In May, it was announced that one of the most buzzed-about new filmmakers, Sean Durkin, would be shopping a TV series based on "The Exorcist" as his next project. Durkin’s debut feature "Martha Marcy May Marlene" was the indie to see in 2011, but the news that he was following it up with a move to the small screen didn't come as much of a surprise.
Plenty of artistically gifted filmmakers who would in the past have focused on making mid-range arty indies have been shifting instead to the more domestic medium. Last year there was Todd Haynes’ "Mildred Pierce" miniseries; Lena Dunham’s comedy "Girls" and Noah Baumbach’s attempted "The Corrections" series followed not long after. More recently, Cary Fukunaga (of "Sin Nombre") signed on to direct a detective show with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. (Of course, these are all HBO projects -- more about the other networks momentarily.)
Why the turn to TV? Primarily, it's because these talents are looking for stability rather than uncertainty -- the budgets they require to make ambitious work while retaining enough creative control. Indie filmmaking in the realm of $2-$15 million pictures has become a bit of a ghost town, for all the reasons of that you, dear reader, are surely aware -- fewer mini-major distributors, a declining market share for movies in general, digital piracy on the rise, and so on. Even if you’re an established indie filmmaker these days, you're faced with throwing your hat in a ring of uncertainty where your film may take years to only possibly get financed, and following that, only possibly get bought (and then, by which distributor?).
The choice to settle down with a company that will finance, produce and distribute your work to a guaranteed audience has started to seem a lot wiser, even if it means forgoing seeing that work in theaters. As evidenced by recent indie films by Spike Lee (whose "Red Hook Summer" could only manage distribution with tiny distributor Variance Films) and Stephen Frears (whose $20 million-budgeted "Lay The Favorite" seems to have been shelved by The Weinstein Company), continuing to make mid-budget indies can be a perilous risk.
Happily for some of the savvier filmmaking talents, this cratering of the mid-range indie has occurred at the same time that a real market for ambitious, intelligent product came to maturation in cable television. HBO’s "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos" put quality serialized programming on the map, but one can’t neglect the impact of the phenomenal DVD sales numbers of "The Wire" -- and the phenomenal word-of-mouth -- on the idea that there’s a business model behind artistic, idiosyncratic series. HBO has obviously pursued it, but so, too, has Showtime, Starz and most notable, AMC, with "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and "The Killing" (and let’s not forget the short-lived but ambitious "Rubicon"). The model has even extended to allow Louis CK’s inner artist to take hold of FX’s "Louie."
These programs aren’t necessarily about putting new twists on traditional television programming. Rather, they reside in a realm not far from the ambitious character-driven films of the '00s ("Half Nelson," "The Squid and the Whale," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") that made America an especially exciting place to go to the movies. Consider the recently ended season of "Mad Men," wherein not much happens on a narrative level (with the exception of some big shake-ups in the last couple of episodes). The brooding, slow pace of the drama is totally anathema to typical TV (or at least, would have been up until recently). "Treme," David Simon’s show about post-Katrina life in New Orleans, feels more like a novelistic character study than anything else, as the show oozes with atmosphere and insightful commentary.