Is television the real heavyweight?


“It’s no secret to anyone that most, if not all, the top writing talent has fled motion picture for television.”

Especially to cable television, which has enjoyed its finest years ever, beginning by my count, when HBO debuted The Sopranos, and rolled out the welcome mat for writers who were sick of being second-guessed by network executives and focus groups.

In the years since that auspicious pilot, I count an ever more promising pool of talent, producing series of compelling drama and profoundly complex characters. Among my personal favorites have been BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, THE KILLING, RAY DONOVAN, MR. ROBOT, HOMELAND, MASTERS OF SEX, TRUE DETECTIVE (season one) and PENNY DREADFUL. What these series share is an unbelievably nuanced view of humanity. And a clear conviction that producers need no longer dumb-down their characters and story lines to find an audience. Complexity is celebrated. The ambiguity of the human heart is at last getting full reign to run where it will – into some pretty dark realms it turns out – but this is what happens when creativity has been so long suppressed. It flees into the underworld, that true realm of our psyche, from which monsters emerge. Dark, glorious, surprising monsters of the id. The Walter Whites and Don Drapers; the Vanessa Ives and Mr. Robots of the world, let loose upon the landscape of television.

vanessa-ivesTruthfully, the world of motion pictures looks pale and reed-thin by comparison. Week after week, the Friday openings offers little more than a sad rehash of overdeveloped franchises. It seems only the kids’ movies dare to launch a new character. If it isn’t a Marvel or DC Comics hero, they’re not interested. Whole genres have fallen out of production, adult dramas (except for the one month pre-Oscar qualifiers); suspense, thrillers, even romantic comedies are few and far between. As if date-night were a quaint idea of the past.

As lamentable as these trends may be, they are easy to understand if you look at the economics. P&A costs for a major release now adds such a burden for a picture to perform on opening weekend, that only international blockbusters can hope to win their frame. To combat international piracy, we have moved to day-and-date releases across large parts of the global market – a challenge for all but the biggest drawing super heroes. Horror seems to be the only other genre with enough box office grip to justify its cost of production. But let’s face it, the real reason that so few movie genres have survived is job security.

Studio executives are scared to death of green lighting a flop. A $200 million flop is career ending decision. So you do everything in your power, selecting from a smaller and smaller pool of guaranteed franchises, to pick your bet. Nobody will ever get fired for green lighting another X-Men. And that’s the long and short of things. Decisions being made by executives in fear for their jobs.

Sadly, anything truly original entails risk. And any business model that demands returns on opening weekend – is no longer in a position to take on these risks. And so, the exodus continues. OUT of motion picture into television. We go where we can work. We go where we can do our BEST work.

And I have gone from looking forward to the latest round of Friday releases, to marveling when one of them actually slips through the barbed wire, and puts something great on screen. Sadly, this isn’t often. Which makes the triumph all the greater when it happens.