Big directors turn to the small screen

Money is plentiful and dramas are provocative—on TV

Made for TV
Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

David Cronenberg’s next project is called Knifeman, described by his production company as the story of a surgeon who “goes to extraordinary and unorthodox lengths to uncover the secrets of the human body.” It sounds like a very Cronenbergian feature film—except it’s a TV series the Canadian director will direct and produce. The announcement just confirmed the latest trend in show business: everybody wants to make their own television show. The film industry is losing a lot of its revenue, as reported in April by Benjamin Swinburne, an analyst for the financial services firm Morgan Stanley, but TV is doing great. Swinburne says “big media companies have protected themselves by diversifying more into television, a much healthier business,” as reported by’s executive editor David Lieberman. And filmmakers go where the investment is going, which is why everyone—from veterans like Cronenberg to young film school graduates—is taking a close look at TV. “People who understand where the business is flowing are heading into television in big ways,” said Joe Pichirallo, a film producer (Hollywoodland) and chair of the undergraduate film and television program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

It used to be that when a major film director went into television, it was only to direct a pilot, or to put his name on the series as a producer (like the feature director McG on the teen soap The O.C.). With the exception of writers, who might have more creative control in TV, no director or technician saw TV as a first choice. “With the glamorization of the film milieu since the 1930s,” says Daniel Doz, president of the Alberta College of Art and Design, “students have often idealized working in film rather than TV.” “In the past, people were not going for television, particularly directors,” Pichirallo adds. “They were thinking, ‘I’ve got to try my luck in features.’ ”

Today, though, TV is critically adored in a way that it hasn’t been since the ’50s; “television is where some of the most provocative dramatic work is happening these days,” Pichirallo says. And that makes it acceptable for major film directors to get involved with television series from the ground up, rather than just directing a pilot or an episode for the money. David Fincher (The Social Network) announced that he would direct and produce an American adaptation of the British series House of Cards for Netflix, and the Coen brothers have plans to develop a television pilot. In the past, a promising indie film debut like Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture would have landed a big movie contract for the filmmaker. Instead, it led movie producer Judd Apatow to help her to get a TV series, Girls, on HBO.

In schools, teachers and students alike are realizing it no longer makes sense to prepare a potential filmmaker for a career in film alone. The Wrap magazine reported that many film schools “have torn down the old barriers between teaching television and film production, and merged film and interactive departments.” Catherine Millar, Deputy Director of Screen Content at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, says “few student directors now would see their future solely in feature films.” The same is true of students in craft fields, like design and computer graphics, who may have noticed that a show like Boardwalk Empire has as many special effects and computer-generated backgrounds as a feature. Millar says TV production values have increased thanks to “an adoption of more cinematic techniques in TV drama across the board,” such as “interiors lit through windows, film-style coverage,” and of course, CGI. Directors who get into TV know that they can produce work that looks good; TV of an older generation had less prestige because it looked cheap.

Of course, the TV production boom is only partly about prestige. It’s also about making money and getting work. For studios, the movie business has been battered by the decline of the DVD market, which they depended on in the ’00s for a lot of their profits. Most television is based on a model that is more workable in the Internet era: giving the content away for free, and making profits from advertising or subscriptions. And even as the TV audience erodes, TV advertising is still incredibly valuable and commands a huge price. Even though “the audience is spending time online and with tablets and smartphones,” advertising dollars mostly go to traditional television, as Lloyd Braun, a former president of ABC who now runs a digital media company, said at the recent Digital Content NewFront presentations; the prestige of TV keeps it raking in the money even as the viewers go elsewhere.

And while advertisers continue to pump resources into traditional TV, services like Netflix are using subscriber money to make television shows rather than movies. Netflix recently financed 10 episodes featuring the cast of the cult series Arrested Development, and it’s looking to move more into original TV production as it becomes harder to get the streaming rights to big studio movies. Adam Tindale, the Alberta College of Art and Design’s head of media arts and digital technologies, says that with projects like these, television is becoming “a style of content,” and that “in the future there will be no difference between television and screens.” But these same companies don’t have the resources—yet—to make big-budget movies; they’re better suited to the lower budgets and fast production of short TV episodes. That means the future of Internet-based entertainment, on Netflix, YouTube and elsewhere, will mostly resemble TV, and that may be where the work opportunities will be. Doz says that potential designers and technicians still “often want to work in film,” but “may end up working in TV simply because of the quantity of jobs available.”

One area where TV production can’t replace feature films, at least not yet, is in the level of control that a director has over an independent movie. “In television, most series are created by writers,” Pichirallo says. For filmmakers to work in TV, they have to “tolerate that different power balance.” That means the director’s work on most TV shows tends to be impersonal, bowing to the wishes of the writer, and it’s harder to sustain a director’s personal vision. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, one of the first U.S. TV shows created by a major filmmaker, was unable to sustain Lynch’s unique tone in the episodes he didn’t write and direct. And while TV shows can have striking visual moments or unusual episodes, a movie like The Tree of Life—where a director more or less tries to change our way of looking at the world—may be unreachable on TV, which tends toward more linear and literal storytelling.

But while filmmakers like Dunham or Cronenberg might find some limitations in the TV medium, TV may soon be the only place they can tell their stories: movies have more or less given up on the middlebrow, medium-budget picture for adults. Lawrence Kasdan, a writer-director who specialized in medium-budget dramas like The Big Chill, complained recently that he was driven into low-budget indie films because Hollywood only wants blockbusters now. “Film at the major studio level has increasingly become very franchise-driven,” Pichirallo explains. “They’re looking for stories that have huge awareness like a Harry Potter or a Spider-Man. They’re tending to stay away from drama, which has the perception of being a harder sell.” But medium-budget drama does sell on a TV channel like HBO, where an unattractive, middle-aged man like Steve Buscemi can be the star of one of its biggest shows, Boardwalk Empire. Shows like Mad Men may have taken over the role that features like Kramer vs. Kramer used to play in the ’70s and ’80s: well-made dramas made on good, but not huge, budgets.

But don’t count movies out. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is planning to make his feature film debut as a writer-director with a movie starring Zach Galifianakis, star of The Hangover parts one and two. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, is finishing up his own feature film, and Pichirallo says Chase “started out in life wanting to do features, and then found he had more luck in television.” If young directors want to get work in TV, “it’s still worthwhile to direct a low-budget indie feature” to “demonstrate that they have a voice or a style that’s distinctive,” Pichirallo adds. Even with the improvements in TV technique and prestige, there’s still nothing quite as prestigious as creating a film.