Separate but not equal.
Such has been the case for television and film in Hollywood, with film typically seen as “superior.” Like the cootie-ridden child on the playground, television has repelled feature directors for decades.
This is largely because the driving creative force in television has always been the showrunner, followed by the writers and producers. Directors are typically seen as hired guns, brought on to direct a show that mostly runs itself.
As Damon Lindelof said of Vince Gilligan post-BREAKING BAD:
“I will say I think it’ll be difficult for him to go into the movie world, unless he’s directing, which is what he should do. Speaking from personal experience, no matter how much creative autonomy you have as a showrunner, when you go to work in the movie business, the director is the showrunner.”
However, just like with actors, more and more big name film directors have transitioned from the silver to the small screen.
“We hear over and over again that television is the new features,” said CBS’ head of drama Christina Davis said.
Cast and crew (including Martin Scorsese) of HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE
Most of these big name directors are hired to shoot the pilot of the series, and are in turn attached to the life of the series. Some sign on as executive producers, like Martin Scorsese (WOLF OF WALL STREET) with HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE and David Fincher (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) with Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS. Others, meanwhile, are fully ingrained in the series as co-creators as well as directors, like Alfonso Cuarón (GRAVITY) with NBC’s BELIEVE and Neil Jordan (INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE) with Showtime’s THE BORGIAS.
So why this shift?
Television is Lucrative
Established names draw in bigger audiences, which gives hot shot directors the leverage they need to negotiate bigger contracts with studios and networks.
On top of a bigger payday upfront, directors who shape the “look” of the show are often attached to the life of the series, which gives them executive producer credit, fees, and a percentage of profits. Or if the director is a creator or co-creator, they get a guarantee that they can write (and be paid for) a set number of episodes per season.
However, a larger payday in television, even for a show that lasts a few seasons, still pales in comparison to what the same big-name directors can make in film.
So what else is going on to make so many of them switch to television?
Television is More Fun (Creatively)
With Hollywood’s continued contraction in recent years, studios have narrowed their focus on their bottom line with tentpoles, reboots, and Oscar grabs.
This means there are fewer opportunities for directors to experiment with fresh creative content. And what A-list director wants to play with the same toy over and over again when there’s a new sandbox — television — to play in?
There are a number of ways television beats out film:
1: There’s Variety in TV
Television is brimming over with avant-garde projects. There is more diversity in television, with different networks experimenting with all sorts of stories ranging from period pieces like AMC’s MAD MEN, high fantasy like HBO’s GAME OF THRONES, and intense psychological thrillers like Fox’s THE FOLLOWING and NBC’s HANNIBAL. This plethora of creative material is exciting and fun for directors, eager to play with new and different stories.
2: TV Offers a More Flexible Schedule
When shooting a film, a director has to deal with MORE: more crew, more (and bigger) sets, more logistical headaches.
A film’s schedule typically involves 6+ weeks of shooting, PLUS months in pre-production and post-production, depending on the effects and the “heaviness” of the picture.
David Fincher on set at Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS
In television, a director’s schedule usually lasts about 2 weeks: one week of prep, and another to shoot.
This means television directors can take on passion projects on the side, or direct episodes of another show, or just take a vacation; film directors, on the other hand, can’t.
3: Directing TV Pilots Provides Long-Term Influence on Projects
A big name director like Scorcese or Fincher carries a great deal of influence over his projects.
Cast and crew (including co-creator Alfonso Cuarón) of NBC’s BELIEVE
The ones who are co-creators have more sway over a series’ direction, of course. But even in the more common situation of directors only directing the pilot — and getting attached as executive producer in the process — their work influences the series’ look and feel for its entire run.
So, since the pilot episode is what sets a series’ tone, a big name director only has to direct one-hour of television to leave his or her mark on a piece of work for years to come.