TV feature pose unique challenges, frustrations

TV movie directors don’t get any respect.

While highly accomplished helmers — some with years in features — continue to turn to television as an increasingly receptive platform, their reputations do not necessarily improve with the move, and may actually suffer.

“It really is the same job, but harder, and you get less respect,” says Martha Coolidge, whose work includes the features “Lost in Yonkers” and “Rambling Rose,” and the telefilms “Crazy in Love,” “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” and “If These Walls Could Talk 2,” for which she is nominated for a DGA award. “It’s how people treat you, it’s how the industry treats people who make TV movies.”

Feature directors are almost invariably top dog on a production, but helmers of TV movies, episodics and mini-series are often “hired hands” — with some notable exceptions — who must bow to the will of producers, writers, network executives, stars and others with a stake in the project.

“The director is there for the execution of what is basically someone else’s concept,” says Robert Markowitz, who directed “The Great Gatsby” and “Small Vices” for A&E, and “Into Thin Air: Death on Everest” for ABC. “The director of a TV movie is for the most part fairly anonymous. It’s an issue.”

Not only that, but TV directors must work under far smaller budgets and stricter time constraints than features.

“Very often the entire budget of a TV film is not enough to pay the star of a feature film,” Markowitz says. “For $7 million, you couldn’t get Tom Cruise.”

And yet audiences expect the same level of expertise, flair and authenticity when they sit down to watch a telepic as they do when heading into the local multiplex.

“The director of a TV film must have more craft than the director of a feature, because the director of a theatrical movie generally comes back with a movie-and-a-half or two movies and decides in the editing room which film they’re going to release,” Markowitz says. “The story for a TV film must be decided when the screenplay is locked.”

On the other hand — low budgets and wounded egos aside — there are a lot of advantages to working in TV.

“It affords the directors who really care about quality material the opportunity to explore significant subjects that theatrical films no longer do,” Markowitz says.

“On HBO, Showtime and TNT, in most cases the material is much better than one has in feature films,” says Frankenheimer, who began his career five decades ago at CBS and who made a string of top-notch features (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Train”) before returning to the small screen in the 1980s and ’90s.

“There’s much less interference in TV,” he continues. “You don’t have those idiotic, damaging test screenings that you live or die by. You don’t have the requirements for casting that you either get such-and-such a star or you don’t make the movie.

“There’s a different work ethic, too; you don’t waste 1-1/2 hours a day trying to get a star out of a trailer. Every point is not in negotiation — you don’t have to go to work in a flak jacket.”

Those kinds of differences, as well as the seemingly endless demand for product, have attracted many other feature directors to TV, among them Mark Rydell (“James Dean: An Invented Life,” for TNT), Norman Jewison (“Dinner With Friends,” HBO), Stephen Frears (“Fail Safe”) and Mike Nichols (“Wit,” HBO).

Joseph Sargent, whose credits in 35 years of TV directing include “Miss Evers’ Boys,” “Day One” and “Mandela and de Klerk,” says small-screen helmers are “constantly relegated to the back of the bus.”

“Each of the guilds unwittingly contributes to the problem by making the distinction” between feature directors and TV directors, says Sargent, who also helmed the features “MacArthur” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.”

“We all suffer from the same irritation and the same frustration,” he says. “I use exactly the same camera, the same film, the same crews and the same technology in TV as I do in features. So why do we insist on treating TV as though it were a second cousin?”

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