For decades, TV was showbiz’s stepchild, the medium that created jobs for people who were on their way up — or on their way down — in their film careers.
But there’s a general consensus that TV has now moved into prime position. What was the tipping point? While everybody has different theories, most roads lead to Tony Soprano.
With lower pay and more jobs, TV has always seemed a more attainable career goal. But the next generation is increasingly making television their primary ambition, not the consolation prize, and the American Film Institute is on the front lines of the cultural shift.
Robert Mandel has a good vantage point: He graduated from AFI in 1979, made features, then settled for TV work (including “The X-Files” pilot) and returned to AFI in 2005 as dean of the conservatory.
“I was one of those in 1979 who couldn’t imagine directing TV. I assumed everybody wanted to make another ‘Godfather’ — and actually they did. But I have seen a big change.” Mandel is involved in many interviews for AFI applicants, and in recent years he has noticed more questions about courses specifically geared toward television from incoming students, or fellows, as they are called. (AFI applicants have targeted career goals — writer, editor, director — unlike other film schools that steer students into specific areas in their second year.)
“The fellows coming in generally want to tell stories about people and characters, and they began to see TV as the place to successfully do that. There’s a huge increase in demand for TV studies, especially with writing applicants. They see Matt Weiner, Vince Gilligan and other showrunners who sometimes get a year to create scripts before they go to camera, who control and protect their material. These things could never happen in features.”
AFI has a great record of transitioning students into work, with 81% of its graduates now employed in the industry. The majority are working in TV, which is not a surprise. But the big shift is that they plan to stay there.
Many TV and film executives interviewed by Variety point to Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” (1993-2002) as an early influence; its alums include Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), Alex Gansa (“Homeland”) and Howard Gordon (“Homeland”). But nearly everyone agrees that a turning point was HBO’s “The Sopranos” (1999-2007). Creatively, it broke rules about sympathetic protagonists and offered a strong artistic voice (David Chase), with minimum executive interference.
HBO raised the bar for quality and creative freedom. The show even delayed season premieres of the show to give Chase the time he wanted. Other networks quickly followed suit, such as Showtime, FX, AMC and newer players like Netflix. As creativity grew, the networks were making terms more artist-friendly: a season of 10 or 12 episodes, as opposed to 22 or more, and longer shooting schedules per episode.
All of this was occurring as movie studios cut back on the number of films, emphasizing franchises and branding rather than personal projects.
There are still remnants of the old mindset. Every national and local news show announces the weekend box office winner, but very few bother to report the week’s top-rated TV show — even though more Americans watch TV than go to the cinema.
And it’s still possible to meet someone who exclaims, “Oh, I never watch television.” But more often than not, the conversation around the table is about the latest episode of their favorite show.
As viewers have more options for watching TV, the creative boom is likely to continue. At this rate, folks starting their showbiz careers may end up working on feature films while waiting for their big break in TV.