survival.
The Avenger Initiative began (in the film world) on May 2, 2008, with the release of Iron Man. With Iron Man (aka Tony Stark, aka Robert Downey Jr), a new kind of superhero was born- a superhero that was flawed but wanted to do the right thing. Correct wrongs, fight for justice and the truth and protect the lives of innocents. During the end credits of Iron Man, Nick Fury appeared in a dark room and invited Tony to discuss the Avenger Initiative. 11 years and 20 films later, with 3 more to be released this year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU as it’s better known) is still going strong. Black Panther was the #1 grossing movie of 2018, and was just nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture- the first superhero film to ever be nominated in that category.
What is it about the MCU that keeps the viewers returning? These films continue to perform at the box office and the reviews are, for the most part, favorable. Superhero films do typically well in the global box office, but what is it about these particular films? There are discussions to reboot Batman yet again, and there have been three incarnations of The Transformers during the same 11 years of the MCU. The reason Marvel is successful is character… and STORY. Marvel uses long form narrative, having all their projects plotted out in phases for their overall story. Each movie is a piece of this story and audiences want to be a part of this.
All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Long format narrative gives more detail to the story, adding layers of intrigue and development, feeding the audience’s interest. Long format depends on the quality of the story and the development of characters to keep the audience engaged, so the content will continue. For example, Harry Potter. Seven novels and eight movies and the audience was fully engaged throughout and to this day, begging for more material. J.K. Rowling’s story of The Boy Who Lived enthralled and resonated with people and they couldn’t get enough. A generation of children have grown up with Harry and more will follow. On the other hand, there is the Divergent series. Thought to be a successor to Harry Potter and the Twilight Saga, Divergent had 3 novels and it was announced that the last book would be split into 2 movies before the 2nd movie was even released, for a total of 4 movies. The first two movies did well at the box office, but the 3rd did not. Talks of the fourth movie were delayed, then it was rumored to be a TV movie, and then finally word that it was shelved all together. The issue is that the characters were not developed enough for the audience to care about. The complexity and empathy needed to make even an unlikable person compelling enough to watch wasn’t there. There were fans, but the majority of the audience weren’t connecting with the story. An audience needs to connect with a story in order to continue watching.
In the 1970’s, psychologists started studying the effects of human conduct and storytelling. How a person tells their life story is a form of identity; how they see and tell the facts and events of their life shapes who they are. Writers often use parts of actual life experiences and build from there; that’s why certain stories resonate more with you- how that character is handling a situation reflects what you would do. Stories can be educational, teach you life lessons, but sometimes they are a reflection of who you are, letting you know that you are not alone, that your story matters.
Long format narrative is used in many storytelling mediums, but there has been a huge rise in the number of television series, especially with streaming services. Most television shows follow a procedural format (i.e. case-of-the-week shows) or an episodic format (i.e. shows like Friends, where there’s a storyline to follow, but it’s not necessarily the end of the world if you miss an episode). Shows like these typically have between 18-22 episodes in a season, and require quite a commitment to follow. In the past five years, there has been an influx of limited series, and shows with less than 12 episodes a season. Using long form narrative allows the writers to build the story, like pieces of a puzzle, and piques the audience’s interest and keeps them guessing. I, personally, am a fan.
HBO was a pioneer in this format, with shows like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones- smaller episode orders with a tight story line that builds through the season. It keeps people talking and waiting for the next season, to see what happens. They are continuing to provide the same high caliber stories with their limited series, True Detective, Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies- stories that were allowed to grow and pick up momentum. In another time, Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies would have been developed into TV movies, which is a good format, but not the right one for these stories. The characters in these stories need time to grow, the situations time to build for the impact to be just right. It’s like making a recipe- sometimes the pot does need to simmer for 2 hours for the flavors to develop.
Ryan Murphy has long embraced the long format narrative. His anthology series American Horror Story is a prime example of how the format can work. AHS is a study in human nature- what makes people tick. Their fears, their wants, their view of their world. Each season is uniquely different and the story falls into place like a puzzle. However, they all are uniquely connected and the audience loves figuring out the connection between the seasons and how the characters are connected. There are Easter eggs, little clues hidden, everywhere. Marvel is also notorious for this and fans spend hours searching and discussing what they mean/symbolize.
Ryan also uses the format for his American Crime Story anthology series- the first season depicted the OJ Simpson case and the second is the murder of designer Gianni Versace. These were two events that happened when I was in high school and because they were constantly in the news, I KNEW things, but I didn’t really understand what I knew. Now watching these series, I have more of a grasp of what happened. Yes, they are dramatized, but the emotion behind the events is in full display and that is what is fascinating- why people behave the way they do.
Netflix has built their empire off of long format narratives. It seems like every week, there are more and more new programs to watch. Other streaming services, like Hulu and Prime Video, are copying Netflix’s strategy, but they have quite a bit of ground to make up. The interesting thing about Netflix is by releasing the whole season at once, the viewers get the initial “what’s going to happen?!” out of their system while binge-watching and then the anticipation for the next season grows while waiting another 6 months to a year. And while they are waiting, there is more content to watch. The anticipation, along with teasers on social media, is an extremely effective tool- I mean, I already know what I’m doing July 4th- watching Season 3 of Stranger Things!
Books have always been a source material for film and television, but there is a new inspiration for long format material- podcasts. There are a multitude of podcasts around that take storytelling to another level- or rather another time. Like the serialized radio programs from the 30’s and 40’s, listeners have to tune in each week to listen to the next part of the story. Crime stories and mysteries are particularly effective in this format, with clues slowly being revealed even as more questions are raised. There have been several podcasts developed into series, like Homecoming and Dirty John, and more are sure to follow.
Now as much as I love studying story, looking at numbers makes my heart sing. Long form narrative makes sense money-wise. In films, like with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having a plan, with beloved characters and slowly introducing new characters, is almost a guaranteed success- each movie already has a fan base that you can to- more seats filled=more money.
With television, it’s almost an even better scenario. When a studio orders a season from a new show pilot they purchased, the initial order is for 10-13 episodes, with the possibility for an additional order of 8-10 episodes if there are good ratings. If the show isn’t performing well and is canceled, the initial order is still paid for and the episodes are just put on a shelf somewhere. Most long format narratives are being developed as limited series with only 8-13 episodes. The studio was paying for that many episodes before, but everyone involved was held under contract during the whole period. If the show was picked up, there was the cost of producing the additional episodes. With the limited series- that is the course of the whole season or even the series if it is not picked up again. It is also easier to get actors that would normally not be able to do television due to scheduling. Doing a limited series is 2-3 months of filming, allowing other projects to be made during the year, instead of spending almost a full year on one project. Being able to cast Julia Roberts or Amy Adams or Nicole Kidman and get viewers because they are attached is appealing to studios and show runners. Viewers = ad money, which is how television makes money.
In order for viewers to be engaged, the story has to be there. The narrative has to have enough give and take for people to continue watching. The conflicts in the story need to make the viewer feel something when it’s over. It should make them want to tell their friends to watch. How many times have you heard or asked “Have you seen this____?” and then proceed to go into vivid detail? Sharing stories with others tells a lot about you-even if they aren’t your own. It shows how you view the world, what’s important to you, and even how you see yourself.