Sprawling adventures with set pieces and large casts used to be available only on the big screen. If viewers wanted to watch a story that spans generations they had to go out for the evening and see it on the silver screen. It is no coincidence that, when taking into account inflation, five of the top ten grossing films of all-time are epics (#8 Doctor Zhivago, #6 The Ten Commandments, #5 Titanic, #2 Star Wars, and #1 Gone with the Wind).
Those evenings out have become less frequent as mini-series on television have over-taken the epic onscreen. The elements of one of the most famous epics of all-time, the Lord of the Rings franchise, are recreated on a weekly basis on HBO's Game of Thrones. Going to the theatre is no longer necessary to catch a story on a grand scale. Television has latched onto that market with miniseries.
With television, writers and directors do not have to sacrifice character for cinematic splashes of glory. David Lean had upwards of three hours to tell his stories, studio execs are hesitant to test the patience of viewers that long. Lawrence of Arabia couldn't be made today, a character study that takes place in the Middle East, especially a period piece? It would never happen now. The closest thing we are going to have to modern epics are Peter Jackson's Hobbit series. Whether those films are more successful due to their fanbase than the genre itself is arguable, but that's where it stands now.
To boot, studios are much more cost weary now. Bottom lines and box-office returns supersede quality. Films such as John Carter are ambitious in scope and if the audience doesn't meet it halfway, then bloggers are waiting to pounce on a movie and declare it D.O.A. The potential of bombing in the box office scares any company off from putting the film together.
Of course it really isn't the cost of films that makes them do poorly—The Dark Knight Rises cost over $200 million and did quite well. The human element is often what's lost in large-scale epics. That disconnect drives viewers away. Somewhere along the way from David Lean's masterful epics to current pictures, characters were lost in the shuffle of hundreds of explosions and battles.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a precursor to the fading popularity of epics, John Carter was the arrival of complete disinterest. Sure, a lot was happening onscreen, but none of it really mattered. Protagonists are bland and have the same backstory: stranger comes to a strange land, refuses to take part in a conflict and then leads a successful final battle. Audiences never really felt like they could connect with its titular protagonist because they had seen it so many times before.
If epics are going to make a resurgence it will have to be because of characters. Memorable characters like T.E. Lawrence, William Wallace and Scarlett O'Hara.
Moviegoers need to see something that they haven't before. No more cardboard cutout performances from tentpole flicks that have been done over and over. That's a tall task in modern cinema, but it can be done.
When it does imagine the possibilities...