Directing TV Means Less Creative Freedom, but These Filmmakers Have Never Been Happier (Column)

As The Weeknd boots Amy Seimetz from his HBO show, should good filmmakers be wary of TV? The answer requires a careful risk-benefit analysis, and a business model.
The Weeknd Vs. Amy Seimetz on 'The Idol': Should Filmmakers Direct TV?
From left: "Our Flag Means Death," The Weeknd, Amy Seimetz, "Gaslit"

It might seem counterintuitive to make the case for filmmaking as a career when so much about the profession can sound like a charity case. The money is in TV, and its so-called Golden Age provides golden opportunities. I may advocate for the success of original cinematic feats like “The Northman,” but will just as easily admit that “Atlanta” and “Barry” are among the most satisfying cultural achievements to come out this month.

Still, cautionary tales abound. This week, news broke that Amy Seimetz “exited” as the director of “The Idol,” the new HBO series co-produced and starring Abel Tesfaye, otherwise known as The Weeknd. As usual, there’s more to this story, and it speaks volumes about how the layers of creative control differ in TV.

I’m told that Seimetz had already directed about four episodes of the six-episode series and adapted the show to her loose, exploratory approach. The story of a female pop singer (Lily Rose Depp) ensnared in a relationship with an L.A. cult leader (Tesfaye) was shot with more of a run-and-gun style than the script suggested, with improvisation adding new dimensions.

Reports cited The Weeknd’s issue with the show’s “female perspective,” suggesting that Seimetz played up Depp’s character over Tesfaye’s, but I have heard from people who read the script that Depp’s character was always its centerpiece. What we know is that initially, the creative team involved in the show was effusive in its support of the script and rough assembly. But The Weeknd, who conceived the series with producer Reza Fahim and “Euphoria” showrunner Sam Levinson, later voiced his concerns and wanted reshoots. And as the co-creator, he had a power that the director does not.

Seimetz didn’t plan to direct the final episode of “The Idol” due to scheduling issues; she had to travel to New Zealand to act in the next season of Netflix DC series “Sweet Tooth.” There was some talk of completing “The Idol” with fewer episodes, and even discussion of horror maestro Ti West handling the finale. But now that HBO has given the greenlight for a do-over, the director’s chair is open again. It may or may not be filled by Levinson, who has been reluctant to take on the role in tandem with his “Euphoria” duties. That’s a lot of work to do in the face of a fall release date; 70-80 percent of the cast must be replaced due to scheduling issues and other adjustments. Already, it has been reported that “Red Rocket” breakout Suzanna Son will not return to the show, and there’s more to come.

Amy Seimetz on the set of “The Girlfriend Experience”Amy Seimetz/Starz

The bottom line: While HBO has final say, the studio invested in The Weeknd as the talent to drive interest above all else. The musician, star, and producer changed his mind about Seimetz’s cut and pushed the show to adapt “a new creative direction,” as HBO said in its official statement to the press.

Setting aside the implications of an artist who wants to be the center of his own universe, these complications shed light on the source of authority in TV productions. Seimetz wasn’t the showrunner — that’s Joseph Epstein, who remains attached — but she brought her own style to the project because that’s what she does. She’ll keep an executive producer credit and the residuals attached to that. But for all intents and purposes, the auteur behind “The Idol” is the same guy who self-financed his own Super Bowl halftime show. The Weeknd is the master of his own domain, no matter who writes the checks or calls action.

“Film director welfare”

Seimetz declined to comment on these developments from the “Sweet Tooth” set. Regardless, “The Idol” provides another cautionary tale about the extent to which TV allows filmmakers to exert their visions. (Remember Andrea Arnold clashing with producers on the Season 2 set of “Big Little Lies”?) Directors can survive on TV paychecks, but shouldn’t kid themselves about creative freedom unless they’re the showrunner, even though that’s not an actual credit — usually that role falls to the head writer, who’s also an executive producer.

None of this means filmmakers should stick to features. Quite the opposite: TV can provide a business model, but it’s not a vessel for uncompromising artists. It’s a platform to keep them chugging along.

In a keynote speech he delivered almost 10 years ago, Steven Soderbergh singled out Seimetz, who had recently made her debut with the gripping and low-budget “Sun Don’t Shine,” as a director he would hire to do whatever they wanted if he ran a studio. Instead, he hired her to adapt his feature “The Girlfriend Experience” into an innovative TV drama for Starz, and she parlayed that into episodic gigs for “Atlanta” in tandem with acting gigs in everything from “Stranger Things” to “Pet Semetery.” That support system enabled her to direct a remarkable second feature, the existential apocalyptic thriller “She Dies Tomorrow.”

All along, Seimetz made clear that she wanted to work on her own terms. “I’m actually really territorial about my writing and directing,” she told me a few years ago. “It takes time because I want it to be mine. I’ve turned down a lot of pilots and other people’s scripts.”

The truth is that a lot of directors could benefit from saying yes more often. The question of financial security in feature directing can be resolved by a business model that factors in TV directing — not writing or showrunning — into the mix. Current DGA minimums dictate that network primetime gigs can pay between $28,452 – $48,318 per episode, and include residuals. Basic cable minimums range from $12,721 to $91,193 per episode. Streaming takes residuals out of the equation, but the minimums remain intact.

The numbers go up if you direct a pilot, and more experience can also mean higher pay. In most cases, these jobs average about a month of effort, from pre-production all the way through a DGA requirement mandating that the director can supervise five days for an edit. That means directors can do half a year’s work and still commit to shepherding a feature through more frugal (and perhaps messier) means.

One filmmaker described this model to me as “film-director welfare” that lets them exploit the TV infrastructure and keep making movies. Still: It only works for directors who really want to keep making movies. Some filmmakers sing TV’s praises as being so much more rewarding than features that they’ve given up the latter for good. Which brings me to “Gaslit,” and its showrunner’s bumpy escape from pursuing his dreams in the feature realm.

“There’s a patriarchal sickness in film”

Gaslit Julia Roberts Starz series
Julia Roberts in “Gaslit”Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Starz

Earlier this month, Lena Dunham saluted the 10-year anniversary of “Girls.” She scored the HBO show when she was 23 and a prodigy after winning SXSW’s Grand Jury Prize with her intimate debut feature “Tiny Furniture.” Back then, few emerging filmmakers looked toward TV. Case in point: The next year, SXSW winner Robbie Pickering won the top prize for his own debut, “Natural Selection.” Pickering’s bittersweet dark comedy, which starred a top-notch Rachael Harris as a religious woman who discovers her late husband’s illegitimate son, suggested the makings of a next-gen Alexander Payne. But he stumbled through his sophomore gig, the misbegotten Sony horror comedy “Freaks of Nature,” led by future “Succession” star Nicolas Braun. After that, Pickering was in oblivion — until this month, when he resurfaced as the showrunner of Starz miniseries “Gaslit.”

An elegant, pitch-black Watergate comedy, “Gaslit” finds Julia Roberts leading a formidable cast as socialite-turned-whistleblower Martha Mitchell. Pickering scored the gig from executive producer Sam Esmail after working in his writers room on “Mr. Robot,” and that opportunity came about after directing an episode of “Search Party.” And the source of that job, Pickering told me this week, stemmed from series creators Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers having a short at SXSW the year of “Natural Selection.” (They also won the festival for their own feature debut, “Fort Tilden,” in 2014.) At that time, “I didn’t know TV writing was open to me,” Pickering said. “And I haven’t looked back since.”

“Natural Selection” exhausted Pickering after cobbling together resources for his $150,000 debut. “You go through so many years of humiliations and groveling to your friends for a few thousand bucks to make this movie,” Pickering said. “You’re filled with fear and feel like you kinda got lucky.” He took on “Freaks of Nature” in hopes that he could bring his spin. “I was too in my head about who I wanted to be in the world,” he said. “In the end, I was doing something my heart just wasn’t in.”

It was at this juncture, Pickering said, that he read an essay I wrote bemoaning the decision by director Jon Watts, whose slapstick thriller “Cop Car” had just premiered at Sundance, to take on the next “Spider-Man” movie. It was also a broader missive against directors taking on massive, pre-existing IP that could consume their artistic sensibilities. “That article was in my head after my experience,” Pickering said. “I was in director’s jail, and I decided that I don’t care if I had to be a PA on something. I will only work on things I’m dying to do.”

With distance from that experience and his current stability in TV, Pickering said he resents the mythologizing that tends to surround filmmakers. “There’s a patriarchal sickness in film,” he said. “I think the worship of the director is very corrosive. Marvel has succeeded so much and so well because they run it like one big TV show, as more of a collaborative effort. TV works better because there’s not this kind of hero-worship thing going on.”

Notably, Marvel shows face criticism in the TV community because they don’t have showrunners at all. The recent spate of Disney+ series find head writers and directors sorting out tone and pace, but they all bow before MCU mastermind Kevin Feige. Perhaps that’s why Watts followed last year’s biggest box-office sensation — aka, his third “Spider-Man” — with the Jeff Bridges spy series “The Old Man” for FX. (He also just exited another MCU project, “Fantastic Four,” which is probably its most cursed property now.)

For many directors, TV provides a healthier template. It’s also where more diverse stories have a better chance of being told. What directors don’t get is a measure of veto power, and that can limit their potential to stand out. The showrunner role tends to fall to someone who has a lot of experience, especially if the show’s creator has none (i.e. “Barry,” in which Bill Hader paired with “Seinfeld” writer Alec Berg). The WGA Showrunner Training program helps some newcomers figure out the job, but it’s not a universal access point: Pickering applied and was rejected. “Going through what I went through in film is a training program in itself,” he said.

“What am I going to do, money-wise?”

He’s not alone. In 2009, I was excited about the career prospects of Tze Chun, whose semi-autobiographical family drama “Children of Invention” premiered at Sundance. Instead, Chun vanished into the TV ether, working his way through TV writers rooms on shows like “Once Upon a Time” and “Gotham.”

He made one more feature, the solid 2013 Bryan Cranston thriller “Cold Comes the Night,” but TV continues to provide him with greater satisfaction. Chun recently served as showrunner on the upcoming animated series “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai,” a prequel to the movie franchise. Set in Chinatown of the 1920s, it provides the Chinese-American director a natural pop-culture extension of the immigrant experience that was at the root of his debut. So did Chun just give up on the movies?

I reached him by phone on the New Orleans set of “I’m a Virgo,” where he’s serving as an executive producer on the Boots Riley Amazon series that marks Riley’s first project since his own debut, “Sorry to Bother You.” It was day 47 on the project, an ambitious undertaking that stars Jharrel Jerrome as a 13-foot-tall man Oakland man, which has requires a lot of special effects and innovative sets at scale. Chun was in a contemplative mood.

“Even though ‘Children of Invention’ went to Sundance and won some prizes, the industry at large doesn’t process that kind of thing,” Chun said. His wife was pregnant with their first child and he needed a paycheck. “I just started thinking about how I love the process of working and writing,” he said. “What if it is four years between every writing and directing project? What am I going to do, money-wise? And also, how much better can I get if I’m only on set every four years?”

He sold a pilot to The CW, but as he struggled with taking notes from the network, he told his agents he wanted to staff writers rooms instead. Chun worked on 100 episodes of TV over five years, and continued writing features on the side, including two projects acquired by the Russo brothers as potential directing vehicles for the duo. That never happened, but it gave him the encouragement to keep at it. While his relationship with Warner Bros. on “Gotham” helped him land the “Gremlins” gig, he’s developing another feature with “Sorry to Bother You” producer Nina Yang Bongiovi.

“I kind of feel like I was holding myself back by driving toward a specific part of the industry,” he said. “I’m more story-agnostic now.” Last year, he directed a half-hour episode of AppleTV’s “Little America,” which had a budget larger than either of his two features. “When you’re directing a small feature you’re always producing as well, because you never have enough money,” he said. “But on ‘Little America,’ I was only focused on directing.”

Chun wasn’t the only TV entity nursing feature projects on the side. “Insecure” showrunner Prentice Penny told me he has a new feature in development at Netflix and another in earlier stages at Universal. “But I can’t imagine that being the only thing I do,” he told me by phone. “I would never give up TV. I like to see my art get made. If you’re not Scorsese and you’re not making big action movies, there are just not a ton of opportunities hitting the marketplace.”

Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari68th Primetime Emmy Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 18 Sep 2016
Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari at the 68th Primetime EmmysBuckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Alan Yang didn’t direct his own immigration drama “Tigertail” until after the success of “Master of None,” which he created with Aziz Ansari. Now, Yang is developing a new feature with Ansari in between TV projects. “You can’t just take a feature script and blow it out 10 episodes and expect it to work,” Yang said. “It’s a delicate dance. Doing a series is more like a novel.”

The manic pace and long-term demands of TV also make the idea of investing less time in a more personal movie especially appealing. Natasha Lyonne, who stepped into the showrunner role for the dazzling time-shifting fantasy of “Russian Doll” Season 2, told me she now hopes to get her “Paper Moon”-inspired feature debut off the ground, inspired by her family’s time in Israel. “The happiest I am is directing, just in terms of what I think my natural wiring is,” she said.

“You’re paid to be useful.”

A few weeks back, I was binging HBO’s queer pirate odyssey “Our Flag Means Death” (which had better get a second season!) when one of its delightfully whimsical episodes ended with a director credit for Nacho Vigalondo. Some readers know that name as the beguiling creative mind behind “Colossal,” the Anne Hathaway-as-a-kaiju-monster addiction dramedy so inventive it’s a miracle it exists at all. Vigalondo does silly-sublime better than anyone.

The Spanish director, an Oscar nominee for his 2005 short film who later broke out of the festival circuit with the time travel comedy “Timecrimes,” burned out on Hollywood after “Colossal” and rediscovered his footing in Madrid. In between hosting a surreal local TV show and taking on TV directing gigs, he has managed to tinker away at a new feature, a new time-traveling comedy aptly titled “The Comeback.”

Writer Nacho Vigalondo poses for a portrait to promote the film, "Colossal," at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)
Nacho VigalondoTaylor Jewell/Invision/AP

When I called him, he beamed about the new project (“I’m going full Vigalondo,” he said), but had no regrets about propping up his career with TV. “It’s a different mindset,” he said. “You are not paid to shine as yourself. You’re paid to be useful. It’s a really great deal.” On “Our Flag Means Death,” he appreciated the way showrunner David Jenkins provided feedback rather than HBO itself. “If he’s pointing me in the right direction, it’s way better than the studio doing it,” he said. “I wish I was the kind of filmmaker making movies all the time. That is not the case. It is for so few of us. In the meantime, being able to raise money and develop a sustainable lifestyle for me is like a dream. It’s the best way to keep making movies.”

Movies command a smaller part of the cultural conversation, but that itself is an argument for their survival. It’s the marginalized, non-commercial arena that will always provide a better haven for radical, subversive artistry and experimental swings. If cinema is enabled by commercial forces — that is, TV jobs — but not solely reliant, both mediums stand to benefit. Movies don’t have to be big moneymakers to survive, but the people making them need to survive, too.

That takes us back to Seimetz, and the troubling case of “The Idol.” Let’s be honest: She’ll get through it. She’s a multi-hyphenate writer-director-star who makes psychological thrillers about the distinct disorientation of modern times, a true portal to the zeitgeist. That restless mentality won’t vanish from this setback. Seimetz will be able to keep making movies as long as the checks clear from TV — including the ones she earned for “The Idol.”

This issue has a lot of complexities to it, including the uncertain timelines of feature filmmaking and financing challenges that could make them incompatible with a TV lifestyle. I invite readers with experience these fields to offer their own feedback about the prospects of utilizing TV to sustain filmmaking, and whether it’s worth the juggling act:

Browse previous columns here.

In last week’s column, I proposed that Netflix could respond to its subscribers losses in part by going on a modest buying spree at Cannes. The story yielded some constructive responses that I wanted to share here. Keep the feedback coming.

Another solution is for Netflix to return to licensing indie/international films from arthouse distributors.They have significantly cut back on this in recent years (including not renewing several output deals with indie distributors) in favor of their own productions and acquisitions.

In the vein of “Drive My Car,” this allows the film to get the full attention of an indie distributor for a marketing/PR campaign and theatrical release (aided by the SVOD license fee to the distributor’s P&L) to build awareness and box office/theatrical viewing that will also benefit the eventual SVOD release (streamers repeatedly tell me that theatrical/marketing efforts improve the SVOD performance). The film still lands in 100m+ US homes, but with an elevated profile and in a more cost/time-effective way for Netflix as they’re freed from the P&A spend (albeit relatively modest) and the significant time/energy a proper theatrical release requires.

Furthermore, Netflix gets the film on their service for a fraction of the cost as licensing from an indie distributor is far cheaper than acquiring the film at a festival when their pursuit alone allows a savvy sales agent to drive-up the price/competition. This is also helpful for indie distributors as the shrinking box office and TVOD revenue have made us more dependent than ever on SVOD license fees.

—Anonymous specialty distributor

Lack of content is not the problem of Netflix, but lack of expertise and imagination of their curators and aggregators in Asia and Africa. Africa is not America and India is not South Korea.

For example, in Nigeria, where the film industry is divided by two largest regions of southern NIgeria and northern Nigeria, Netflix is focusing on English language Nollywood of the south and ignoring the Hausa language Kannywood of the north. The difference between Nollywood and Kannywood of Nigeria is like the difference between Bollywood and Tollywood of India. Imagine the Indian film industry without Tollywood’s blockbuster movies, “Baahubali 1: The Beginning” and “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion” of S. S. Rajamouli — which is the highest grossing film in India, the second highest-grossing Indian film worldwide, and the 39th highest-grossing film of 2017 — are selling an estimated 100 million tickets.

Kannywood movies attract over 80 million Hausa language speaking people in Nigeria and also in Niger, Ivory Coast, So, Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, Benin, Evening, Togo, Congo, Gabon, Algeria and Burkina Faso.

Having movies and series from the best of Kannywood would have attracted more than 10 million new subscribers to Netflix within two years.

Netflix should think outside the box in the acquisition of content in Nigeria instead of focusing on only attracting middle class and upper class English speaking Nigerians. The largest population of Nigerians are ignorant of Netflix and majority of them watch movies and series on their mobile phones from the population of more than 108 million internet users in Nigeria. Moreover, the share of Nigerian population that uses internet via any device at least once a month, is expected to grow up to 60 percent approximately in 2026. Majority of them (per person) spend up to US$1 monthly to download and watch videos pirated online. They are the millions of potential subscribers that Netflix is yet attract.

There are also captivating stories in Nigeria like the South Korean hits of ‘Squid Game’ and ‘Hellbound,’ but Netflix cannot find them through their narrow-minded curators in Africa’s largest film industry.

—Michael Chima Ekenyerengozi, Publisher, International Digital Post Network (Nigeria)

Netflix has two main problems: The rapid flourish of competitive, similar high-quality, big name services like HBO Max simply taking market share in subscribers and content; and the more serious problem of demonstrating that it’s out of touch with the cultural and social trends of the times, which resulted in protests even by its own employees.

Look at, for comparison, what Paramount has been doing with the culturally iconic ‘Star Trek’ franchise. First season was a little too ahead of the wave, but after that very much riding the crest. Meanwhile, Netflix is falling behind. Pre-pandemic, Netflix was really a stand alone service, no other could compare, and demand was huge. Then every other major contender came out with similar or better streaming content, so people —myself included — started subscribing to several of them, and when they thought of which one or two they could live without, Netflix was it. Honestly, if my wife didn’t watch Netflix so much I would unsubscribe, because they don’t have any programs I haven’t already seen or couldn’t live without. Bottom Line: In an increasingly diverse selection of available content and context, Netflix has been offering only vanilla and chocolate soft-serve.

— John Ohkuma-Thiel, actor (via LinkedIn)

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