Emmys 2013: How much was film’s presence felt?

Kevin Spacey appears in a scene from the Netflix show "House of Cards."
(Melinda Sue Gordon / Netflix)

It’s axiomatic in 2013 that there are enough blurred lines between film and TV to make Robin Thicke blush. And indeed, watching the Emmy Awards on Sunday night, it was hard not to be struck by the cinematic background of some of the winners. A selective filmography of some of those given TV’s biggest prize: “Wall Street,” “Out of Sight,” “Terms of Endearment, “The Truman Show” and “Zodiac.”

But the subject is worth a closer look. How deep is the crossover really, and where is it happening?

Actors are certainly going back and forth with more regularity, and Sunday proved it. A quick glance at the lead actor nominees: Kevin Spacey from “House of Cards,” Jeff Daniels from “Newsroom,” Laura Linney from “The Big C: Hereafter.” All have at least one signature film role to their credit, and plenty of other memorable ones. Daniels joked to reporters afterward that he’ll soon be heading from his Will McAvoy character on “Newsroom” to the “intellectual freefall” that is his Harry Dunn character in the “Dumb and Dumber” sequel he is about to shoot.

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But the creator side is a different story. The winners in the major categories of outstanding drama and comedy -- “Modern Family” and “Breaking Bad” -- each come from TV veterans. In fact, a quick look at the 12 nominees in those categories, shows that there are apparently only three -- “Girls,” “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey” -- springing from creators who made their names in film first.

Well, sure, but look at all the other behind-the-camera winners and their resumes, you say. And there are indeed some big names. But they’re working in a very particular realm.

The behind-the-camera talent with film pedigrees who won Emmys did so for creating cinema-style one-offs -- David Fincher and the “House of Cards” episode he won for, Soderbergh and “Behind the Candelabra.” Their work may have aired on TV (or on laptops), but the creative template is much closer to the feature world than serialized television. They’re films that happen to go out on a different platform, not a different form in the first place. (Fincher, it should be said, is a co-producer of the entire Netflix series.)

The fact is, most great mainstream film directors have not worked much in television recently and don’t have plans to. You’ll come up with your own list, but here are some easy names: Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Kathryn Bigelow, David O. Russell, Paul Greengrass.

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And those big-time filmmakers who are delving into TV, such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, are doing so less as prime movers than as creative overseers, with teams under them handling the day-to-day in what is an offshoot of their empires.


All of which is probably to the good, since it allows many brilliant TV creators to have a chance to ply their trade without an invasion of feature types frustrated they can’t get their movie.

There are plenty of factors for why the two worlds are still somewhat separate, but the biggest may be that directing a single piece over a defined period is a very different skill from churning out a story that will play out over 10 or 12 hours every year, with built-in sequels in the years to follow. That’s why when great auteurs do try to make the move, it doesn’t always go as planned, as Ang Lee recently learned.

And it’s why when great TV creators -- I mean, really great ones, such as David Chase and Matthew Weiner -- try to make the switch to film, they don’t find it all that easy.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great, for them and for us, that there’s room in the TV world for filmic types who feel squeezed out by the modern movie business. That allows us to see great work such as “Behind the Candelabra” that we’d never get to see otherwise. But in talking about the Golden Age of TV, it’s probably good not to take the thought too far. It’s still largely being carried out by people who are actually in TV.



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