In the ongoing battle between the big and the small screen, it appears that television is winning. In an unprecedented move, the movie-on-demand juggernaut Netflix made its first foray into TV with the up-front commissioning and filming of the first season of House of Cards, a Kevin Spacey star-vehicle which has all thirteen episodes of its first season available to watch now. The man behind it all? David Fincher, the director of acclaimed films such as The Social Network and Se7en.
This is not a unique occurrence. Fincher joins a long list of directors who have made the the switch to TV: Martin Scorsese executive produces and directed the pilot episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire; Frank Darabont occupied a similar position on The Walking Dead and Steven Spielberg is possibly the most prolific of them all thanks to mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It is rumoured that he has another similar project in the pipeline. What is it about TV that is so attractive to these directors? Or what is it about the film-making process that is pushing them away?
It can be said that television allows directors and writers much more creative freedom. Programmes such as Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad are pushing the boundaries in terms of creativity as well as explicit violence and sex. Contrast this with the Hollywood Studio System which is becoming ever-reliant on safe bets. Studio executives are, now more than ever, less likely to risk their investments on unique and original projects than they are on sequels and summer blockbusters. Editors are required to ruthlessly cut their films to secure the coveted PG-13 or 12A rating with the sole purpose of making the project profitable. All decisions are now business decisions.
Steven Soderbergh is the most recent director to fall foul of the film studios. Unable to find funding for his biopic of Liberace, Soderbergh found a home for the project at the cable channel HBO. As TV networks have relatively small budgets compared to film studios, they have to ignore the expensive CGI and instead focus on writing intelligent scripts and creating interesting characters. Length is a factor too: 13 or even 22-episode series give directors and writers the opportunity to create depth and intricacy. Compare this to a two hour stint at the cinema and films can seem relatively shallow.
TV land isn’t as liberated as you may think, however. Every year, dozens of projects are cancelled with little or no warning if they fail to bring in the desired number of viewers, creating an unpredictable workflow for actors and directors alike. In the 1990s, David Lynch began working on a TV pilot with ABC before it was abandoned for being too weird. Instead of forgetting about the whole project, Lynch transformed the episode into a feature film: Mulholland Drive became an award-winning cult classic, proving that there is still a place in Hollywood for originality.
With 2012 having offered up a diverse and exciting selection of films, it does seem possible that studio executives are waking up to the idea that audiences enjoy films that challenge them just as much as those that are simply there to entertain. As long as it can still provide an outlet for inventive story-telling, then cinema will continue to attract a range of talented directors. Maybe it’s time creativity was given the green-light.