Power surge for TV directors

Small-screen helmers find themselves at top of totem pole

A new Hollywood species is slowly starting to work its way up the TV industry food chain: the director/producer.

Network execs, faced with increasing competition, are scrambling to make their series stand out as much as possible. A radio play acted out in front of cameras — think “I Love Lucy” — no longer cuts it for auds used to watching “The Matrix” on DVD.

As a result, small-screen directors — from titans like James Burrows, Pam Fryman and Thomas Carter to emerging talents like Todd Holland — suddenly find themselves in a position of greater power and influence.

The notion of a helmer taking on a dual credit as a producer or even exec producer, a rarity just a few years ago, is becoming a regular occurrence.

Some, like Carter and “ER’s” Mimi Leder, have even parlayed their TV success into feature careers. And some feature directors have become red-hot on the TV side, like Michael Dinner, who this season served as exec producer/helmer on Fox’s “The Street.”

Writers still rule in TV, but helmers — once important only during the pilot process, when a show’s visual template is established — are now frequently a part of a successful show’s full-time creative team.

Some of the most buzzed-about series to emerge in recent seasons — “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The West Wing,” “Will & Grace” — all have in-house directors who also serve as producers. Titanic showrunners such as David E. Kelley and Steven Bochco have also added helmers like Paris Barclay and Bill D’Elia to the staffs of their skeins.

“Directors are more highly regarded on series television than ever before,” says Carter, whose work on the seminal 1980s drama “Miami Vice” offered an early peek at the cinematic possibilities of the medium.

“The kind of sharing of credit and responsibility is unparalleled in the history of television.”

It’s not the first time directors have made their mark on the small screen. During the early days of live television, helmers such as John Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, Robert Mulligan and Sidney Lumet were revered for coaxing amazing performances out of actors.

Such skills are still in demand — though the current wave of hot directors are better known for their ability to create big-screen style spectacles and visually distinctive backdrops.

The power surge for directors isn’t a by-product of producer benevolence. Helmers and their reps, sensing studio and network desperation to pack more punch into their programs, have been emboldened to ask for props.

Just last week, Fryman’s reps at tenpercentery Broder Kurland — whose director client list boasts heavyweights such as Burrows, Allen Coulter (“The Sopranos”), Andy Cadiff (“Home Improvement”) and Terry Hughes (“That 70s Show”) — snagged an amazing one-year deal for the helmer to come on board “Just Shoot Me” as an exec producer and the show’s sole director. The pact will pay her a seven-figure salary for a year’s work.

Overall fees for TV directors are also edging higher. A top director can now command up to $50,000 per episode; the upper echelon for helmers who double as producers pull in as much as $65,000.

“Agents can smell a trend,” one small-screen suit says. “When you get someone like Thomas Schlamme or Todd Holland having the success they’ve had, other agents are going to try to go for the jugular. It’s still a writer’s market, but you’re going to see more and more directors making overall (and staff) deals.”

It’s a big shift for TV directors.

Unlike the feature biz, television historically has valued writers most. Scribes are signed to multimillion-dollar deals and generally have final say over a show’s creative direction; helmers tend to work on a per-episode basis and take their cues from writers.

More respect on the way

The issue of more respect for directors in TV and for writers in film was one of the overarching themes of the latest Writers Guild labor negotiations with producers. At least on the TV side, the marketplace seems to be working in favor of helmers.

Directors like Schlamme now get equal billing with writers and producers like Aaron Sorkin and John Wells. Some, like Carter, actively develop their own projects via their own companies.

Schlamme believes studios and webs benefit from natural collaborations between writers and directors. He says pairings should happen as early as possible in the development of a new series.

“If you want to help the success of your show, partner up a writer and a director,” says Schlamme, who’s been with “The West Wing” since its pilot.

“My sense of ownership in this show is very real,” he says. “When I’ve done other shows, which I’ve loved, I was off doing other things between (directing) episodes. Now, I’m here; I feel like I’m going to work at the store every day.”

Kevin Bright, an exec producer of “Friends”-turned-director, argues there’s “no reason to have revolving directors” on a series.

“Making directors exec producers empowers them,” Bright says. “It allows them to be more hands-on. They’re no longer a guest in your house.”

Such cohabitation also helps prevent turf wars from erupting between scribes and helmers. With an inhouse director, there’s less chance of a guest helmer coming in and trying to put his vision above that of the showrunner.

Even most directors recognize that the final say on a TV set belongs to the writer/exec producer.

“There should not be a competition between the writer and director for power or focus,” says Carter. “TV is still primarily a writer’s medium. But shows are best when there’s a strong, mutually enhancing collaboration.”

With helmers gaining more respect and power, however, there’s a chance tensions could escalate on sets where there’s not an inhouse director who’s always in-synch with the showrunner.

And some industry insiders complain that a few hot directors who’ve been tapped to serve as producers have ended up hurting shows.

“Just like some writers should not be producers, some directors should not be producers,” one wag says.

Most helmers don’t direct the majority of their shows’ segs. Production demands make it impossible for any drama helmer to take on more than eight or nine episodes per season; comedy helmers can direct most of a season, though it’s still not the norm.

Overseeing the visuals

What director/producers like Schlamme provide, when not directing episodes, is general supervision of a show’s look, feel and overall visual style.

Schlamme, for example, has final say over which other helmers besides himself direct “West Wing,” along with other production responsibilities. He also serves as a liaison between Sorkin and guest directors to help ensure the scribe’s vision makes the transition from page to screen as seamlessly as possible.

As Warner Bros. TV topper Peter Roth puts it, “He’s the visual architect of ‘The West Wing.’ ”

Yet Schlamme’s situation is still far from the norm.

Most TV helmers remain directors for hire, jumping from show to show throughout the course of any given season. Even with series that tend to use the same relatively small circle of talent, directors generally work on a per-episode basis.

Such a setup is rooted in TV’s past, when helmers were viewed as technical workers who made the trains run on time. Studio bean-counters have had little reason to complain, since making directors part of a show’s staff requires added coin.

Financial issues remain

Even now, despite the desire to make shows as visually attractive as possible, networks and studios aren’t always willing to step up and hire an inhouse director, particularly for first-year programs.

“It’s expensive to hire a staff helmer because you have to guarantee them so many episodes,” one production exec says. “That can become costly. You have to ask: At what price success?”

“Malcolm’s” Holland understands the financial issues, but believes execs should consider the extra money an investment in the show’s long-term future.

“I don’t know that studios always think about the creative big picture,” he says. “I don’t see the long view as being the guiding force. The attitude with Hollywood in general is, ‘We’ll do it right the second time.’ ”

Perhaps not surprisingly, directors have made their biggest strides in the hour-long arena. Dramas frequently require location shoots, multiple storylines and complicated stunts — all areas where a skilled director can make a huge difference.

As NBC Studios topper Ted Harbert puts it, “Dramas are barely controlled explosions every week. The director is crucial.”

“The X-Files” exec producer Chris Carter says helmers have played a critical role in turning his vision into a monster franchise.

“The relationship between the producers, the writers and the director has become the secret to our success,” he says. “We’re a very visual show, as are so many today, and the storytelling cannot be done in a traditional way.”

Helmers are starting to make their presence known on the comedy side as well.

Holland, for example, generally gets equal billing with creator Linwood Boomer when the show’s success is being discussed. Another recent Fox laffer, “Titus,” has also gained notice for its distinctive visual style.

Veteran helmer Cadiff has made his mark over at ABC, where he regularly directs some of the network’s hottest comedy prospects as part of his overall deal with the web. He spent several seasons as a helmer/producer on the Alphabet’s “Spin City.”

There’s also Burrows — or as one industry wag says, “There’s Jimmy Burrows, and everybody else” — the helmer behind “Cheers,” “Will & Grace” and countless comedy pilots. He has long been recognized as TV’s most powerful director/producer.

Despite the advances helmers have made in recent years, it’s unlikely most TV directors will ever have nearly as much clout as the typical feature director. Indeed, some believe the profession hasn’t advanced much at all.

“I don’t think we’ve made that much progress,” says Cadiff. “There’s a handful of directors, because of their track record, who are treated with a different kind of respect and admiration.

“But most directors are still suffering from the power of writers. They’re subjugated and have to step back while the writers step forward.”

Others, however, believe directors will continue to gain power as networks and studios struggle to find unique voices to help fight the war against audience erosion.

“The moral of the story is, TV needs great producers,” one longtime exec says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a writer or director.”