Over the past few years, television’s begun to challenge film as the preeminent outlet for American storytelling, the breadth of interest and means of distribution at an all-time high for a medium that can no longer be looked at as of inferior artistic merit. While mainstream film is driven far more by a focus on box office receipts than quality, the small screen has quietly matched (and in some cases usurped) Hollywood as a vehicle for both widespread popularity and artistic dignity. And as industry interest in and funding for mid-budget films wanes, TV has become an ever more attractive place for independent filmmakers looking to work with more resources and to have a platform to which millions of homes across the country have easy access.
In a panel discussion last night in Los Angeles presented by Indiewire and the New York Television Festival, speakers from diverse corners of the entertainment industry gathered to discuss the changing tide of the TV industry, and how in many cases indie filmmakers have looked to cable and network platforms to realize projects that might otherwise languish in cinematic purgatory. The panelists were Susie Fitzgerald, AMC’s SVP of scripted programming; Ray McKinnon, the creator/executive producer of Sundance Channel’s upcoming drama “Rectify”; and Tom Young, a scripted TV agent at CAA. Indiewire’s Dana Harris served as the moderator. Here’s what we learned:
New developments in distribution have leveled the playing field.
All three of the panels participants agreed that thanks to advancements in distribution, including the proliferation of cable networks, the increasing value of original series and the rise of year-round programming, even the most provocative or niche concept can now potentially find a home. “No matter how crazy the idea, there’s someone out there that will hear it,” Young said encouragingly.
McKinnon himself had faith in this prospect while writing “Rectify,” believing that after the success of shows like “Mad Men,” that “someone might be open this type of storytelling,” wherein, figuratively speaking, “nothing happens.” And Fitzgerald admitted to AMC’s similar interest in more edgy programming compared to that of the major networks. Young, however, offered some worthwhile perspective later in the evening, conceding to the fact that these programs also only appeal to very specific demographics — what he called “the New York and L.A audiences” — while there’s an entire Middle American audience “who still loves ‘NCIS.'”
Television can offer different, expanded modes of storytelling.
Fitzgerald noted that TV, even at its most traditional, offers a “different way to tell a story.” Yet while that’s true in regard to its serialized nature, it’s also, as McKinnon mentioned, of a complementary mindset to that of the movies. “The way stories are being told is similar to ‘70s filmmaking,” offered McKinnon by way of an example from Peter Bogdanovich’s early ‘70s watershed “The Last Picture Show.” He later mentioned how the episodic nature of television allows the writer a certain freedom that his days as an indie filmmaker couldn’t afford because of traditional durational expectations. “A film is an hour and 45 minutes or two hours,” but for a show like “Rectify,” which he had been “thinking about for 10 years,” TV provided an opportunity to develop story and character over a far greater time span. He compared television to literature, acknowledging that what we’re watching are “not so much episodes as chapters.” It’s perhaps these characteristics that led Young to proclaim that television is “no longer the red-headed step child” of the arts.
Television production is both liberating and a new challenge for artists arriving from film.
In what may have been the night’s most enlightening anecdote, Fitzgerald revealed that Frank Darabont’s original treatment for “The Walking Dead” — which Young noted was passed on by every major network, including NBC, twice — was problematic for AMC in way that she hinted at earlier when describing their artistic M.O. Darabont’s pilot script basically moved from “action scene to action scene,” with little time for character development.
Sensing potential at the core of the concept, Fitzgerald had Darabont watch the entirety of “Breaking Bad” up to that point, encouraging him to heed the pace and attention to character relationships, something that would prove vital to the eventual success of “The Walking Dead.” “It’s a huge mindset shift,” she continued. “The character needs to drive the story.” McKinnon agreed before expounding on the idea: “It’s a bigger machine than indie filmmaking — it’s more complicated,” he stated, noting the many behind-the-scenes channels that comprise a television enterprise. So while McKinnon has been granted more money that he ever was as an indie filmmaker, he has nevertheless had to adapt to a new model of TV production.
Viewing habits and binge-watching continue to have an impact on how television is made.
The new Netflix original series “House of Cards” was an inevitable talking point as the discussion moved toward the future of TV consumption. All agreed that home viewing DVD marathons have triggered a compulsive attitude in viewers. “It’s like crack. It’s binge-watching,” Young stated bluntly while observing how “24” was the first show to make use of its own narrative construction as an advantage in the marketplace, prompting communal viewing parties as interactive, extracurricular entertainments all their own. He credits Netflix and “House of Cards” for building on the model and “setting a new benchmark” by not only making an entire season available at one time, but by recruiting big name Hollywood figures like David Fincher and Kevin Spacey to entice curious viewers to take a gamble on an unknown viewing arrangement between distributor and audience.
Yes, television is a writers’ medium.
One of the main points of emphasis when talking about the differences between film and TV production was the latter’s emphasis on writing. While the director tends to lend the authorial stamp to filmmaking, both Fitzgerald and Young singled out the writers as the driving creative forces behind TV. “The writer really is king,” Fitzgerald stated, while Young, as an example of the divide between the two modes of creation, cited the scene in “Adaptation” where Nicolas Cage’s screenwriter character arrives on set only to promptly be told to “go stand over there.” He then mentioned how this consistency is maintained, by employing less writers on more shows, which of course led many aspiring writers in the audience to ask questions about the best strategies to success in the industry.
Fitzgerald offered simple, straightforward advice: “Worry about your story first. Don’t try to tailor your script to the network,” remarking on how many scripts she’s had to read that are set in the 1960s or featured zombies simply because AMC airs both “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead.” By way of experience — “Rectify” heard its share of “no thank you’s” on its way to finally being picked up — McKinnon offered encouragement: “Whether they buy it or not, they’ll respond to it. It’s a marathon.” Riffing on that idea, Young brought the evening to a close with one final bit of advice, one which could double as an analogy for TV’s ascent to the forefront of the entertainment industry in recent years: “It’s not the military where you go up in rank every year. You can leapfrog people.”