October 21, 2016
By Haridas K.
For decades, TV has been regarded as an inferior storytelling medium to film. But the last 10 years have seen the barriers between film and television come crashing down, thanks to game-changing TV dramas including Mad Men, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Game of Thrones, Serangoon Road and True Detective. Companies that used to specialise in film have opened up TV divisions; actors who were only ever seen on the big screen have become living room favourites; writers and directors associated with cinema now lead double lives as TV showrunners; and stories that started life as blockbuster movies have found a new lease of life as returnable TV series.
Explaining how this came to pass, Tandem Communications’ President and Partner, Rola Bauer, says, “With the increase of subscriptions in premium pay-tv and SVOD, and their need to differentiate themselves from all other forms of television, HBO, Canal+, Showtime and now Netflix and Amazon Prime were motivated to reach for a more cinematic audience with their original programmes than free TV and basic cable. When they succeeded in getting more viewers and critical acclaim, their approach to storytelling started to influence basic cable and free TV. Many free-TV and basic cable networks now want to push the narrative envelope and make less formulaic television.” This new direction has proved appealing to actors and, by association, writers and directors.
Bauer adds, “Owing to the high cinematic quality now being achieved in television, actors are presented with an opportunity to work in productions with rich characters and multi-layered storylines. They can also portray a role more fully, taking the time to develop a character, when it is spread out over a season. Additionally, the talent realises that a whole generation is growing up with multiple devices who perceive little difference between entertainment in the cinema or on TV, computer, tablets or smartphones.”
Bauer, whose company belongs to leading European film studio StudioCanal, believes Tandem’s current slate is indicative of the way talent has responded to this new creative opportunity. She cites shows such as Spotless, a new one-hour drama for Canal+ Creation Original; Sex, Lies and Handwriting, a co-production with Lionsgate Television, currently in development for ABC in the U.S., Sat.1 Germany, TFI France and Bell Media Canada; and Crossing Lines, a cross-border crime series that has already sold to 180 countries. The latter stars William Fichtner (Elysium; Teenage Ninja Turtles) and has recurring appearances from screen legend Donald Sutherland.
Bauer has also witnessed a greater willingness among film talent to work in TV. “Right now, there’s an opportunity to take creative risks, to be cutting-edge and original,” she says. “At the same time, there is the opportunity to stand out. With social media trending more and more towards TV, scripted shows have become the currency of the water cooler. Any stigma around TV has long gone.”
According to her, one property that really captures this trend is Utopia. “It’s a U.K. drama from then Shine owned Kudos that is being adapted by David Fincher for HBO in the U.S,” she says. “Fincher, who made The Social Network and House of Cards, is the kind of executive who is equally comfortable in film or TV production.” She believes the current trend towards shorter run series is also encouraging film talent into TV because they are able to fit it around their other commitment, which isn’t the case when they are committed to long-running procedurals. Sonar Entertainment CEO Gene Stein echoes his peers when he says the drama arms race is being driven by networks seeking to differentiate themselves from their rivals. But he also believes that changes in the film industry are favouring the television.
“The movie market has polarised into large, epic, action movies and small independent films, with the great middle largely eliminated. So far actors and directors wanting to play complex characters or tell interesting intimate stories, TV is providing them with new opportunities to do that.”
He also argues that changes in commissioning patterns are encouraging film talent into TV -but he cites a different reason. “The growing trend towards commissioning full series is helping to attract talent; because it means actors and showrunners have a guarantee that they are going to be able to tell their story, instead of seeking it fails to go past a pilot.” Stein says Sonar’s slate of content last year is further evidence of the willingness of talent to move between film and television.
“We then had a straight-to-series order from MTV for Shannara. Based on the best-selling fantasy novels from Terry Brooks, the first two episodes were directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Then we had South of Hell, a thriller for WE TV, which saw Eli Roth (Hostel, Hemlock Grovel) direct the first episode. Additionally, we had Tom Hardy starring in Taboo.” Roma Khanna, former President of MGM’s Television Group and Digital also identifies a shift in the film business. Her previous organisation is doing at the high-end of the theatrical market with, among others, the James Bond franchise and The Hobbit series. She said, “The US$40 – US$50 million market is disappearing. From a TV point of view, the good news is that it seems to have been replaced by high-end cable drama series.”
Khanna cites the example of Fargo, an award-winning MGM-production series for cable network FX that stars Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. “To have talent like that working in TV is wonderful,” she added. “It’s contributing to the phenomenal standard of storytelling we’re seeing right now.” Fargo which has been sold internationally to broadcasters including Channel 4 U.K. and Canal+ Spain is not just interesting because of its talented cast. As a spin-off from the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, it is also part of the movie-TV cross-over trend. Other titles to have taken a similar path include MGM’s Teen Wolf, Sony Pictures Television’s (SPT) Hannibal and The Firm, Atlantique Productions’ Transporter and NBCUniversal’s About A Boy.