Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Piles of money for pilot directors

Face it, the television industry has feature-envy. Forget for a moment that television is producing BETTER dramas and in general better product than features (PHAT GIRLZ notwithstanding), TV still has the mindset that they’re a second class citizen. The latest example is this mad frenzy to hire movie directors to helm TV pilots. Big article in Wednesday’s Hollywood Reporter on it. Spike Lee, F. Gary Gray, Jon Turtletaub, Andy Tenant, Simon West, Barry Sonnenfeld, and others are happily feeding off the television trough.

Not to take anything away from these directors and not to say that I wouldn’t be thrilled to be thrown off of any set by any one of them, but really, for the heavy money they’re making, are they THAT much better than experienced television directors? If someone is capable is of turning out great episodes of LOST and THE SOPRANOS and HOUSE, isn’t he as good as the guy who gave us PHENOMENON?

In the article several of these feature directors say they were attracted to the little screen (even the expression denotes inferiority) because of the “character driven” challenging nature of these pilots. Oh get real! It’s a big fat payday for six weeks work. They can squeeze these pilots in between film projects, and if the pilots go they can receive producer credit and royalties for never having to do another thing for the series including watching it. If I were a feature director I’d jump at that. I’d lie and say I WAS a feature director to get that deal. (“I did the remake of HOWARD THE DUCK. It’s not been released here but did win the prestigious audience award at the Antarctica film festival.”)

A studio exec rationalizes this hiring practice by saying: “There’s a lot of brilliant TV directors, but sometimes the mentality of, ‘Well, it’s good enough’, can creep in with TV guys.”

Hello?

First of all, don’t hire those guys. But the exec continues:

“The really strong feature directors don’t accept that. They approach the job saying, ‘No, I’m here to make this spectacular and blow people’s minds.’”

Hello again?

Feature directors are used to huge budgets. Feature directors are used to shooting maybe two pages a day. What happens when that brilliant perfectionist is told he has to slam through six to eight pages a day and can’t have that crane and instead of Hawaii he must shoot in Oxnard? And his star is a former American Idol contestant who has a high TVQ.

In truth, it is often the TV veteran who is used to such schedules and restrictions (and semi-actors) and knows how to weave the straw into gold.

What film directors bring to the party is their names and cachet. Television gets to play with the big boys. And that’s fine. The names are impressive. But television isn’t slumming it. And television isn’t drive-by art.

It’s time that the feature industry started turning to television people. Who knows? Maybe the movies would be better.

12 comments:

Grubber said...

From where I sit I think you are spot on Ken. A recent example of good budgeting and strict schedules is Joss Whedon shooting Serenity for $40mill in LA.

How many feature directors could do that? He put it all down to his TV directing experience.
cheers
Dave

William Rabkin said...

The best TV director lee Goldberg and I I ever hired was a former feature director... but his feature experience was almost entirely at Roger Corman's New World Pictures. And what he learned working for Corman was what he needed to know in TV -- how to budget his resources. How to figure out which scenes were crucial and needed his time and money, and which he could blow through in a oner. When to push the actors and when to let them go. And how to pace a show so that the small scenes flew by and the big scenes played like gangbusters.

Contrast that with the artiste Lee and I were talked into hiring for the first episode of an action series we had taken over. This guy wasn't an Oscar-winning feature director, but you'd never know it from his attitude. (He was still complaining about only having 8 days to shoot an episode of LA Doctors, where the biggest scene was Ken Olin staring moodily out a window.) He spent half a day -- half of one of our seven days -- one a two-page dialogue scene from a 50-page script of which roughly 27 were action. And when our star, simply one of the biggest talents ever to come out of Hong Kong martial arts movies, suggested a move for one of the small action scenes, our auteur told him he couldn't be bothered with stuff like that.

Whaledawg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ken Levine said...

Didn't realize he wrote it. Oops. It's gone. I hope Aaron Sorkin (who I admire) didn't write PHAT GIRLZ.

Chesher Cat said...

Re: "Piles of money for pilot directors"

No kidding.

Alex Epstein said...

Oh, yeah. On a certain show I worked on, we had a feature director do the pilot. Wow. Much with the helicopters. Blew four episodes worth of budget in two episodes. We spent the rest of the series writing small.

TV directing is like tv writing. You have to know everything you know in order to do feature directing, and then the same amount again.

stu willis said...

"A recent example of good budgeting and strict schedules is Joss Whedon shooting Serenity for $40mill in LA.

How many feature directors could do that?"

How about pretty much every feature director working outside of the USA?

Your TV episode budgets are very often larger than most feature budgets outside of the USA.

rorybaldwin said...

I think it will be interesting to see how JJ Abrams fares when let loose on Mission Impossible 3, which is in effect Alias, but with Tom Cruise and bigger explosions.

(Also sorry to fawn Mr Rabkin, but I used to love Diagnosis Murder, they show it in the daytime, post lunch students-with-nothing-to-do slot over here in the UK!)

Tenspeed & Brownshoe said...

Gimme Jon Cassar (24), over any other "action" feature film director any day.

Anonymous said...

Grubber said...

From where I sit I think you are spot on Ken. A recent example of good budgeting and strict schedules is Joss Whedon shooting Serenity for $40mill in LA.

How many feature directors could do that? He put it all down to his TV directing experience.


And then no one went to see it, and the movie bombed big time.

Mrkatman said...

My partner and I hired a "hot" feature director for a one camera film half hour pilot a few years ago. Prior to our start date we tried for two weeks to sit down with him and go through the script. Finally, the day before the shoot, we locked him in a room. That's when we realized he hadn't read any of the rewrites we'd been sending him. Scene after scene he'd ask about things that were long gone. He came to the set without a shot list and was completely unprepared. He'd just completed a feature where he'd shoot a page a day - maybe. We were budgeted to shoot around six pages a day and finish in six days. We wrapped in eight. Needless to say the studio was not happy. Also needless to say, they blamed us, not the hot feature director.
For the record, I'd tell you his name but we're trying to attach him to a feature we just wrote.

guyot said...

Ken,
Did you know that story was "set up" by the DGA? And that there are more than a few TV directors pissed off about it.

You're right they're doing it for the dough. No question. I'm currently battling with my studio because they want that "feature name" on my pilot... and the names they're throwing out are just silly. No one is giving any thought to whether the director is right for the piece or not. It's all about that ridiculous name thing.

It's a joke. The whole thing. The best writing has been happening in TV for the past ten years. And I believe some of the best directors are working in TV right now.

Coulter
Nutter
Dickerson
Estevez (yes, Emilio)
the list goes on and on.

Many people think what makes a good director is flashy camera moves. Couldn't be more wrong. That's usually a sign of a bad director.

Too bad executives generally don't know anything about filmmaking.