'Downton Abbey,' 'Breaking Bad' and the Rise of the Peak TV Movie

Downton Abbey_Breaking Bad_The Walking Dead_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Focus Features and AMC

As 'Downton' heads into theaters and a 'Breaking Bad' movie is due on Netflix next month, Hollywood is seeing a surge in TV series becoming feature films — despite mixed returns.

“Six seasons and a movie” is a memorable refrain for viewers of the NBC’s critically adored sitcom Community

The rallying cry, which began as an in-show joke, took on a life of its own after the Dan Harmon series was canceled, at which point fans demanded more seasons from the network, as well as a feature film. Since then “six seasons and a movie” has since become a de facto milestone for a beloved TV series' achievement of ultimate success.

After six seasons, the award-winning PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey is fulfilling this exact destiny, with a feature film from Focus Features heading to theaters this weekend. The series, which debuted in 2010, won 15 Emmy awards — including three supporting actress accolades for Dame Maggie Smith — and averaged some 8.9 million viewers on PBS for its finale season in 2016. 

Downton producer Gareth Neame says he started laying the bricks for the movie back in the show’s fourth season. “We had re-upped the actors for a further two seasons and two things occurred to me at that time — the show was a massive global hit and had such an enormous impact, and I also thought that it was going to be very hard for me to retain this entire cast of 20 people.”

The British period drama drew audiences with its saga of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants forced to contend with unprecedented challenges at the turn of the 20thcentury, with scandals often shifting between the upstairs and downstairs characters. The film picks up in 1927, as the Crawleys prepare for a royal visit to their Yorkshire manor house. 

Rarely do TV shows get to that six-season milestone, but even rarer is the transition to the big screen.

After concluding with its sixth season in 2004, Sex and the City resurfaced four years later with a 2008 feature reuniting the four leading ladies — Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon — to blockbuster box office success, earning $415 million worldwide. A 2010 sequel fared less well, but still earned an admirable $288 million globally. 

Fellow HBO series Entourage, which concluded in 2011, also reunited its lead stars including Adrian Grenier and Jeremy Piven for a feature film in 2015, but was met with a tepid $49 million worldwide.

Meanwhile, Fox’s hit series The X-Files saw mixed results with its feature film forays. The first film, 1998’s The X-Files, starring series leads David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, was released in between the show’s fifth and sixth seasons and earned $189 million worldwide (not adjusted for inflation). The second film, The X Files: I Want to Believe, came a decade later and six years after the series concluded in 2002. It earned just $68 million worldwide.  

For television creatives looking to transition their series to a big feature film, the big question remains: Will audiences be willing to swap their sofas for a theater seat? 

Timing is key, notes Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "There is a window for these series, and it is less than a decade. Preferably five years, which is a sweet spot where you miss it just enough to do anything to get a little more." In other words, not so long that the series leaves the public consciousness, but long enough to allow nostalgia to set in.

While Downton fans head to the theater this weekend, fans of AMC’s gritty Emmy-winning drama Breaking Bad are gearing up for the release of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie on Netflix, a continuation of the story six years after the series ended with its fifth season. The film — written, directed and produced by series creator Vince Gilligan — centers on what happens to Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman after the show’s explosive 2013 finale.

Netflix, explains Vince Gilligan in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 18 cover story, was the right venue for El Camino being that Breaking Bad found a whole new legion of fans after the series hit the streaming service while the third season of the series was still airing on AMC. Still, a theatrical showing was important to the creator, who always looked forward to series premieres that would take place in Los Angeles theaters. 

“It is absolutely a television show. But we would have this wonderful, very limited, one-time opportunity to watch our television show on a big screen with giant stereo speakers thumping, the image filling 40 feet across. I always thought, 'This thing, it looks like a movie. It doesn't look like a show.' I really want to be able to share that with fans," he says. 

Netflix will release El Camino in independent theaters across the country for a limited period in 68 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and, of course, Albuquerque.

There are, of course, the obvious challenges with trying to corral a TV cast into a movie, especially when many lead stars go onto bigger projects. 

The logistics of bringing the Downton cast, many of whom had started book time-consuming projects based off the recognition they gained from the show, back for the grand movie finale proved difficult. “It only took one or two people saying, “I am on the West End’ or ‘I am shooting in Australia’ to get us to bump the dates,” says Neame. “I think that is pretty typical with these movie spinoffs.” 

But the producers pulled off the seemingly impossible task to reunite the majority of the cast, including series regulars Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Robert James-Collier, Joanne Froggatt, Sophie McShera, Phyllis Logan and Jim Carter.

The series wrapped production in the summer of 2015, with the Downton movie being announced simultaneously with the show’s sixth and final season that year. The cast reunited for the feature three years later, in the summer of 2018. 

For Neame and series creator Julian Fellowes, a big theatrical spectacle was the proper venue for a long-awaited Downton reunion. “It felt like the right upscaling,” explains Neame. “Downtown was such a by-word for quality and production value that I think it had earned the right to get on the big screen.”

Downton and Breaking Bad aren’t the only series getting the feature film treatment.

New Line is in production on the Sopranos movie, The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to the lauded HBO series that will include many familiar characters, including a young Tony Soprano, and was written by creator David Chase. The role will be played by Michael Gandolfini, son of the late actor James Gandolfini, who won three Emmy awards for playing the mobster patriarch lead of The Sopranos. The prequel film, directed by Alan Taylor, will hit theaters Sept. 2020. 

AMC's other hit show, The Walking Dead, will also be getting a theatrical release at Universal Pictures with a story centered on Andrew Lincoln’s series lead character, Rick Grimes. A release date yet to be set.

"We talk about how strong IP is at the box office, and you have a built in intellectual property with these TV series," says Bock. "You have a huge existing audience and if you know that you can [produce a feature] at around $15 million to $20 million, you have a real shot at making some money at the box office."

While Gilligan is excited for the theatrical screenings of El Camino, the movie will find its main audience on Netflix’s streaming platform. “I'm hoping when the movie comes out, people won't say, 'Oh, man, this guy should've left well enough alone,'" Gilligan says.

Meanwhile, Neame is hoping that Downton’s strong viewership — perhaps the 9.6 million who tuned into the series finale in 2015 — to show up for the Crawleys. After Thursday and Friday ticket sales, experts note that Downton is tracking for an impressive bow in the $31 million to $35 million range.

“While ten of millions of Americans watched the show, they watched it from their living rooms,” says Neame. “We need to mobilize them.”