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Smallscreen lures big filmmakers

Haynes, Winslet, Scorsese, Buscemi break into TV

As the theatrical market for specialty cinema has shrunk and foreign presales have declined, indie producers have had to look elsewhere for revenue.

For many, television is now an attractive option. Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler’s Killer Films is among shingles making the switch, excited by the options that the smallscreen brings.

HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” now in post, is Vachon and director Todd Haynes’ first TV project, which she also describes as a 5 1/2-hour movie.

The mini is adapted from James M. Cain’s novel, rather than the 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford, about a divorced single mom’s strained relationship with her daughter. It toplines Kate Winslet, who committed to the project just after winning the actress Oscar for “The Reader.”

“A couple of years ago it wouldn’t have been even in the realms of possibility that Todd Haynes would do something for TV, and, even more so, that Kate Winslet would agree to be in it,” Vachon says. “That speaks a lot about the direction filmmaking is going.”

For filmmakers like Haynes and Martin Scorsese, whose HBO miniseries “Boardwalk Empire” has elicited glowing notices, television offers a broader canvas.

“Directors are getting to tell stories that they are passionate about, and they are getting to tell them in a venue that is more appropriate for those stories,” Vachon says.

“Scorsese is making ‘Boardwalk Empire’ because it gives him an opportunity to explore characters and a world in a certain amount of time that he wouldn’t be able to do on the bigscreen.”

The same can be said for Haynes and “Mildred Pierce,” she says.

“It’s not a replacement for making movies. It’s a different way to go. Filmmakers are more open to those opportunities for some of the stories that they couldn’t make on celluloid,” she says.

Vachon says that after “I’m Not There,” Haynes had wanted his next story to be female driven, but that had become more difficult to do theatrically in the States. Cable offered a higher level of creative freedom.

“I thought it would be a nice change of pace for him to do something where he could really take the time to explore characters and narrative,” Vachon says.

Not that Vachon has given up on theatrical movies. Among other projects,Killer is making improvisational comedy “Dealin With Idiots” with helmer Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), and horror film “Innocence,” directed by Hilary Brougher (“Stephanie Daley”), and has recently inked a development deal with the U.K.’s Bankside Films.

But Vachon says the boundaries between big- and smallscreens are blurring, especially when an increasing number of arthouse distribs, like IFC, are releasing pics theatrically and on demand at the same time.

Because of this, the next generation of talent is turning to TV and new media to tell its stories.

“Young filmmakers grew up with ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Six Feet Under,’ ‘The Wire,’ and that’s where they saw alternative stories being told,” she says, “story-telling that was really out there on the edge. And while that was happening a lot of theatrical filmmaking pulled back, and became more and more risk averse.

“So a lot of young filmmakers are not as obsessed with the notion that they have to make something theatrically,” she says. “They just want to make something good. And if it shows on the Web, if it shows on TV, that’s fine. They just are concerned about finding their audiences.”

Killer Films has been going for 15 years, outlasting many of the companies that it has partnered with over the years.

For Vachon, the ability to adapt is key. “We are like cockroaches, we just survive nuclear blasts,” she says.

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