Are the movies losing
out to TV’s ever-increasing cool factor?
VETERAN TV director Michael Pressman got a surprising response when he asked students in his film directing class to describe their dream jobs.
“Your job,” he said they told him recently. “We want to be the director in charge of a TV series.”
Pressman, who has directed episodes of Blue Bloods, Law & Order and many other series, was stunned. This class, at New York’s New School, focused on film.
But the students weren’t dreaming of Oscar, said Pressman, who has also directed several movies, including a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. “They want to make great TV series.”
For decades, it was mostly a one-way journey. Television was a stepping-stone for directors, writers, producers and executives who wanted to break into the film business. In the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood mainstays including Mel Brooks, Garry Marshall and Carl Reiner all got their starts in television but segued to the film world – and are now best known for their big screen work.
The film business proved a seductive force for many years, and for good reason. Movies had the glamour, perks, press coverage and accolades. Nothing could match the glitter of the Academy Awards.
Now, entertainment professionals are migrating eagerly in the opposite direction.
Many cite HBO’s The Sopranos as opening the door after it burst onto the scene in 1999, or A-list filmmakers like producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who got into the TV business in the late 1990s.
Others look to film producer Mark Gordon (Speed, The Patriot), who transitioned into television with hits Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds in the 2000s – or, more recently, Fight Club director David Fincher, who made this year’s House Of Cards for Netflix, and Traffic director Steven Soderbergh, who was at the helm for HBO’s Behind The Candelabra TV movie and is directing Clive Owen in the forthcoming Cinemax series The Knick.
The movement undoubtedly started with actors making the leap to television, but that it has spread to the executive, director and producer ranks is astounding to many old-school business operators, who never imagined they’d view TV as more attractive.
Several producers and filmmakers said they dreamed of working in film but now find themselves in television – drawn to the money, opportunity, cultural heft or creative control.
“Almost exclusively due to The Sopranos, there’s been a resurgence in long-form television,” Soderbergh told the Los Angeles Times this year. “The ability to play out a narrative with a very long arc and explore complicated characters and have the audience be happy about that, it’s very enticing.”
Executives can relate.
“What drove me to drive to Los Angeles was a love of movies. Period,” said David Nevins, president of entertainment at Showtime. “But I find myself 20 years into a career and very happy to be making high-end television.”
Others, like reality-TV producer Eli Holzman, say the notion that television is a second-class medium – long widely held in Hollywood – has mostly disappeared.
For love of the game
“In film, the perception is that it is the be-all and end-all, but then I got into TV and there were all sorts of executives who loved what they did,” said Holzman, who created the hit show Project Runway and executive-produces Undercover Boss, which won an Emmy Award this year for outstanding reality programme. “Fifteen years ago, film people would be surprised to hear that, but now they know it.”
To be sure, some professionals are moving to television because of the relative paucity of work in film, as studios make fewer movies and focus more on expensive tentpole pictures that have the potential to become blockbusters.
“You are looking at a static job market for people in the movie business,” said United Talent Agency co-founder and board member Peter Benedek, a TV agent whose clients include Sopranos creator David Chase and Lost executive producer Jack Bender. “On the other hand, instead of there being four broadcast networks, there are 100 networks. And the television business has become a business of great creative intensity.”
Networks have also taken to hosting lavish, old Hollywood-style debuts for their shows. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a TV red carpet rollout was an anomaly, saved for season premieres of The Sopranos or Sex And The City. But it has become almost common in recent years.
This year, events for HBO’s Game Of Thrones and AMC’s Mad Men have had the feel of swanky film openings.
Today in Hollywood, TNT will host a premiere for the new television series Mob City at the TCL Chinese 6 – a popular venue for movie premieres.
Notably, Mob City is from former The Walking Dead show runner Frank Darabont, who before getting into television in earnest wrote and directed such films as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
At talent agencies, television departments are growing bolder, operating with what one agent said was a newfound “swagger.”
For agencies, television “package fees” – derived from putting together actors, writers, directors and producers on a show – are hugely lucrative. If a show is a hit, the agency’s windfall could result in more than US$100mil (RM320mil) over time – more than an agency could make from a single motion picture.
For Marc Shmuger, the former Universal Pictures chairman, film long stood apart from television because of “that sacred space that the theatre represented,” he said. “It was almost a religious ritual.”
But that experience gap has narrowed, Shmuger believes, with the rise of so-called binge watching, wherein people watch many episodes of a programme in a single sitting.
Video-on-demand services such as Netflix Inc, with its Kevin Spacey-starring original series House Of Cards and prison drama Orange Is The New Black, have made the practice easier than ever.
“That to me represents the ultimate entertainment,” said Shmuger, now an independent film producer.
Edgy and cutting-edge
Producer John Davis got into film production in the 1980s, when, he says, the business was still cloaked in a mystique and teeming with “glamorous movie stars”. He made movies such as Predator and The Firm, working with A-list stars and top-flight directors.
“I love making movies – I just finished my 90th film,” said Davis, producer of last year’s surprise hit Chronicle and the forthcoming The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remake. “There is a luxury to the process of making films; there is a glamour to it.”
But now he’s making TV shows. Davis got into the episodic television business this year, executive producing the new series The Blacklist.
The producer said he was intrigued by the “edgy and interesting” things that can now be done on TV. “The writing is so amazing now in television that no one is ever going to look down on it.”
“In elite circles, there is probably still some snobbery with TV, but the people who are making money and who are uber-creative are in TV,” said Howard Owens, president of National Geographic Channels.
“Yes, Cannes is amazing ... but TV is cool, and I think cool trumps elite.” – Los Angeles Times / McClatchy-Tribune Information Services