In a series of stories, I’ll take an analytical look at the current broadcast pilot season and some of its trends and heroes.
In what was probably the last big pilot director signing this season, Jaume Collet-Sera yesterday closed a deal to direct ABC’s The River hours before the premiere of his new movie, the Liam Neeson starrer Unknown. It was a fitting end to a pilot director hiring season that was dominated by feature helmers.
Among those signed for pilots are Jonathan Demme (CBS’ untitled Susannah Grant), Shawn Levy (Fox’s Comedy Album), Phillip Noyce (ABC’s Revenge), Antoine Fuqua (Fox’s Exit Strategy), James Mangold (CBS’ Rookies) Michael Apted (ABC’s Hallelujah), Eclipse director David Slade (NBC’s REM), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev (CBS’ Redlich/Bellucci), Mark Romanek (Fox’s Locke & Key) and Easy A helmer Will Gluck (Fox’s Iceland). Two filmmakers, Stephen Gaghan and Michael Patrick King, are directing their own scripts, NBC’s S.I.L.A. and A Mann’s World, respectively, while Peter Berg is directing NBC’s Prime Suspect, which he also produces. Also approached for pilots were McG, Tony Scott and Brett Ratner, but no deals were made, mostly because of feature scheduling conflicts.
The trend of going after feature directors for pilots started in the early 2000s with the success of CBS’ CSI, which was attributed in part to the show’s distinct look and visual effects brought in by feature director Danny Cannon, who made his TV debut with the pilot for the mothership CSI series. Directing a pilot also became a lucrative proposition for feature directors. Seven years after he helmed the pilot for Fox’s House, Bryan Singer continues to get an executive producer credit on the hugely successful medical drama. Several film directors, including McG, Peter Perg and Shawn Levy, have built successful TV production companies and are firmly planted in the TV business in addition to their feature careers.
The feature helmers trend peaked in 2007 when almost every drama pilot was chasing a feature director, with Lasse Hallstrom, Spike Lee, Brett Ratner, Guy Ritchie, Doug Liman, Barry Sonnenfeld, Gabriele Muccino, Gary Winick, P.J. Hogan, Peyton Reed and Kevin Smith all tapped for pilot directing duty. After a few more “big gets” the following year, including Francis Lawrence directing NBC’s Kings, the trend died down over the past couple of years as none of the pilots from the 2007-08 crop directed by big-name feature directors went the distance. (Though Sonnenfeld’s Pushing Daisies pilot continues to be one of the most visually striking hours of television ever and earned the director an Emmy.) Additionally, some feature directors’ unfamiliarity with the mechanics of TV production (or with the English language or both) sometimes lead to clashes, like the replacement of P.J. Hogan on the Desperate Housewives pilot with Charles McDougall. (I’ve also heard some amusing stories about the dysfunctional set of the Gabriele Muccino-directed CBS pilot Viva Laughlin.) The networks and the studios went back to seasoned TV pros like David Nutter, McDougall, Tommy Schlamme, Alan Taylot or Alex Graves.
However, there have been no new big hits this broadcast season. Meanwhile, the two most talked about new dramas, AMC’s The Walking Dead and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, both hail from filmmakers, Frank Durabont and Martin Scorsese, and boast arresting visuals. So, to stand out, the broadcast networks are betting on big ideas this pilot season and on big-name directors to make them a reality. The out-of-the-box pilots include 1960s dramas Playboy and Pan Am, music-driven Smash and Grace, 1840s PI drama Poe, horror thriller The River, and the serialized comedy Family Album, among others.
“We hear over and over that television is the new features,” CBS’ head of drama Christina Davis told me during the previous feature director pilot rush in 2007.
First it was the better writing that brought feature scribes to television. Is it now the directors’ turn?