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The Beauty of Limitations: Indie Filmmakers Talk Learning to Work Within the TV System

The Beauty of Limitations: Indie Filmmakers Talk Learning to Work Within the TV System

Speaking at a panel moderated by Filmmaker Magazine’s Scott Macaulay at the New York Television Festival’s Development Day this past weekend, Jack Lechner, the executive producer of indies like “Blue Valentine” and “Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up with People Story” as well as the Sundance Channel series “Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys,” compared working in film and TV to dating. If he were the lead in a romantic comedy, he explained, film would be the beautiful woman who flirts but then never returns his calls, and TV would be the girl who’s always available and willing to make time to go on dates with him. “I feel like it’s ‘Some Kind of Wonderful,'” he said. “Oh, television, I’ve been taking you for granted!”

Like his fellow panelist Alrick Brown (director of “Kinyarwanda”), Lechner wasn’t ready to or suggesting everyone give up on film entirely, but he was quick to acknowledge that television as an industry was in the ascendance and offered opportunities that film, at the moment, can’t — like the ability to reach a larger audience, to get paid and to turn a project around quickly as opposed to taking years developing a feature and looking for funding. TV is an “endlessly hungry beast” looking for new talent and fresh sensibilities, Lechner said, while NYTVF founder Terence Gray related an adage he’d been told before: “Film is a hobby, TV is a business.”

That description of the film industry will surely make some people bristle, but the truth is that for many indie filmmakers, their passion projects are not paying the bills. And with hours of airtime to fill and more and more cable channels getting into original programming, networks are eager to see new talent.

Gray noted that Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly, one of the NYTVF boardmembers, started a comedy script competition at the festival because, as he put it, “We’re looking to see writers we don’t see on a cyclical basis every year from the top agencies.” And Brown, who directed an episode of the ABC crime series “Final Witness” that aired in July, explained that he’d been brought in because the series producers were looking for someone with experience working within the bounds of a low budget while maintaining a high production quality.

The panelists noted that their shifts into the new medium weren’t just out of necessity or practicality — “The best of television has never been better than it is now,” Lechner said. And both Brown and Lechner pointed out that there was something energizing about working within the constrictions and timeline required for a TV series. It’s “terrifying and freeing,” Lechner said, continuing that there’s no room for nitpicking or tics — “You do the best you can and keep going.” Brown called out the “delusional” tendencies of filmmakers who fixate on getting their work into theaters and refuse to alter their vision to what will allow that work to get made. “People do not respect limitations… limitations are so beautiful,” he said, suggestion there are benefits to learning to understand the system and work within it rather than insist on fighting it.

That need to finish on time and within the set budget is an important lesson that Brown, Gray and Lechner all emphasized, with Brown pointing out that all the talent in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t deliver when you’re supposed to. For all three, what was essential was working and practicing and honing one’s craft, a possibility both offered by TV and demanded by it, in terms of having material to pitch and in being able to handle the production schedule.

And the opportunities are there — Lechner pointed out Lena Dunham’s path to getting “Girls” on HBO as an example of something that “10 years ago that probably would not have happened.” Brown said that he saw projects all the time that should have been TV shows instead of films or vice versa, while Lechner urged documentarians to consider their projects as nonfiction series instead of features, because it’s much easier to both get funding and to get your money back on the small screen. For writers or filmmakers looking to break into TV, the message seemed to be to be prepared to do the work, but to also have projects that showcase your own voice — because the industry is more open to crossover than ever.

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