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Emmy Race: TV Movies Get Their Own Golden Age

My, how the tv movie has changed since New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor wrote it off so dismissively a quarter century ago.

“Few artifacts of popular culture invite more condescension than the made-for-television movie,” O’Connor wrote in January 1991. “There are some notable exceptions. But most television movies seem perfectly content to be, at best, mediocre.”

The maligned genre has come a long way since then, offering sophisticated storytelling and high production values, plus top stars. This year’s Emmy contenders appear to be split between HBO’s flashy star-driven “The Wizard of Lies” and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and the episodic submissions from PBS’ “Sherlock: The Lying Detective” and Netflix’s “Black Mirror: San Junipero.”

Each in its own way delivers a cinematic vision: “Black Mirror: San Junipero” conjures up a 1980s retro California while “Sherlock” plays with graphics within a complicated character study. Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer open up the world of Bernie Madoff with minimalist acting, while Oprah Winfrey offers an intense look at a woman fighting mental illness while searching for her mother’s stolen legacy in “Henrietta Lacks.”

“Wizard” director and executive producer Barry Levinson says the production, which came in a day shy of its 37-day budget, operated the same as it would have if the movie had been meant for a theatrical release.

“We never felt we were being squeezed in terms of budget or anything,” Levinson says. “Even if we had more money, we spent what we needed to spend and didn’t sacrifice anything.”

Such players as HBO and Netflix have helped close the budget gap between film and television.

“HBO wasn’t going to compromise the movie and wanted it to be as cinematic as possible,” says “Lacks” executive producer Carla Gardini. “We had a healthy, fair budget that supported [director] George C. Wolfe’s vision.”

“I didn’t think TV vs. film, just how to tell the story in a visually arresting way. I felt I was given the freedom to do what I needed to do.”
George C. Wolfe

With a more modest budget, PBS’ successful “Sherlock” series makes three feature films each season using a stable of characters and maintains certain sets for its five-week shoots. And it uses two actors in constant demand from the feature film world, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, in the lead roles.

Producer Sue Vertue says her biggest challenge, besides keeping fans at bay during shooting, is making sure she can work around movie schedules.

“The crews we are using and actors, they are moving between film and TV, and you have to convince them it’s not the money,” says Vertue with a quick laugh. “I think they know the scripts are going to push them and there is some amazing pride in being part of that. We keep raising the bar on both the scripts and the cinematic quality.”

Popular anthology “Black Mirror” pulls off six small movies every season. Producer-creator Charlie Brooker says the show blows up the world at the end of each story and starts again with a different cast, editor and director. The only unifying element is Brooker and co-producer Annabel Jones.

“Each one has a strong flavor visually and tonally, and we are not trying to sustain a season arc, so we can make bold choices,” Brooker says. “We approach our seasons as if we are curating a film festival.”

“Wizard” executive producer Jane Rosenthal worked at CBS during the heyday of the movie of the week, when offerings ranged from the ambitious 1981 “Berlin Tunnel 21” telepic to “every disease-of-the-week movie.”

“Our business has so radically changed on how an audience wants to consume content,” Rosenthal says. “At that time, people watched television and they went to the movies for two different experiences. Now, audiences have become screen agnostics, which is fantastic for producers because there are more places to create stories they want to tell and reach the widest possible audience.”

Television is often cited as a writer’s medium, while film is about the director. But directors have found they can fulfill their vision on the small screen now.

George C. Wolfe, who directed and co-wrote “Lacks,” says he made the film he wanted with all of the cinematic elements of a feature film.

“I didn’t think TV vs. film, just how to tell the story in a visually arresting way,” Wolfe says. “I felt I was given the freedom to do what I needed to do.”
Technology has advanced to the point where television movies can achieve the same look as a feature film, and new business models have allowed for bigger budgets, but Rosenthal says the attitude shift has been even more important. The talent working in front of and behind the cameras move easily between both worlds.

“When Denzel Washington and George Clooney went from TV series to movies, that felt like a real crossover,” Rosenthal says. “For so long in those years, television and film worlds didn’t cross often. Now you can do what is right for the project because creative people, whether film directors or writers or actors, are going where the best platforms are.”

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