An article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times cites several recent and forthcoming TV projects by some of Hollywood's most successful filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Gus Van Sant, Neil Jordan, Curtis Hanson, Phillip Noyce, Greg Mottola, and Michael Mann (who got his start as a TV director and had vowed never to return). Others, including Kathryn Bigelow and Bill Condon, have pitched TV projects that haven't been picked up.
These directors are turning to TV for many of the same reasons that the actresses did a few years ago. Two of the most obvious reasons: First, TV is much more about story and character now than movies are. Second, opportunities in movies tend to dry up for risk-taking performers and directors, especially as they get older or are deemed otherwise unbankable by the studios.
The resulting talent drain may be good news for TV, but it's bad news for movies.
What's the Appeal of TV?
Behind this shift is the changing economics of both the TV and movie businesses. Movies have grown increasingly risk-averse, dependent on expensive spectacle, and aimed at broad audiences that are supposedly more interested in male-adolescent wish-fulfillment than character-based drama. TV is less costly, aimed more clearly at women (because advertisers favor them), and more open to creative risks because it doesn't have to swing for the demographic fences every time. On premium cable outlets, it doesn't have to please sponsors at all, so content restrictions there are minimal.
There used to be a big prestige gap between film and TV, but not anymore. In part, that's because so many A-listers have crossed it, but it's also because new digital platforms that make everything watchable on your TV, computer monitor, or mobile device have rendered the distinction between big-screen and little-screen fare irrelevant. It really doesn't matter whether your show was filmed in CinemaScope or Super 8 if you're watching it on a 3.5-inch iPhone screen.
Some additional points not made by the Times: If you're working on a series or mini-series, you have the opportunity to tell more novelistic stories that unfold over the course of hours and hours, not just the two-hour confines of a movie. (Here, the Times could have cited Todd Haynes' recent five-hour adaptation of James M. Cain's novel 'Mildred Pierce,' starring Kate Winslet, on HBO.)
What About Independent Films?
It's not just mainstream Hollywood studio filmmaking that's becoming increasingly hostile to veteran directors. It's true in the indie world, too. The bottom has all but dropped out of the independent film market in recent years, so indie movies, too, are becoming increasingly formulaic and risk-averse. Instead of struggling to cobble together financing for a small drama with no-name actors (or rather, during the years of downtime that such struggles entail), many indie directors are biding their time filming episodic TV. (The Times cites Lisa Cholodenko, who directed episodes of several series during the six years it took to get 'The Kids Are All Right' made.)
Are There Drawbacks?
Film directors are willing to shift to TV even though it tends to mean less money and fewer perks. TV shooting schedules are shorter than movies, so there's less time for rehearsals and storyboarding, actual filming, and post-production work like editing. Plus, directors have to make nice with writers, who are often barred from film sets but tend to be the guiding creative voices on TV shoots.
Still, directors say, the creative rewards are worth it. "We're getting bored, honestly," said Neil Jordan, who oversees Showtime's historical drama series 'The Borgias,' to the Times. "Directors like myself and probably Michael Mann, we find it so difficult to get our personal projects through the studio system."
Referring to HBO's 'Luck,' Mann told the Times, "I really didn't want to get back into television, but the script was just so damn good." (It's by David Milch, of 'Deadwood' and 'NYPD Blue' fame.) "It was one of the best things anyone has ever given me to direct."
These directors haven't completely abandoned movies. They're still keeping a foot in both camps, and if the offers come, they'll direct for the silver screen again. But offers to do work they find challenging and interesting generally aren't coming from the studios.
Maybe Hollywood thinks it can't afford to take chances on directors who want to tell personal, idiosyncratic stories instead of making superhero sequels. But with the box office slumping while ticketbuyers complain about formulaic retreads, the movies can use all the creativity and vision they can muster. Otherwise, the audiences will keep doing what the directors and actors are doing: defecting to television.
• Curtis Hanson: The filmmaker behind 'L.A. Confidential' and '8 Mile' diirected 'Too Big to Fail,' starring William Hurt, a docudrama feature about the 2008 financial collapse. Airing throughout this month on HBO.
• Neil Jordan: The 'Crying Game' filmmaker writes and directs 'The Borgias,' the 15th-century drama series currently airing on Showtime.
• Michael Mann: The director of 'Heat' and 'Public Enemies' is directing episodes of 'Luck,' a horse-racing drama series starring Dustin Hoffman. Airing on HBO in 2012.
• Greg Mottola: The helmer of 'Superbad' is directing the pilot of 'More as the Story Develops,' Aaron Sorkin's upcoming HBO series set in a TV newsroom.
• Martin Scorsese: Directed the pilot episode of HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire' and executive produces the series, which returns for season 2 in the fall.
• Phillip Noyce: After shooting the recent big-screen thriller 'Salt,' he has directed ABC drama series pilot 'Revenge' and an episode of HBO's 'Luck.'
• Oliver Stone: He's making 'The Untold History of the United States,' a 10-hour documentary mini-series for Showtime, and drama 'The Dark Side' for FX.
• Gus Van Sant: The 'Good Will Hunting' filmmaker is directing the pilot of 'Boss,' a political drama series starring Kelsey Grammer. Debuts on Starz later this year.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.