Indiewire’s Weekly Reads compiles the week’s essential news stories and critical pieces for you.
1. The Business of Too Much TV. As anyone who vaguely pays attention to the culture is certainly aware, there’s a huge amount of growth in the television industry, with industry professionals, critics, and commentators all describing it as “Peak TV.” Vulture’s Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez dive into the business of too much TV, and how there are more great shows in production now than ever before, but also how it’s never been harder to make one.
This is Peak TV. Not since the early 1980s — when cable became a serious challenger to the decades-old hegemony of Big Three broadcasters ABC, CBS, and NBC — has the television industry experienced such rapid growth: Between 2009 and 2015, the number of scripted shows nearly doubled, from just over 200 to an estimated 409 last year. Netflix alone says it will produce 600 hours of original television and spend $5 billion on programming, including acquisitions. This dramatic surge in TV production has touched nearly every aspect of the industry, from actors and showrunners to those responsible for production logistics for all of the new programming ordered from an ever-expanding roster of networks. Veteran showrunner Carlton Cuse (“Bates Motel”) compares it to what would happen if the National Football League suddenly expanded to 90 teams. “You would have a lot of football available to you, but the quality of it would be diluted,” he says. As so many networks and producers scramble again and again to make television that’s great, finding standout ideas and then turning them into actual shows has perhaps never been more difficult. The effort that goes into securing top writers, actors, crew members, and soundstages these days is almost as challenging as coming up with the idea for the next “Mr. Robot.” Overall spending is way up, but like the broader national economy, the wealth isn’t being distributed equally. Movie stars are getting offered $5 million to do a single ten-episode season of a show, even as studios slash budgets for lower-level actors. Writers have plenty of job opportunities, but shorter seasons has meant more career volatility. Experienced showrunners are in high demand, yet they’re unlikely to ever become as rich as a Dick Wolf or Norman Lear.
2. How New Distributor Grasshopper Film Plans to Succeed. Independent film companies are often the only reason that audiences get a chance to see some of the best films of any given year. Do you ever wonder how these companies stay afloat let alone succeed? Filmmaker Magazine’s Vadim Rizov explores how new independent distribution company Grasshopper Films plans to succeed.
Acquisition is a process of intuition more than algorithms. Other companies might figure out whether a film is “worth acquiring and how much it was worth to spend on it based on comparative studies of other films, of elements in that film that sold better than others that could be marketed,” says Krivoshey. He crunches costs but also follows his instincts: “Do I love the film? If yes, how much do we want to pay for the advance, and how much do we want to spend on P&A costs? There are films we don’t always acquire, but if it’s a film I love, we’re always going to try to go after it.” Keeping a tight financial ship means effective cost-cutting — too much festival travel cuts into the bottom line, so Krivoshey only travels to Cannes and Toronto, plus one or two more festivals a year. Instead, he tracks festival coverage carefully and lives off Vimeo links he watches on his TV (a space-saving arrangement over what formerly were stacks of DVDs). The release calendar will be split between more obviously commercial prospects, like the documentary “Don’t Blink: Robert Frank” (which has a famous subject and a soundtrack featuring Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones), and the smaller, more difficult titles. Attendantly, bigger titles might play the Landmark Theaters circuit while hitting up as many as 50 cities over a five-month period, while smaller films will have engagements in 10 to 20 cities. Playing chains like the Landmark is a more expensive proposition due to the revenue split, calendar and publicity charges and virtual print fees (“the bane of my existence”); calibrating the correct approach for each film is a fine art. One-off engagements at cinematheques and the like are a possibility, and the fee is negotiable.
3. Showrunner Ronald D. Moore on How ‘Outlander’ Avoids Formulaic Sex Scenes. If you’ve seen one sex scene on TV, you’ve seen most all of them. These formulaic sequences are often shot and edited in ways that make them very unsexy. Variety’s Maureen Ryan interviews “Outlander” showrunner Ronald D. Moore on how he avoids formulaic sex scenes.
We’ve gotten to the point where if I said, “There’s a sexy ad out on Melrose,” you know it’s a woman. It’s like, sex equals women. If you’re going to see some sex, it has to be. It doesn’t even have to be her whole body. It can just be her shoe. It can be any part of her body. It’s not going to be a man. We have defined “sexiness” visually, and it has to be a woman. It’s going to be about her body in some way, shape or form. That’s just our visual language. How we got to this place is a whole other conversation. But this is where we are.
4. ’90s Police Musical “Cop Rock” Was a Terrible Show That Could Have Been Great. In 1990, Steven Bochco’s “Cop Rock” aired 11 episodes before being shuffled off the air. The brief run is considered one of the more infamous in TV history. For Slate, Sam Adams examines the show now released on DVD.
In the Museum of Bad Ideas, there’s an entire wing devoted to “Cop Rock,” the ill-fated musical policier that ran for 11 brief, unloved episodes on ABC in 1990. Now, in an interview on the just-released DVD that collects them all, creator Steven Bochco recalls that both Randy Newman, who wrote the songs for the show’s pilot, and Mike Post, who headed the stable of songwriters for the remaining episodes, told him it was the worst idea they’d ever heard. But Bochco, then riding high on the success of “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law,” pressed on, and created an abject failure whose legend has outlasted some of its contemporary successes. Bocho argues that “Cop Rock” was doomed before the first episode aired: People found the show’s basic premise so absurd that they never bothered to check out its execution. And it’s true that “Cop Rock” was easy to ridicule. The week of its premiere, in September of 1990, David Letterman took aim at the show four separate times, and continued to mock it throughout the fall, right up to its inevitable cancellation.
5. Comeback Master Tarantino Found His Own Movie Star in Samuel L. Jackson. The A.V. Club’s Together Again column “looks at actors and directors who have worked together on at least three films, analyzing the nature of their collaborations.” In the latest entry, Jesse Hassenger looks at Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson’s collaborations.
Jules Winnfield looms so large, in fact, that certain inflections and phrases from “Pulp Fiction” recur throughout Jackson’s career. Perhaps most indelibly, Jules’ assessment of being on “brain detail” after his partner Vincent accidentally blows the head off their buddy Marvin in the backseat of their car — “this is some fucked-up repugnant shit” — is reprised in both “Jackie Brown” and in Jackson’s version of “Shaft,” minus the F-bomb. It’s a perfect match of actor and filmmaker voices; Tarantino complements Jackson’s delivery so well that it’s hard to separate the actor and the line. The “repugnant” line sounds so natural coming from Jackson that it would be easy to believe as an improvisation, but the double adjective — “fucked-up” serving as an adjective and then backed up by “repugnant” — has Tarantino’s signature casual verbosity. There’s a kind of poetry in marrying the plainspoken, potentially vague “fucked up” and “shit” with the specificity of “repugnant.” As memorable as “Ezekiel 25:17” is, it’s the phrase “fucked up repugnant shit” that is especially hard to imagine coming from another actor with such musical perfection.
6. Deep Cuts: The Music of John Carpenter. John Carpenter’s film scores are some of the very best in history, and recently there’s been a rise in Carpenter-esque music in genre films. Film Comment’s Margaret Barton-Fumo explores at length the music of John Carpenter.
The second “Lost Themes” album nudges Carpenter’s music into the present from the opposite direction, with more traditional rock instrumentation and loud acoustic drumbeats, while Carpenter’s signature one-handed keyboard melodies maintain pride of place. Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies are both accomplished musicians capable of playing in different styles but defer here to the elder Carpenter’s well-known electronic/rock mode with familiar sequencing, heavy bass lines, deceptively simple melodies, and dirty synth plug-ins. Some of the cleaner, more complex keyboard segments, still in line with Carpenter’s borderline-proggy musical sensibility, likely reflect his son’s input. The younger Carpenter has stated that his primary musical influence is Vince DiCola’s soundtrack to “Transformers: The Movie” (86) and his keyboard work with his band, Ludrium, assumes an upbeat, heady style that alternates lightweight synth-pop with Keith Emerson riffs. The evident camaraderie of the “Lost Themes” family band recalls Carpenter’s earlier rock trio, the Coupe de Villes, which he formed at USC with his friends and artistic collaborators Nick Castle (screenwriter and the man behind the Michael Myers mask) and Tommy Lee Wallace (director of “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” and “It”). The Coupe de Villes occupied the spotlight once to promote their theme song for “Big Trouble in Little China” (86) with an incredible music video.
7. Portrait of the Artist: Magic Mike XXL. Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Musings publications lets writers and critics go long on films of their choice and features some of the very best writing on the Internet. This week, K. Austin Collins examines “Magic Mike XXL,” via “An American In Paris,” self-expression, black image, and more.
“XXL,” by contrast, emphasizes the intimacy between performer and performed-upon. Even our sense of the sizable crowd, in the final performance, is mitigated by those vast swathes of women being anonymized by darkness. We’re here to see our heroes consummate their desires. The critical consensus has been that “XXL” is an unabashed appreciation of adult desire, which is true, and of women’s desires in particular, which is almost false. When the mens’ acts change — from firefighters, ranch hands, and construction guys in the first film to acts reflecting some specific aspects of their own personalities — they swerve, literally, from depictions of work to depictions of pleasure, with pleasure, in this instance, being the joy of self-love and invention. “XXL” is not so much a film about what women want, even as the men at its center take an interest in pleasuring women, as it is an odyssey with artists at its center, a series of expressive challenges disguised as a linear journey. The challenge set before its heroes, whether in the form of making a woman smile or of making long-overdue amends with past lovers and friends, is this: express yourself. Express your self.