Helmers fight for credits ability

Event to fete made-fors and minis, address directors' issue

Is a little recognition too much to ask after 40 years?

Directors of movies made for television don’t think so. A long-simmering campaign to raise the profile of longform helmers in the entertainment press is expected to gain momentum June 20 when the Directors Guild of America hosts a celebration of four decades of achievement in made-fors and minis.

Event, which will gather helmers, plus studio, network and cable execs, stars and other collaborators, will include the unveiling of a parade of clips edited by Chuck Workman, including such landmark fare as “Brian’s Song,” “Roots” and “Angels in America.”

Besides tooting the birthday horn for a format that dates to 1964, when NBC aired “See How They Run,” the event is meant to address what helmers have long seen as a perplexing absence of notice for their own key creative role in the field.

For example, recent reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times of HBO’s much-admired “Elizabeth I” made no mention of Tom Hooper, director of the two-parter.

“I think the source of the problem is that TV reviewers are accustomed to reviewing episodic series, where there is greater producer involvement,” says helmer Robert Markowitz. “But the role of the director in longforms is no different than in theatrical movies. At our best we bring in an articulate and personal point of view, and determine how the story will be told.”

Markowitz (“The Tuskegee Airmen”) has directed longforms for nearly 30 years and is co-chair, with helmer Mike Robe, of a DGA committee formed to address the problem.

“It’s an educational process,” says Robe of the campaign, which reaches out to key editors and writers in the mainstream and trade press.

Last year’s attempt by the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences to cut longform directors out of the Emmy Awards broadcast threw fuel on the committee’s fire. “It provoked a groundswell of concern, not just from directors but from people who believe in the genre and have worked very hard in it,” Robe says.

He and Markowitz were key players in preserving the award (the Acad maintained it, but allotted fewer minutes in the broadcast). “It took some educating,” Markowitz says.

Adds Robe: “The Academy, to its credit, recognized that this was something important to the creative community and found another solution.”

While traditional network support for longforms is waning, both of these veteran longform directors point out that the form and its future are evolving. Cable channels such as ESPN and AMC now are commissioning originals, and DVD releases are expanding the lifespan and audience for the movies.

Says Robe, who wrote and directed ESPN’s “The Junction Boys,” about a key period in the career of football coach Bear Bryant: “It had nice ratings when it aired. But inevitably, when people talk to me about it, it’s because they purchased the DVD, which was aggressively marketed on ESPN. The nice thing for the director is that the DVD creates a permanent record.”

Adds Markowitz: “What’s changed in the industry is that there is a recognition that the form is valuable after its initial moment. Now you’ll find all of the quality TV films released on DVD within six months. The airing of the movie on TV is just the beginning.”

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