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Feature Film Talent at Home on Smallscreen

Mamet, Anders, Campion, Soderbergh make TV cool

Michael Douglas, Helen Mirren, Al Pacino. Steven Soderbergh, Jane Campion, David Mamet, Tom Stoppard. These aren’t names normally associated with television, but all are Emmy nominees in the TV movie and miniseries categories this year.

The notion that film is superior to television must be dead — or at least dying — if that kind film talent is working on the smallscreen.
“Sharknado” aside, such basic cable networks as History, Sundance, USA and FX have upped their games in recent years. Even broadcast networks are taking notice — NBC just announced plans for several long-form projects.

“We’d stopped making them, or made fewer of them because the finances didn’t make sense anymore,” says Quinn Taylor, NBC’s exec VP of movies & minis. “They were airing once and getting more and more expensive. The financial international market fell out so they couldn’t make their deficits up by selling them overseas. But with ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ people showed up in a big way, and it proved that event television is still viable.”

History general manager Dirk Hoogstra is glad “Hatfields & McCoys” demonstrated the medium’s potential.

“Getting Kevin Coster, Bill Paxton and Mare Winningham on a basic cable network opens the door to pretty much any actor saying, ‘I could do that,’ ” Hoogstra says. “The idea that doing television is this taboo thing is melting away.”

Sarah Barnett, president, Sundance Channel agrees, saying the once-anemic genre is enjoying renewed vitality. “Part of the reason is because such great talent — and so many great storytellers — are suddenly interested in telling their stories in the miniseries form,” Barnett says.

There’s a feeling that storytellers are flocking to TV because film studios don’t seem to think that thoughtful, character-driven stories will sell tickets.

“The bigscreen has basically gone away, anyway,” says Pulitzer prize-winning scribe Mamet, nominated for writing and directing HBO’s “Phil Spector.” “How many movies did they make last year? Sixty? And most of them are remakes or big tentpoles.”

Allison Anders, nominated for directing Lifetime’s biopic “Ring of Fire,” says it would have been nearly impossible for her film, Mamet’s or “Behind the Candelabra” to be a theatrical release. “It’s not like 20-plus years ago when you had the beautiful Michael Apted, Thomas Rickman movie, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ ” Anders says. “That was back when studios had diversified content. They don’t really have that anymore. TV does.”

Oscar winner Jane Campion — nominated for co-writing and co-directing Sundance’s “Top of the Lake” — viewed it as a novel and wanted to try it as a miniseries. “I had observed that there was a freedom afforded quality television from a super-smart audience,” she says. “And that felt exciting for me.”

Campion soon realized TV productions have a quicker pace than films. “Fast, fast, faster,” she says. Despite the seven-parter’s rapid schedule, Campion says the medium allowed her “time to develop characters and splurge on fun subplots, as well as the challenge of trying to pull it all together in the sixth hour.”

Mamet views that speed as an advantage since people don’t lose their enthusiasm as easily as when dealing with movie studios.

“It was great fun to do this movie because (HBO president of films) Len Amato said he’d do it. I said, ‘You’re nuts,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but I’ll do it.’ And that was it. Boom. We’re done,” Mamet says. “It was wonderful to make this movie because it was like going back to the early days of the studio system.”

Anders started out as an indie filmmaker, but realized movies need an audience. She says networks offer creative, financial and marketing support she never encountered in the film world, and deliver more viewers than many theatrical releases get.

Actors enjoy longform productions, too. Elisabeth Moss — a double nominee this year for her work on “Mad Men” and “Top of the Lake” — signed on to the miniseries primarily for the opportunity to work with Campion, but also to challenge herself.

“The format of the miniseries is, in my opinion, the best,” Moss says, adding that the format provides a vast canvas for everyone involved to tell their story, but without the multi-year commitment of a series. “You get to have details and nuance and scope that you don’t get in a two-hour film. You can tell so much more of the story. For someone like Jane (Campion), it enabled her to open up and have all the little, strange, beautiful touches that make her so unique as a filmmaker.”

As a viewer and an actress, Sarah Paulson — nominated for FX’s “American Horror Story: Asylum” — likes the miniseries format because it’s a complete story in just a few episodes.

“I’ve been on plenty of shows that have been canceled midway through and have never gotten the whole story of my character,” says Paulson, who said she cried like a baby after filming her final scene as the 75-year old Lana Winters. “To be part of something where the format lends itself to that so beautifully — I’ll be forever indebted to the resurgence of the miniseries.”

For audiences, watching something start to finish creates an event, and social media encourages active engagement in that excitement. “An event is something many of us on the network side are looking for in these days of fragmented viewing,” Barnett says. “I think audiences want to get behind something collectively. Miniseries offer networks that big, splashy moment to engage viewers.”

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