Telepics rival big-screen brethren

Fluff gone from the genre as made-fors get their due

For directors specializing in made-for-TV movies, respect has been a long time coming.

As the broadcast networks eliminate most of their TV movie slots and cable continues to pick up the made-for-TV mantle, DGA Awards nominees in the telepic category find themselves in increasingly good company.

That’s because, with fewer low-profile broadcast features being produced, much of the fluff has been driven out of the telepic business.

“These are the best movies I’ve seen all year,” director Joan Tewkesbury says of this year’s nominees. “The caliber gets better and better. This particular set of directors have all done features. The walls are breaking down (between film and TV).”

Four-time DGA winner Dan Petrie agrees, and says he believes most of the nominated TV pics could even rival this year’s Oscar noms.

“I’ve seen all five, and they’re in that league,” he says.

Credit this year’s crop of well-seasoned nominees. Robert Allan Ackerman, who’s nominated for ABC’s “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” has won five Emmys as well as a Golden Globe, and has strong roots in the theater.

Director-producer Jon Avnet, nominated for NBC’s “Uprising,” has directed films such as “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Up Close and Personal.” Billy Crystal, in the running for his HBO passion project “61*,” is an accomplished actor-director and writer-producer (“America’s Sweethearts”).

Vet writer-director Frank Pierson, whose long list of credits includes “A Star Is Born,” is nominated for the HBO project “Conspiracy.” And “On Golden Pond” director Mark Rydell is in the running thanks to his TNT take on “James Dean.”

All five of this year’s nominees come from a hodgepodge of backgrounds that include theater, writing and feature directing. And although three of the five projects come from a cable outlet, even the two network entries (“Uprising” and “Judy Garland”) are big-event cable-style productions.

“Cable TV movies are seeing a kind of a golden age,” Pierson says. “The feature market is so commercial. For movies with passion, this is the only place to go.”

All five nominated directors also developed huge projects that tackle big, real-life stories like the Holocaust (“Uprising,” “Conspiracy”) and larger-than-life cults of personality (“Judy Garland,” “James Dean” and “61*”).

But the emergence of top-notch cable and pay TV original features during the past decade aside, there’s still a stigma attached to helming a telepic.

The DGA has been working toward advancing a sense of respect for TV movies through the org’s award for outstanding directoral achievement in movies for television. But even the DGA Awards unintentionally help spread that second-class stereotype.

Given the awards’ timing — just weeks before the Oscar kudocast — it’s probably no surprise that interest in the TV awards doesn’t come close to the kind of attention that’s bestowed on the feature nods (especially since the DGA pick is considered a good arbiter of how Oscar voters will act).

DGA First Vice President Martha Coolidge says she’s proud to call herself a TV movie director, but sometimes finds it a daunting challenge.

“We have less time, less money and more interference than (our film) counterparts,” she says.

Not only does film still trump television — at least when it comes to the eyes of most Hollywood players — but writers usually hold more sway than directors on the small screen.

Avnet says TV movie helmers must also contend with commercials, broadcast standards and a “sameness” in direction that many networks preach.

“With the networks, the sad reality is directors are treated like shit,” Avnet says. “The executive producer has the power. You have to be forceful to survive that disrespect and keep your vision intact.”

Rydell says he avoids that network meddling by positioning his project as more than just a “TV movie.”

“When I faced off with Turner, they would say, ‘It’s TV,'” Rydell says.

“I would say, ‘For you it’s TV. I’m making a movie. If you want to show it on TV, that’s your business.’ They respect that. I don’t make any concessions just because it’s on TV.”

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