The Big Picture: Hollywood’s creative talent wants to be on cable
Matt Nix always thought he’d be a screenwriter. But after spending nearly a decade doing adaptations and rewrites for film projects that fell apart just before a studio gave them the greenlight, he found himself at a crossroads. “I realized I could waste my whole career writing things no one would ever make,” he told me over lunch the other day.
His agent encouraged him to try television. Nix lucked out with the first pilot he penned, “Burn Notice."Now in its sixth year on the USA Network, the Miami-based adventure series about a former covert-ops agent trying to discover who blacklisted him is a powerhouse, routinely turning up as the top-rated Thursday night cable TV show.
“I didn’t know anything when I started — I wrote an entire pilot without any space for commercials,” Nix, 40, said. “But what I had was the opportunity to do something that was mine. It struck me as significant, after the fact, that ‘Burn Notice’ was the first thing where someone told me, ‘Do what you want to do,’ as opposed to what someone else wanted to do.”
Ten years ago, Nix might never have had the opportunity to create his own distinctive world, populated by a colorful assortment of sleuths and sleazeballs. TV was still a closed-off culture, largely presided over by network behemoths who rarely gave even the best writers — think David Chase or Matthew Weiner — the freedom to push the envelope until they’d spent years laboring in the salt mines.
Now it’s a new ballgame. Cable TV is crammed with original series that are bursting at the seams with the kind of creative bravado that hasn’t been seen in Hollywood since the early 1970s. If you’re looking for great storytelling, the real action is on your TV set, not at the multiplex.
The origins of this trend can be traced to the decline of network television and its one-size-fits-all model. Once a dusty repository for old movies and second-run network shows, cable now has an insatiable desire for original programming. The splurge on new programming was inspired by increased competition from pay TV outlets like HBO — which had created a huge splash with “Sex and the City"and “The Sopranos"— as well as the loss of once reliable network reruns, whose value had plummeted. Unlike reruns or reality shows, original programming also generates additional revenue from DVD sales and Netflix licensing.
The hunger for fresh material also came at a time when Hollywood was increasingly obsessed with creating Big Event franchises, and abandoning the kind of sophisticated dramas and comedies that have hit pay dirt on cable. The rise of new media has also helped cable replicate the communal experience of moviegoing, with TV show devotees turning television viewing into a participatory experience, spending endless hours sharing their enthusiasm, outrage or puzzlement over various plot twists on blogs, Twitter feeds and elsewhere in cyberspace.
The migration of talent from film to TV has become Topic A in industry conversations. When I had lunch recently with a studio head, we guiltily realized halfway through the meal that all we’d been talking about were our favorite TV shows. “The studios should be embarrassed,” one Oscar-winning writer-director said recently, not wanting to be named because he was in the midst of making a movie at one of those very studios. “All of the good filmmaking today is on cable TV.”
When William Morris Endeavor held a retreat recently, agency chief Ari Emanuel made a point of reminding his troops that everyone should be finding work for their clients in TV. To hear other agents tell it, cable TV has become the new indie film business.
“The way the movie business operates today, if you’re interested in working with great actors and telling complex stories, there are just far more creative opportunities in TV,” says United Talent Agency Chief Executive Jeremy Zimmer. He pointed to the career path of Lena Dunham, who after making one modest indie film turned to HBO, where she has created the zeitgeisty hit"Girls.”
“It’s so hard to get an indie film made today that she would have undoubtedly have gone through a lot of struggles to find a broader audience,” he explained. “At HBO, she’s been able to take all sorts of risks and make a cultural impact instead of having to worry whether it had the right marketing to find an audience.”
A big part of the talent exodus to TV is rooted in simple math. A decade ago, a host of studios and specialty divisions were making and buying movies, but only a handful of cable and pay TV outlets commissioned original programming. But today there’s a huge array of cable TV outlets making shows. In film, many specialty divisions have disappeared, and independents have merged, so the number of studio buyers has shrunk dramatically.
“Nearly every major filmmaker I know is either involved with TV now or wants to be,” said Mark Johnson, a veteran film producer (“Rain Man” and “Chronicles of Narnia”) who produces the acclaimed AMC series"Breaking Bad.” “The economics are just so much better. You only need a couple of million viewers to justify your existence, so you don’t have a huge financial guillotine hanging over your head like in film.”
Nix argues that the era of aiming for every eyeball in America is over. In an age dominated by niche-oriented social media, TV shows have found almost as much value in an engaged audience of 2 million tweeters, tastemakers and true believers as 10 million casual fans who simply stuck around to see what show followed"The Big Bang Theory.”
The reason? Advertisers today prefer upscale viewers. Even though shows like AMC’s"Mad Men"and “Breaking Bad” have a fraction of the viewership of a cable juggernaut like"Jersey Shore,"they are magnets for advertisers who value the shows’ high media profile and are eager to reach their affluent, better educated viewers.
“On cable, a big hit draws 5 million viewers, but you can sustain a show with 2 million people watching its first airing,” Nix says. “That means that what counts is having viewers who are passionately committed to their show. And the way to do that is to program a show that is 100% what it aims to be and allow the show runners to embrace all their idiosyncrasies, just as they’d do if they were making an independent film.”
In other words, the shows that have intensely loyal followings, from “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” to “Girls” and “Game of Thrones,"are the ones that aren’t trying to be all things to all people. “It’s hard not to make a connection between ‘Breaking Bad,’ which is about a guy who’s a meth dealer, and a film like “Reservoir Dogs,’” Nix says. “They are, by nature, very personal, niche experiences that can’t exist in a universe where they have to appeal to every family in the living room or every kid at the multiplex.”
To use Hollywood Speak, we might call today’s cable hits one-quadrant TV shows, freed from the soul-killing ordeal of having to appeal to everyone parked in front of a plasma screen. And because the shows only need a relatively small audience to achieve hit status, they are free to challenge viewers with far more nuanced characters and complex story lines.
“Today’s best cable shows are making TV you have to watch with both eyeballs or you won’t follow what’s going on,” said Nix. “Look at the [season ending episode] of ‘Breaking Bad’ — if you weren’t giving it your entire attention, it would be totally incomprehensible. With our show, we’re always using voice-over, so what you’re seeing on screen is often the exact opposite of what’s actually going on. It forces you to be engaged, just as you’d be watching an indie film.”
Pardon me if it sounds as though I’m dancing on Hollywood’s grave. But showbiz, like nature, abhors a vacuum. With the studios obsessed with Big Event movies, TV has become an oasis for edginess and artistry. In 1979, “Kramer vs. Kramer” was the highest-grossing movie in America. It’s almost impossible to imagine it being made in today’s Hollywood. But its spirit is alive and well, nurtured by a brash new generation of gifted storytellers in cable TV.
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