Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why the little screen is now better than the big screen

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post.

It's from reader Joseph Scarbrough:

There was once a time when movie actors were considered, "Too big", "Too important", and/or, "Too expensive" to even remotely consider lowering themselves to do TV work (or at least, that's why none aside from Gary Burghoff reprised their M*A*S*H roles for the series), however, nowadays, Maria Bello, Kevin Spacey, Dennis Quaid, Ashley Judd, James Caan, even Samuel L. Jackson are all doing TV now. What's your personal opinion on this shift in movie actors migrating to TV? Are the actors trying to broaden and expand their own repertoire, or are networks still in the mindset that a show will only sell if it has star power?

Yes, we lowly television producers used to say, “They’ll all come to us eventually.” Actors who were once insulted that you offered them a multi-million dollar starring role in a television series are now actively campaigning to get on the little screen.

Why? A number of factors.

They age. Meg Ryan can no longer get starring romantic leads no matter how much collagen she uses.

Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise are still taking all the good roles.

They can make all the GODFATHER sequels they want – James Caan was killed in the first one.

There are fewer studio movies being made. If movie stars want to still work exclusively in movies they might have to go the independent route. But there’s rarely big money in those. TV pays way better.

They learn the dirty little secret. Being on a series is a good life for an actor. Especially if he’s on a multi-camera show. Very few nights, regular hours, no extended location shooting, week long hiatuses once a month, more exposure, only 22 weeks of work a year, and great salary. That sure beats toiling for a year in Siberia for a film that bombs and winds up only being shown at 35,000 feet.

(Samuel L. Jackson should know this dirty little secret. Before he became a star he was Bill Cosby’s stand-in on THE COSBY SHOW.)

With so many people staying home watching their nice flatscreens, movie stars are starting to realize people are watching them exclusively on television anyway.

Some cool stars like Matt Damon have done TV so it’s now okay.

Movie studios used the last WGA strike to dump a ton of actor production company deals.

Networks make big plays for movie stars they think might be vulnerable. Lavish attention, private jet trips, etc. That all ends when the star’s pilot doesn’t test well and gets passed on for some Tim Allen vehicle.

I remember a few years ago on the Oscars they put together a reunion of actors who had won Academy Awards. It was shocking how many of them were out of work.

There’s much more status in television drama these days. You can thank HBO and SHOWTIME for that.

Premium cable series generally are only 13 episodes, not 22. It’s less of a commitment.

A-List movie directors are realizing they can make a boatload of money for directing TV pilots. They bring status and lure better talent. It’s hard for an agent to scoff at a TV pilot directed by Martin Scorsese.

Movie studios tend to typecast. If a movie star wants to break out and play a different kind of role he might have to do it on television.

I have found there’s sometimes a real disconnect between the career level a movie star thinks he’s at, and where he’s really at. When I had a development deal we got a note from an agent saying a certain actress would consider television that season but would only meet with A-list writers. This was a C-level actress. She couldn’t open a home movie. It was a joke. We sent back a note thanking the agent and saying if we had a role in a pilot the client was right for we would be delighted to have her read for it.  Epilogue:  She never got a series.  In fact, I don't think she's still in the business anymore.

And finally – television is generally BETTER than movies these days. Especially in dramas. We’re in a golden age of TV drama. Studios make comic books. The best writers, the most daring concepts, the characters with the most dimension are now found in TV.

Welcome movie stars.  We've been waiting for you. 

Like I said, they all come to us eventually. Today’s unsold pilot might well become tomorrow’s AMY ADAMS SHOW.


Mark Stout said...

You've mentioned the C-actress demanding A-writers before. I hope you leave a blog post to be published posthumously where you name names.

And I hope not read it for 50 years.

Jeremiah Avery said...

Great post, Ken. I've read a few interviews with some actors that shared your sentiments regarding quality. They enjoy being able to spend more time developing a character and helping tell interesting stories. Likewise agreed how the better quality writing is on tv, specifically cable tv for drama. Instead of having to audition for the latest awful remake, reboot or sequel, they can work on something that some thought was put into.

I used to go to the movies quite a bit (one summer I recall it was every weekend I went, sometimes to more than one movie over the weekends) but maybe because I'm getting older or there is just so much lifeless dreck playing that I'd rather stay home and either watch a DVD of a movie or see what's on tv.

Cal Ordway said...

The amount of patience that you apparently have to have in order to survive in the production end of the entertainment industry never ceases to amaze me. Putting up with the whiny demands of C-list actors and talentless flavors of the moment without wrapping your fingers around someone's neck should qualify for a special award. I know the money's good, but jeez...

Hamid said...

She couldn’t open a home movie.


Michael Hill said...

In my TV critic days, I never understood the hierarchy that put stage on top (NY bias), movies next, then TV. Meanwhile, British actors, many of whom could act rings around their US counterparts, were happily going among all three, glad for the work, more interested in perfecting their craft than in climbing up some star system. Many of the Hollywood movie types you now see on TV are the ones more interested in acting than in all the other stuff around the business.

Pat Reeder said...

It's a similar situation for TV vs. movie comedy. On TV, you can do more character-oriented material because audiences get to know the characters so much better over several seasons than they can in a 90-minute movie.

I remember Jerry Seinfeld once said critics kept asking him why he did TV instead of movies, as if that would be a big move up. He said when he thinks of TV comedy, he thinks of interesting characters saying funny things. When he thinks of movie comedy, he pictures two guys in a car turning to face each other and screaming in unison as the car flies over a cliff.

Barry Traylor said...

You may not agree but there is some wonderful stuff being done of tv now. Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Justifies etc. And the added bonus that I not have to pay inflated prices to see mediocre material.

Hamid said...

Back in the day, some actors used TV as a springboard to a movie career. Some did it with class. Some did it... a different way. Who can forget the always charismatic David Caruso noisily departing NYPD Blue to go and become a major movie star? He left a hit show and went on to star in two HUGE blockbusters called Kiss of Death and Jade. What a guy.

Gary West said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary West said...

As this book points out splendidly - this (new) golden age began with "The Sopranos" with a nod to David Chase.

It's never looked back.

Check out the book, "Difficult Men" - Brett Martin.


Dustin said...

Hi Ken-

Yesterday the president of Fox, Kevin Reilly, announced they wouldn't be doing pilot season inf the future and just ordering shows to series. (He did say this was just drama shows-they would still do some pilots for sitcoms because cast chemistry needs to be retooled in comedy shows.)

I also read an article in Forbes that said studios/networks are being pressured by Netflix to give shows endings to storylines before canceling them. (This is the article by the way: http://www.forbes.com/sites/merrillbarr/2013/11/18/the-final-season-of-nikita-isnt-about-fan-service-its-about-netflix/)

Do you think networks will move from the traditional plan of "test and tweak show until you can find one that can get to to 88 episodes" is going out the window in favor of creating enough content to have for Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Thanks for all the insight there, Ken; I had actually forgotten I asked this.

And just based on what you've said in regards to comparing television production to movie production, as well as the exposure actors are getting today brings to mind another interesting point... good movies are becoming harder and harder to find in theaters, because (from what I've heard), the movie industry is only wanting to put those really big-budgetted, dazzling, action-packed adventure movies in theaters now, because apparently those are the ones that bring in money. My mom really wanted to see SAVING MR. BANKS, and we finally found it at one theater in our entire town. But, then again, most other movies out there nowadays are low-brow, degrading, and raunchy (well, so is much of TV today, but I digress), and they're really a dime-a-dozen... who wants to sit through another one of those, anyway? And I suppose, like you mentioned recently, movies are just too long anymore these days.

On the other hand, people seem to actually want television to end now... I mean, I've really seen an influx in people saying, "Television really should be obsolete by now," "Everything's going to the internet, why do we even need TV?" "Nobody watches TV anymore," etc. There's even an unsubstaniated rumor going around that 2014 is the year TV will end. But, then again, they've been saying 2012 was going to be the year the world ended, so... yeah.

Terrence Moss said...

As a bigger fan of TV than film, I find it insulting when movie stars deign to do TV. I'd rather them just stay in film if they're going to view TV as something they'll just do but won't fully commit to.

I love actors, like the British ones mentioned by Michael Hill, who want to work and perfect the craft. They do TV (cable and broadcast), they do theatre (Broadway, off-Broadway, way-off Broadway and basements), they do film (feature, short, indie and studio) and they do web.

Go where the good work is.

Eric J said...

"When [Seinfeld]thinks of movie comedy, he pictures two guys in a car turning to face each other and screaming in unison as the car flies over a cliff."

The germ of "Comedians in Cars" where most of the jokes fly over a cliff.

Tom Mitchell said...

Ken, I was pleasantly surprised to read this post today. I watched the (DVR'd) premiere of True Detective last night, and had the same thought about TV drama vs. movies, while driving this morning. Very few features hold my interest as well as today's cable dramas.

Aaron Chuwates said...

And, there's more and more actors out there competing for jobs.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, tell that to Martin Mull, Peter Reigert, Seth Green et al how much "better" television is; if you're gonna make that TIRED movies vs TV argument, be sure to include the CRAP (ie, most of it) TV vomits toward us as well...

MuffinMan21571 said...

Last I heard, James Caan's (lousy) show got canceled, so he's no longer "doing TV"... #getyourfactsupdated

Patton said...

Great article and so true!

Anonymous said...

"EPISODES", by far the best comedy on TV is back! Tonight, 8:30pm, Showtime. Hope season 3 is as good as the last two.

Anonymous said...

Cut the crap. There aren't many great actors today. They don't practice their craft enough to achieve mastery. Television isn't
any better, simply cheaper and less work involved. I enjoy Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy, etc, better than average TV, sure. Great, no. The actors on all these shows have a certain smugness, and code when appearing on talk shows, you'd think they were Olivier, Bogart, Nicholson,& Pacino rolled into one. In fact they are hacks, boys trying to be mean, but don't have the muster to pull it off. Spoiled children who never served their country, had to defend themselves in a fist fight, or hitch hiked there way across the country to work in Hollywood. No roughnecks, pretty metro boys, and entitled women make up today's Hollywood. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Carolyn said...

>>only 22 weeks of work a year

Foo. Get on British TV. Sherlock, which I love, has a series of THREE EPISODES a year! And this time we had to wait two years for the third season. That left plenty of time for the lead actors to do movies, stage, and -- heaven help us --radio!

Greg Ehrbar said...

"I also read an article in Forbes that said studios/networks are being pressured by Netflix to give shows endings to storylines before canceling them."

Thank you, Netflix. Can't wait to see Dave Crabtree's wife's face when she finally learns that her late mother-in-law REALLY IS a car.

Anonymous said...

I think TV these days is better written then movies by necessity. With movies, you only need to get them to the theater one time. You gotta hype the audience up and then throw some flashy shit at them to make them think they're going to see something. Once you pay your ticket, the studio doesn't give two shits about. All they care about is the next sucker. With TV, you want people to come back week after week. The most reliable way to do that with is with good characters and good stories, i.e. good writing.

John in Ohio said...

General Thoughts on TV and Movies.
I don't go to movies to see good stories, or interesting characters. I go to movies to see something that I cannot see the same way on my screen at home. So yes, nothing but the "summer blockbuster". Superhero movies, spy movies, etc. Other than that, i would rather watch it at home in peace, and where I can rewatch it to catch the nuances the second time, etc.
Also, the advent of DVR, DVD, and streaming has made the complex serial possible to watch, which is really what we are talking about the "serious" actors doing. We stopped watching 24 when it became impossible to keep the tapes straight to figure out which one we had to watch next to catch up on the 8 hours we were behind. Wouldn't be a problem now.
I also don't start to watch a new series that has a mystery as its hook until it gets picked up for the second season. 666 Park Avenue? No. Mustn't have been good enough. I don't want to start and not get to finish, and I don't want to waste my time on crap.
I don't want a premise stretched too thin either. I started watching the Dome show this summer when it was a limited summer run. It seemed like there was enough to support a couple months. When it got picked up for a second season I stopped. I wasn't going to find out this summer? I don't care anymore. It was already feeling like there wouldn't be a satisfactory conclusion anyway.
Movie comedies are mostly premise gags. Not played for subtlety. At all. You couldn't make a series out of Hangover. Even to get two movies, they basically had to remake the first one with a change of scenery. I didn't bother with the third. The best comedies on TV are driven by humor that is funny because we know the characters, not because of the actual lines. The lines have to be funny, but it requires knowing the characters to make them classic.
Take "The Contest" out of context. Watch it like you don't know the characters at all. It comes off as a much more uncomfortable humor, and not nearly as funny. Watch a MASH episode (especially a middle one with Potter before Frank left). If you don't know the characters, the humor is just not the same. A movie can never achieve the humor that is better because you know the characters, because about the time you start to know them, they are too busy wrapping up the storyline to be funny anymore.

VP81955 said...

It may be a golden age of TV drama, but I wish my beloved sitcom genre could follow suit. Too many producers following the "Friends" formula of beautiful people with little personality, unlike "Frasier" of "Seinfeld," where personality was the raison d'etre. Is it any wonder most TV critics these days deride sitcoms, particularly those emanating from the broadcast networks?

YEKIMI said...

A Friday question: Catching up on some TV show's DVDs and I notice on some that are some two-parters where part one may have director A & part two may have director Z. Why do some shows do this? It seems like you would want to have the continuity of the same director over both parts....at least in my opinion.

gottacook said...

"Yeah, tell that to Martin Mull, Peter Reigert [sic], Seth Green et al how much 'better' television is..."

Heck, don't blame the actors - they're just trying to remain employed, same as the rest of us. (All three, of course, are capable of really excellent work.)

Klee said...

However, if some movie star waited too long to make the shift to TV, their career was pretty much gone after the TV gig failed; anyone remember the Faye Dunaway sitcom?

Hamid said...

Anonymous: pretty metro boys, and entitled women make up today's Hollywood.

Hi, Mr Limbaugh.

Anonymous said...

While Warren Beatty denies to this day he was ever part of Dobie Gillis (and Dwayne Hickman once said Warren should cop to being on Dobie and deny he was ever in Ishtar), at about the same time some movie actors saw the light and were moving to TV including Ernest Borgnine, Andy Griffith and a little later Barbara Stanwyck.
Plus there is a whole group of 1940's tough guys in mostly B pictures who went on to well-known careers as the prototypical 1950's/1960's TV suburban fathers- Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, Brian Keith, and Fred MacMurray (Fred's pictures were a cut above).

Anonymous said...

The Quality of an average movie today is worse than it used to be in the 90s.

I just can't watch Iron Man or Avengers. Utter non-sense. All I remember from those so called "movies" are bright colors and explosions.

There are just too few Christopher Nolans out there.

Most of TV is crap too though. I rewatched all Seinfeld seasons last year and I couldn't believe how good it was.

Bellawho said...

ALL Actresses use Collagen!. Julia Roberts included> Cant help her sucky acting skills though.

Well see if MR can still do a lead when she stars in her own sshow on NBC later this yr

Janet said...

@anonymous: Fist-fights? Hitch-hiking across the country to work in Hollywood? Tell me, anonymous, what's it like living in a 1930s B picture?

Anonymous said...

You make it sound so dramatic. What's the difference between single-camera show and multi-camera show that it even affects the schedule?

Anonymous said...

Memo to Carolyn: have you HEARD the radio adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere" with "Sherlock" star Cumberbatch? Heaven help us if it never got made! It's freaking INCREDIBLE.