ANALYSIS FROM COMIC-CON: Last evening, I attended a Comic-Con preview screening for the USA series Psych and saw that rabid fans camped out 12 hours in a line around the block just to glimpse an episode that will soon screen on their TV sets. Today, I see an Emmy nomination count for cable TV series that dwarfs network television, certainly in all of the sexiest categories. And back here at Comic-Con, movie studios start today trying to hook the geek crowd on big-ticket films with a parade of stars and hype, but there will be lines just as long for panels for cable shows like The Walking Dead, Sons Of Anarchy (which I’ll moderate), Breaking Bad, Vikings and others. Cable is surely doing something right, in the middle of a creative period that will be remembered years from now as something approaching the way feature aficionados remember the 1970s.
This isn’t new to the likes of HBO, built on the network reject The Sopranos and other series. But how did it become so widespread that even Netflix is getting into the act? I’d argue cable is reaping the benefits of a creative drought at the play-it-safe major networks, but mostly from an increasingly polarized feature film business that has marginalized the value of sophisticated and edgy mid-budget projects. That has sent a whole middle class of writers and actors flocking to cable as an alternative to high concept global-minded tent poles or no-budget genre fare. I recall being skeptical when Tony Gilroy told me a year ago that mid-budget dramas like his gem Michael Clayton will become extinct. He wouldn’t mourn it, he said, because the writers, directors and actors who make them will tell their stories on cable and get the sense of authorship he did on his Oscar-nominated George Clooney film. Boy, was Gilroy on to something. Consumers clearly don’t want sameness. They crave different and edgy, and cable seems to answer that call regularly enough, most recently with Showtime’s recent ratings sensation Ray Donovan, anchored by its movie cast of Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight. Noah Emmerich, who after a long feature career now stars in the superb FX series The Americans, told me recently that he is still shocked that after customarily spending half a year immersing himself in characters for features that often disappear, he never got as much recognition for anything as for a two episode stint on The Walking Dead, where he had hours to prepare. The response from The Americans has been even more profound and he has grown comfortable to the quicker pace.
Another factor favoring cable is the pace of development. Gil Netter, Oscar-nominated for Life Of Pi, spent a decade getting that movie made. When he and Paul Giamatti optioned Nathaniel Philbrick’s book Mayflower, they saw how long it took for that author’s book In The Heart Of The Sea (also more than a decade), and instead set up a 10-episode run at FX for an edgy historical tale that Giamati will certainly boost by playing a major role. They are looking to shoot later this year.
Steven Soderbergh, a maverick whose sex lies & videotape helped turn indie film into an industry, is always looking for game changing ways to make projects. He has found cable to be a most satisfying way to tell stories. He told me that after the hardships of trying to raise money for Behind the Candelabra as an indie feature, it was clear to him that his film might well disappear if it went out through a specialty distributor that wouldn’t spend P&A money, or through the still messy multi-platform distribution option. He turned to HBO and here’s what he got: a vastly wider viewership than if he’d gone theatrical, a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and today, a haul of Emmy nominations including one for directing, another for Best Miniseries, Movie Or Dramatic Special, and noms for Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, and writer Richard LaGravanese.
It can hardly be considered a surprise that Soderbergh decided to limit his “retirement” to movies, and that he is well along with plans to hatch and direct the series The Knick, getting a 10-episode commitment and feature star Clive Owen to play a doctor at a New York hospital in the early 1900s.
“It’s just a doctor show, but the difference is its setting in New York in 1900, when there was mayhem and complete chaos,” Soderbergh told me recently. “Nothing was regulated, and while these doctors knew some things, they didn’t know a lot of things and discovered them by trial and error. This was a world I’d not seen before, with a great central character and a lot of visual opportunities. I thought I could get a star people would be surprised to see in a series, and shoot a 10-episode season structured economically like a 70-day movie shoot.” Rather than take the easy route and set The Knick for HBO, Soderbergh deliberately chose to try and make the series a beachhead for HBO’s sister network, Cinemax, which has never been part of any Emmy conversations. “HBO has it all, and there is just more real estate over there at Cinemax, where they don’t yet have their signature, their Boardwalk Empire,” Soderbergh said.
One feature producer who currently presides over a cable hit told me this renaissance will continue as movie business margins continue to tighten and formerly obscure outlets like History Channel, Cinemax and Netflix get further into the game. “There are just so many outlets to choose from and huge potential economic value here for writers, directors and stars who normally do features,” the producer said. “Features have become so rare and are so expensive and hard to get made. And if they sink, that defines who you are in the marketplace. If you are a feature director and do a pilot and it doesn’t get picked up, you had a great time for three months and you move on. And if the series hits, you’re tied to it financially. And that director or star doesn’t have to panic about staking their career on a bad choice, as has increasingly become the case with movies.”