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The Line Between TV, Film Gets Thin

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joel Silver, producer of the “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” movies, a few years ago explained his plans to produce an NBC series by recalling a visit to TV producer Aaron Spelling’s house.

“Some people get into television to make art,” Silver told advertising executives being briefed on pilots for the coming season. After surveying the palatial Spelling estate, he quipped, “I got into television to buy art.”

Though few would offer such a motive, writers and producers who once would have shunned television increasingly seem willing to move between films and TV.

ABC already has inked deals with several feature filmmakers to create TV series for next season. Directors Spike Lee and Edward Burns (“The Brothers McMullen”) are working on half-hour comedies, while Michael Tolkin (“The Rapture”) is adapting “The Player,” which he wrote, into a serialized drama series.

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Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the creative team from “Independence Day,” also have a commitment to produce a sci-fi series for Fox next season, and Imagine Entertainment’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer--the duo behind such blockbuster films as “Apollo 13"--announced their intentions to expand in television, developing shows for ABC and Fox under a just-minted deal with Walt Disney Television.

Soon-to-premiere series include “Gun,” an ABC anthology with veteran director Robert Altman among its producers, and “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” a WB Network version of the movie produced by writer Joss Whedon (“Speed”).

They join such talent as Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”), an executive producer on “Homicide: Life on the Street”; Amy Heckerling, who turned her movie “Clueless” into an ABC comedy; and “Rain Man” screenwriter Ronald Bass, co-creator of CBS’ “Moloney” and ABC’s “Dangerous Minds.”

Filmmakers cite various factors as inspiration for doing TV shows, including the chance to tell different stories, a faster pace than movies (where projects often languish in limbo for years) and fondness for the medium, where some began their careers.

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“I think television’s a perfect place for this kind of stuff. I love the form,” Altman said, referring to “Gun,” which depicts how various lives are affected by a gun--the lone recurring element. The director, whose credits include “Nashville” and “The Player,” likened the show to telling short stories as opposed to novels.

Movie writers and directors are quick to acknowledge differences between the genres. A TV show must be able to replicate itself 20-plus times each season--and, in success, more than 100 times over several years.

Budgets are lower, yet the production pace is more rapid. A show like “NYPD Blue” or “The X-Files” generates the equivalent of a dozen movies a year, filming episodes in eight days, whereas movies can shoot for months.

“It’s a whole other ballgame,” said Heckerling, who will have to wait until May to find out whether ABC will renew “Clueless,” which completed its first season last week.

“When you really enjoy some characters in an environment, you get to keep exploring [them], and that’s fun,” she said. “When you finish a movie, it’s completely gone. . . . I didn’t want to do a sequel, because I felt like the movie really resolved itself. With a TV show, you make it a series of small things that you figure out instead of one big thing.”

Except for occasional mega-hits like “Seinfeld” or “Home Improvement,” monetary rewards in TV seldom rival what movies offer an established writer, director or actor. There’s also a certain prestige factor in movies, even though some of the industry’s highest-paid stars (including Bruce Willis, Jim Carrey and John Travolta) are TV series graduates.

Such factors prompt full-time TV producers to question film talent’s commitment when it comes to television. Many are viewed as dilettantes who create shows but don’t hang around, instead moving on to their next film.

Moreover, few big-name feature filmmakers--despite the hoopla with which deals are announced--have been successful in television. Examples are numerous, including the submarine series “seaQuest DSV,” which sank in the ratings despite Steven Spielberg’s much-ballyhooed involvement. (Spielberg has a hand in another low-rated show, ABC’s “High Incident,” though his company is also connected with TV’s top-rated hour, “ER.”)

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“It looks good in a development report,” one TV producer suggested about the infatuation with feature names. “They don’t realize how much more work television is.”

Whedon, who also wrote the next “Alien” sequel, wasn’t actively pursuing television when approached to do “Buffy” but, to the studio’s surprise, he agreed. Unlike film scripts, where years can pass waiting for a production go-ahead, the writer finds it gratifying to actually make something each week.

“I get an idea, and three weeks later it’s being put on film. That’s incredible,” he said. “I’m getting to tell stories, and that’s all I want to do.”

Beyond time constraints, producers can be frustrated by the lower budgets in television, making special effects on a show like “Buffy"--about a high school student chosen to fight evil--more challenging.

“It’s always a struggle,” Whedon said, "[but] it’s not as much of a struggle as they’re having on [the next “Alien”], where they have a gadzillion dollars.”

Whedon admitted his vision was “initially a little bit grandiose” but compared the process of scaling down scenes due to TV’s limitations to low-budget features, which he thinks requires a filmmaker to be more creative.

If demarcations discouraging behind-the-scenes film talent from plying their trade in television appear to have eased, there are still problems of perception regarding actors. Michael J. Fox and Tom Selleck long resisted returning to TV before agreeing to star in new series, with the latter’s CBS show being planned for next season.

“Gun,” has managed to line up such performers as Daryl Hannah, Rosanna Arquette, Randy Quaid and Edward James Olmos to guest star in its six-episode tryout run.

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“They want to do it. They want to act,” Altman said. “They just get warned by their agents, ‘You’re a movie actor.’ ”


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