PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Well, easily led television and film audiences, now you've done it: We're never going to see a television or film series end in timely fashion again.
The "last" season of the AMC '60s period drama Mad Men began this week, but you have absolutely no chance of seeing what becomes of Don Draper until next year. The 14-episode season is being split into two 7-episode parts, with the second part airing in Spring 2015. Meanwhile, the final installment of Lions Gate's The Hunger Games film series -- Mockingjay -- will play out over two films releasing in 2014 and 2015.
Why? Because money is a thing that exists and you folks are more than happy to part with it when networks and movie studios string you along.
We learned this back in 2010, when Warner Brothers opted to make it a full decade of Harry Potter moviegoing by making the series' seventh installment -- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- a two-parter. The first installment pulled in $296 million in the U.S. alone on its way to a worldwide take of $969.7 million worldwide. The second installment was the highest-grossing U.S. film of 2011, bringing in $381 million here before totaling more than $1.3 billion worldwide.
Never reward a movie studio for playing you for a fool, because they'll do it every time. When Lions Gate (LGF) buyout target Summit Entertainment split the final installment of the Twilight tetralogy -- Breaking Dawn -- into two parts, not only did moviegoers not mind, but the first part brought in more than $281 million in the U.S. alone, while the second part took in $292 million when it finally arrived in 2012. That combined $573.6 million was more than double what the series' first film made when it was released in 2008 and $273.1 million more than the U.S. box office take for the third film in the series, Eclipse. Audiences abroad took even more of the bait, as the films combined for $1.5 billion in box office receipts worldwide by the end of their run.
AMC (AMCX) saw an opportunity and, in 2011, announced that it would split the final 16 episodes of its meth-addled drama Breaking Bad into two eight-episode seasons. Not only did that little gambit work but, thanks to a whole lot of Netflix binge watchers, series-high audiences of nearly 3 million for the first part of the final season yielded audiences of more than 6 million for three episodes of the second installment. The show's finale drew a whopping 10.3 million viewers.
Why does this matter, you ask? Because this is just going to keep happening, largely because it has to.
While moviegoers have driven the total U.S. box office gross from $9.23 billion to $10.9 billion in the last decade, the number of tickets purchased has plummeted from 1.53 billion in 2003 to 1.34 billion last year. By comparison, movie audiences were bigger in 1997 (1.38 billion) than they were last year. The only reason Hollywood isn't feeling more pain is an average ticket price that's risen from $6 to more than $8 in the last decade.
Television networks -- including cable networks like AMC -- are seeing audiences fracture and online entities like Netflix (NFLX), Hulu, Yahoo! (YHOO), YouTube (owned by Google (GOOG)) and Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox produce increasing amounts of original content and encroach on their turf. As Netflix collects Emmy awards for House Of Cards, AMC had to fight Dish Network (DISH) for its 27 cents per month per subscriber in fees while fending off a growing list of channels challenging its lineup. As content providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable merge, AMC may find itself in a position similar to The Weather Channel -- which was basically forced by DirecTV (DTV) to stop running so many reality TV shows and start covering more weather.
As a result of all of the above, Lions Gate has already decided to break the final installment of its dramatic dystopian teen trilogy Divergent into two parts. Keep in mind that the first film was just released less than a month ago. Meanwhile, whenever AMC decides to wrap up its zombie series The Walking Dead, you can just about guarantee it'll take more than a year to finish the finale.
In the meantime, we eagerly await a future when we have to pay for series finales a few minutes at a time and visual entertainment just becomes one big debit-card-connected peep show booth.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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