Back to Basics: Hollywood Players Move to TV

Screen_shot_2014-12-01_at_1.53.16_PMOn January 11, HBO launched the new seasons of three original series. At 9:30, in between the fourth season premiere of Girls and the second season premiere of Looking, the premium cable provider will run the series premiere of its new original series Togetherness, created by the Duplass brothers (Mark and Jay). According to HBO’s website this thirty minute comedy will profile “Four adults nearing forty, living under the same roof, struggl[ing] to keep their relationships and individual dreams alive”. The series represents the legendary mumblecore duo’s first foray creating and writing for television. This is just the latest in a trend of directors and actors typically associated with film who are being drawn into television, which is in the midst of an explosion of high quality content in storytelling. Television, which has always struggled for artistic relevance in comparison to cinema, is currently the place where some of the most creative original stories are being told, and some major Hollywood players are starting to notice.

The age of Internet streaming has been a tremendous boost to the television industry by providing a new, low cost distribution method for content. The strategy of releasing content online to be viewed at the viewer’s convenience was pioneered by Netflix, who began producing original content for its online television and movie streaming service in 2012 with the original crime comedy series Lilyhammer. HBO has been providing content online through its HBO Go service since 2010, and recently announced plans to provide a subscription to HBO Go without a cable plan starting in 2015. Meanwhile Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are all places where consumers can watch television shows and movies on the same screen, and ultimately blurring the line between TV shows and film. At the recent Produced By: New York conference director Darren Aronofsky commented on the changing definition of entertainment, stating “I keep thinking about the whole idea of the (traditional) 90-minute feature and whether it really makes sense when we’re in this golden age of television and also this self-distribution age,” also commenting on his interest in television and his plans for his production company Protozoa Pictures to team up with HBO. One project Aronofsky plans to be involved with is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s MadAddam book series.

Netflix shook up the definition of “television” by releasing the entire season of its original shows at once rather than in the traditional weekly increments, enabling a practice sardonically dubbed “binge watching” in which viewers watch many episodes back to back. In fact 2% of Netflix subscribers watched the entire second season of House of Cards, which consisted of thirteen hour-long episodes, in the first weekend after its release. Ultimately the House of Cards deal is a game-changer not only in its method of distributing content, but in the way it makes its content. In 2011 Netflix bought House of Cards from established film director David Fincher, offering a reported $100 million for two seasons and exclusive distribution rights. Fincher set the tone for the show by personally directing the first two episodes, and remains on board as an executive producer. Twenty Emmy nominations later, including a win for director David Fincher, the show has established Netflix as a viable source of content and has been picked up for its third season.

The most remarkable thing about the House of Cards deal is that Netflix was paying for content that didn’t exist yet. The show was produced by a company called Media Rights Capital who was able to leverage an unprecedented amount of creative freedom from Netflix, including final cut rights for Fincher and his team. The result is that the series is more cinematic in pace and distinctly Fincher; it’s unlike anything else on television. In the wake of the success of House of Cards and other programs, Netflix and other fledgling streaming services like Amazon and Yahoo are hungry for content, with the freedom to produce unique and original programming.

On our cable boxes television networks like HBO, AMC, FX, and Showtime have been churning out quality content at such a pace that some consider this to be a new golden age of television. The elevation in storytelling has helped television escape the stigma of career death for actors, which has in turn helped elevate the level of performances as big name film stars increasingly take a turn on the silver screen; Steve Buscemi, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Daniels and Claire Danes to name a few. Coupled with a cynicism in Hollywood over the current state of the studio system this has made television an increasingly attractive platform for Hollywood storytellers. Last year Steven Soderbergh encapsulated these feelings in a forty-minute speech in which he announced his exodus from Hollywood (since then he has made a TV movie for HBO and directed a twenty episode series for Cinemax entitled The Knick). Many other Hollywood directors likely share his feelings. For example Fincher is taking a break from film to direct HBO’s adaptation of the British series “Utopia”. He is slated to direct the whole season, not just the first few episodes.

In 2013 HBO found a smash hit with the first season of True Detective, an anthology series that brought together a team of big name film actors and a director that previously worked in film. The first season stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as detectives for the Louisiana State Homicide Unit as they investigate a series of murders and their apparent ties to the occult. The series was praised for the performances by the two lead stars and for its writing, especially in the monologues delivered by the brooding, nihilistic Rust Cohle. Credit for the aesthetic quality and technical achievements of the series lie with director Cary Fukanaga, a director previously known for the films Jane Eyre (2011) and Sin Nombre (2009). It was recently announced that the second season would once again recruit talent from Hollywood, pairing Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, and Rachel McAdams as the stars with Fast and Furious director Justin Lin.

In another example, on October 15, 2014, fans of the cult classic TV show rejoiced at the announcement that David Lynch’s Twin Peaks would return to the small screen twenty-five years after its early cancellation by ABC. Lynch, who hasn’t made a feature film in nearly ten years, was lured out of this semi-retirement by the prospect of working in television once again by the premium cable network Showtime. During its initial run Twin Peaks was embraced by critics and enjoyed a relatively small but dedicated following. Unfortunately ratings suffered as the series, distinctly Lynch and thus distinctly weird, was unable to compete against more mainstream programs like Cheers. The high production value of Twin Peaks, notably in the cinematography, and the strong authorial voice of the series would likely have found a comfortable place in today’s television climate, especially given the creative freedom offered by streaming services like Netflix. The fact that Lynch is returning to television after such a long creative hiatus rather than to film is a good sign for the current state of TV.

The Duplass brothers on the other hand seem a more natural fit for television. The directors were pioneers of the mumblecore movement, which developed in the festival circuit, specifically around South by Southwest. The subgenre is marked by a microscopic budget, natural and often improvised dialogue, and small stories that revolve more around character than around plot. While other mumblecore directors have evolved by taking the tropes of the genre to larger budget films with more mainstream actors (for example Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies or Lynn Shelton’s Laggies), the fact that the Duplass brothers took an opportunity to work in television is not surprising. The type of stories they tell, which take place mostly through dialogue and the interaction between characters, are perfect for a half hour serial format, allowing character and story to develop slowly over time at a pace that’s more comfortable for the overall tone of the mumblecore movement. Togetherness will likely pair well with Girls, which is another show that focuses on the small scale interactions between a group of characters.  

A possible reason for this shift from film to television could be that outside the independent film scene, the major studios seem to be de-emphasizing story in favor of special effects and spectacle. Driven by the need to reach a mainstream audience as well as to be accessible to the massive foreign markets in China, Russia, and elsewhere, studio films are often visually stunning but lacking in dialogue and character. Action packed superhero films from Marvel and the endless sequels in the Transformers franchise consistently top the year end box office totals, leaving smaller budget (and smaller profit) films to dive deep into characters and real human issues. Although the superhero genre is beginning to spill over into TV with shows like Agents of Shield and Arrow, television programs traditionally speaking are a place where a long form story can unfold over time, driven by quality writing rather than effects. Television is a place where actors can dive deep into a character and a story while simultaneously reaching a mainstream audience in a way that is much more difficult for both independent and major studio films to achieve.

One wonders if this trend is more indicative of a renaissance in television or a slump in Hollywood. On one side, soulless annual movie sequels have managed to make superheroes boring, while on the other side high caliber performances and quality writing have made television captivating. It seems television has been willing to take risks and cede creative control in the name of good content in a way that Hollywood has failed to do in recent years. While the film world might lament the recent exodus of talent, viewers are getting just as much quality content as ever; just on a different screen. As Kevin Spacey said in a speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, “it’s all content. It’s just story . . . and the audience has spoken; they want stories. They’re dying for them.” Here’s hoping Hollywood will step up its game in response.

—Wil Barlow

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