Why Actors Are Switching from Film to TV

how hollywood works: TV

The talent, e.g. actors, are the faces of shows, making them one of the most integral pieces of the television puzzle. They are usually signed on to projects last, after the showrunner and director, and oftentimes their attachment is what convinces networks to greenlight the project. Other times networks only allow a project to continue moving forward if it satisfies a cast-contingent clause.

Networks know how important it is to get the right talent for a show. Without the right talent attached, a show may never get off the ground.

Other times, shows are enormous successes because of the phenomenal work done by the actors… only to fail after they leave; take, for example, THE X FILES’ slowdown after David Duchovny’s departure.

It just wasn't the same without Mulder!

It just wasn’t the same without Mulder!

Successful television actors leave their shows for a number of reasons, but in the past the primary motivators  were to test their chops on the silver screen and make more money. Think George Clooney and Will Smith after their long and successful stints on ER and THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR, respectively.

Or, Katherine Heigel, who tried to make the jump and achieve film fame post-GREY’S ANATOMY — and, after struggling to do so (apart from KNOCKED UP) has now returned to her roots to star in NBC’s STATE OF AFFAIRS.

Film was once where all the fame, fortune, and glory was. It still is, to a certain extent…

But just like with directors, more and more high-profile stars are starting to switch from film to television.

Zooey Deschanel, for example, starred in films like ELF and 500 DAYS OF SUMMER only to then sign on to star in a little pilot for Fox called NEW GIRL in 2011, which wound up becoming one of the most acclaimed sitcoms currently on television, with five Golden Globe and five Emmy nominations.

Other stars who’ve made similar moves in the last few years include (but are not limited to) Kevin Bacon with Fox’s THE FOLLOWING, Laura Linney with THE BIG C at Showtime, William H. Macy with SHAMELESS also on Showtime, and Laurence Fishburne, first on CBS’ CSI and now on NBC’s HANNIBAL.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on HBO's TRUE DETECTIVE

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE

So why are so many of them making the switch from film to TV?

Great Roles in Television

The job opportunities in film are changing. As the film industry contracts, focus shifts more towards franchise flicks and Oscar grabs, which don’t offer film actors all that many options.

In television, on the other hand, there are a plethora of exciting and diverse roles available for actors to choose from. They get to pick from a range that spans psychopath politicians like Kevin Spacey’s character on HOUSE OF CARDS to snarky self-destructive lawyers like Greg Kinnear’s character on RAKE to kooky ad execs like the late Robin Williams’ character on the now-cancelled THE CRAZY ONES.

Kevin Spacey in Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS

Kevin Spacey in Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS

On top of this, some of these actors are signing on to straight-to-series projects that guarantee them airtime, bypassing the gamble that is the pilot structure. We discuss this more in our straight-to-series section.

Great Roles Help Revitalize and Advance Careers

These great TV roles help actors whose careers have stagnated become household names again.

They’re able to do this for two reasons:

  1. Television characters are well-written and memorable

  2. Television has an enormous audience

Zooey Deschanel in Fox's NEW GIRL

Zooey Deschanel in Fox’s NEW GIRL


Veteran film actors know they can use television to return to the screen and delight fans. The same holds true for younger actors, like Zooey Deschanel, who are using television to showcase their acting talents and build their fanbases.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Television?

All of this is good news television audiences. More seasoned and talented actors snatching up roles means that we the audience get better and more compelling television, especially when coupled with seasoned film directors at the helm.

The downside is it’s harder for fresh and untested talent to break into the industry. Networks typically prefer to attach the established names over unknowns, so it’s now a tougher battle to get the “big break” on television.

Of course, having a well-known actor attached to a show doesn’t automatically guarantee success. No matter who the star is, the show must find an audience, which didn’t happen with Michael J. Fox’s THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW, Christina Ricci’s PAN AM, and Robin Williams’ CRAZY ONES.



But actors know failure is inherent in television, and in Hollywood in general. These flops won’t stop the flow of talent from film to television. Stars continue to sign onto pilots and straight-to-series project, like Halle Berry in TNT’s EXTANT, and there’s no reason to think that this trend will slow down.

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