Early last year, the revival craze was in full swing among networks. Will & Grace returned to much success on NBC, Fox was rolling out a second revival season of The X-Files, CBS had placed a straight-to-series order for Murphy Brown, and ABC was preparing for Roseanne’s big return. That left other networks and studios looking for their own opportunities to jump on the revival bandwagon.
Just a year and a half later, however, a straight-up TV revival has started to lose its luster. The Conners—which is what Roseanne morphed into after star Roseanne Barr was fired in May 2018—is still going strong, but Murphy Brown was canceled after just one season. NBC is ending Will & Grace this season after declining ratings, and The X-Files, whose 2018 season stumbled after its huge 2016 return, also seems to be done for good.
Meanwhile, Sony Pictures TV struggled to find a high-profile network to pick up its upcoming Mad About You revival (NBC and CBS were among the outlets that passed), which will instead air on Spectrum’s On Demand platform, available only to that cable company’s subscribers.
Yet even as revivals stumble, nostalgia remains a strong draw for audiences, as proven during the past month by a pair of movies based on popular TV shows: El Camino, the Breaking Bad movie that debuted Friday on Netflix and in select theaters; and Downton Abbey, which has grossed $82.7 million at the U.S. box office since its release last month.
Coupled with the Deadwood movie that aired on HBO in May and helped wrap up the critically acclaimed series, which abruptly ended in 2006, these movies show a potential new path forward for studios and creators as audiences’ appetite for revivals has started to wane. It’s a way to revisit their shows without having to commit to a full-fledged revival season of eight episodes or more.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan—who wrote and directed El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie—crafted a smaller story for it that looks at what happens to Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) in the days following the events of the show’s 2013 finale.
Still, the film still managed to incorporate many of the elements of the show most loved by fans, including gorgeous cinematography and Gilligan’s skill at placing his characters in impossible scenarios, then figuring out a way for them to wriggle out of trouble. It also includes a number of cameos, featuring Breaking Bad characters both living and dead.
Downton Abbey, which signed off from PBS in 2016, also chose a similar approach, returning in a movie as opposed to another full season.
The Walking Dead will also make the journey from TV to movies. AMC planned three Walking Dead TV movies featuring Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes, who departed the show a year ago. But this summer, the network said those will instead air on the big screen instead of the network.
While networks will sacrifice ratings and revenue by going for movies over TV seasons, they’ll still be able to benefit in the long run. El Camino will air on AMC early next year; The Walking Dead movies, which are produced by AMC Studios, are expected to eventually air on AMC.
Of course, the concept of turning TV shows into movies has been around for decades, when Batman and Star Trek continued their stories with the TV casts in movies. Since then, other TV shows-turned-movies include The Simpsons, The X-Files, South Park, Veronica Mars, SpongeBob SquarePants (a third movie is coming next year) and the short-lived Firefly (which became a movie called Serenity).
But most of those movies were made at a time when media companies weren’t under as much pressure to mine their intellectual properties for new franchises and revivals, as is the case now.
This is not to say networks and streamers have thrown in the towel completely on revivals. Both WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock have lined up several reboot/revival hybrids for their respective content slates: Gossip Girl on HBO Max, and Saved By the Bell and Punky Brewster on Peacock. CBS All Access, meanwhile, is rolling out Star Trek: Picard—with Patrick Stewart reprising his Star Trek: The Next Generation character—in January.
Whether those new entries prove successful or not, El Camino and Downton Abbey have proven that when it comes to breathing new life into old IP, revival series are no longer the only way to continue a story.