Top directors go from silver screen to small screen
05:00 AM, Apr 23, 2013
Sam Raimi should be at the beach. His hit Disney film Oz the Great and Powerful has taken in $470 million worldwide. The 3-D prequel took him three years to make, culminating in an exhaustive worldwide promotional tour throughout March.
But right now, he’s somewhere deep in an editing bay, working on a TV pilot for Fox about a troubled lawyer.
Transfer your gaze to Ang Lee. Less than eight weeks ago, the Life of Pi director was standing onstage at the Oscars, eyes glazed after trumping Steven Spielberg for best director. Pi took him three years to make. But now he’s in New York, prepping an international shoot for an FX pilot about an Orlando-based ophthalmologist pulled back to the Arab country he was destined to rule.
Inverting the Hollywood trajectory by dipping into television after critical and commercial success in film is hardly new: Women such as Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Laura Linney and Edie Falco blazed the trail as character writing grew muscle on the smaller screen.
But now A-list directors including Raimi, Lee, Sam Mendes, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher are carving out their calendars to make room for scripts that shoot in weeks, not months. They’re using fewer takes, accepting long-term financial incentives and framing tighter shots. Why? Television, to crib from the USA Networks motto, is where good characters are welcome these days.
As a risk-averse Hollywood tightens its belt and predominantly greenlights movies that will spark hefty international box offices (namely sci-fi, special-effects-driven fare and 3-D comics), work that gets directors excited is losing traction.
“It’s harder and harder to make films,” acknowledges director Barry Sonnenfeld, who last drove up the box office with the Men in Black franchise. “It used to be considered slumming for directors and actors to do television. But for me, and for most directors now, it’s a chance to do interesting things. The writing in TV is getting better and better as the writing in features is getting worse and worse.”
He would know. He just finished directing a pilot for CBS based on the Beverly Hills Cop film franchise. (Eddie Murphy, an executive producer, has a cameo.)
It’s noteworthy that Raimi is no stranger to TV he has produced shows including Spartacus and Xena: Warrior Princess for years. But Rake, a character-driven comedic drama starring Greg Kinnear as a charming, filterless defense lawyer whose self-destructive addictions compete with his brilliance in the courtroom, is the first TV project to inspire him to jump behind the camera.
The Rake script found its way to Raimi the old-fashioned way: His wife is friends with Kinnear’s wife, and the two couples had dinner in January to discuss it. But Rake executive producer Michael Wimer puts it bluntly: “A friendship gets a script read, maybe it gets a meeting. But it certainly doesn’t get a commitment.” Wimer later asked Raimi what drew him to Rake, which came with a tight four-week production schedule. “And he said, ‘Because of the material.’ “
Over at FX, Lee is gearing up for an international shoot for Tyrant, an epic, Godfather-like narrative drama from Homeland creator Gideon Raff and Howard Gordon that builds a fictional Arab country from the ground up. Lee is “really setting forth the foundation for what will be quite a long story,” says FX Network chief John Landgraf. The pilot, which shoots in August, follows a doctor and his American family as they travel to his home country for a wedding, only to become embroiled in palace politics.
Lee was introduced to the project by Fox Networks Group chairman Peter Rice, whom he befriended while Rice headed Fox’s indie film division, Fox Searchlight. The series keeps the acclaimed director in the Fox family (Life of Pi was distributed by Fox 2000 Pictures). And Landgraf says Lee has indicated a strong intent to be involved in the series beyond the pilot.
It’s a model that resembles Fincher’s successful Netflix launch of the political series House of Cards in February. The Dragon Tattoo director helmed two episodes of the series’ first season, but he’s also an executive producer and vacillates between roles.
Both House of Cards and Tyrant grew out of an era of gritty, adult fare such as Breaking Bad, Damages and Homeland. The series that count today are shot in widescreen, are written by Hollywood’s elite and have long, rich character arcs. Deep pockets are required, and networks are joining cable channels such as AMC and FX and pay TV outlets such as HBO, Showtime and Netflix to invest in the kind of risky, intelligent dramas losing footing on the silver screen. That made the arrival of directors of this caliber inevitable, says Keith Simanton, managing editor of entertainment database IMDb.com. “Quality attracts quality.”
Film pedigrees also attract Emmy nominations, notes Dave Karger, chief correspondent for Fandango.com. “Once an actor or director has reached a point of some fame in the feature world, they always hog the TV awards, especially the miniseries categories.”
That includes Emmy favorite Boardwalk Empire, from the prolific Scorsese, who made a splash with the HBO show in 2010 while continuing to churn out movies such as Shutter Island and Hugo. Now, he’s developing Gangs of New York for the smaller screen. He told USA TODAY in 2011 that he enjoyed the artistic freedom of TV. “It also was rejuvenating because I have been shooting pictures the last 20 years or so on a longer schedule, but here, suddenly I had to finish it real fast, in 25 to 30 days. It was kind of moving quicker and lighter.”
And thanks to the quality of writing, the difference between TV and film “is getting narrower and narrower as time goes by,” Ed Harris told USA TODAY last year, on the heels of his Emmy nomination for HBO’s Game Change.
There’s also the question of impact. Previously, “the best stories were being told in features,” Wimer says. “Now, you ask more and more people what they saw over the weekend, and they’ll tell you about the television show they’re following.”
You can play it by the numbers. A series (like Game of Thrones) with 5 million viewers roughly equates to $50 million at the box office hard numbers to guarantee these days. Last weekend, the Jackie Robinson drama 42 opened and led the box office with just over $27 million.
“More people will see the premiere episode of Beverly Hills Cop on CBS than the entire box-office numbers of a film I direct,” says Sonnenfeld, noting that he’s speaking in general terms about his domestic audiences.
For the networks, a marquee director attached to a series is a huge marketing boost: During Netflix’s promotion of House of Cards, Fincher’s name was as prominent as star Kevin Spacey’s.
“For the TV networks, it’s the prestige factor,” Karger says. “It’s bragging rights, in a way, to have these huge, respected feature-film directors working for them, working on their small-screen endeavors.”
And often, even if an A-list director directs only the pilot (thereby setting a template and tone for the series), he or she is financially attached to the show for its life (and afterlife, considering the syndication market).
“It’s where the money is,” Simanton says, pointing to talent like director Bryan Singer, “who works years on something like one of the X-Men films” yet gets a lot of his income from House. “He flies around on House money. It’s repeatable. It’s so many more licenses, it’s so much more content. It’s reliable.”
Plus, the stakes aren’t so high. If a new show doesn’t work, it’s swiftly canceled. And if a pilot doesn’t get picked up, TV critics never even get a chance to review it.
That makes TV development a friendly place for some of today’s more prestigious auteurs. Among those with projects in production are the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who will executive produce Fargo, a limited FX series due next spring that’s reminiscent of their hit 1996 film.
At Showtime, Mendes is executive-producing the “psychosexual” horror series Penny Dreadful, which goes into production later this year; at HBO, Peter Berg just signed on to direct Lost creator Damon Lindelof’s new pilot,The Leftovers; and at Starz, Michael Bay’s big-budget pirate series, Black Sails, makes it debut next year.
Acclaimed filmmakers Alexander Payne, Danny Boyle and David O. Russell each have TV projects in development, too.
Simanton calls it the transport of the medium. “The projects are just such classy endeavors. They’re really filling roles that movies have ceded in some ways.”
Contributing: Bill Keveney