How TV Veterans Conquered the Summer Movies
Seth McFarlane, Joss Whedon
TV fans might have noticed some familiar names at the box office this summer. Now that it's widely accepted that some of Hollywood's best work is found on the small screen, television's top creative minds are finding a receptive audience in the film world as well.
Consider some of the season's biggest blockbusters. Ted, from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, pulled off the largest opening weekend ever for an R-rated comedy and is one of the top-grossing R-rated comedies of all time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind Joss Whedon wrote and directed Marvel's The Avengers, which has grossed more than $1 billion globally. Lost's Damon Lindelof wrote Prometheus, and King of the Hill alum Etan Cohen wrote Men In Black 3.
Next up, Mara Brock Akil (The Game) wrote Whitney Houston's final film, Sparkle, out August 17; Gossip Girl executive producer Josh Schwartz directed the fall film Fun Size; The Killing's Veena Sud is on the short list to adapt the book Fifty Shades of Grey. TV actors are are also getting into the feature writing action: Parks and Recreation's Rashida Jones co-wrote the new release Celeste and Jesse Forever, and Parenthood's Dax Shepard wrote and co-directed, Hit and Run, out Aug. 22. And in front of the camera, TV stars are everywhere — including pairings of TV favorites, such as New Girl's Jake Johnson and Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed.
"Creative people are creative people," says FX Networks executive vice president Chuck Saftler, who buys films for FX and its movie channel. "There's no better way to hone your craft than having a TV show on the air week in and week out. It makes a lot of sense that the best creative people of our time on the TV side are finding a place on the theatrical side."
Nonetheless, until the last decade, movie types generally looked down on the TV world. And the few TV writers who made it to the film leagues were usually comedy writers hired to punch up scripts. That changed as the likes of Judd Apatow, J.J. Abrams and Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci — all of whom got their start in TV — parlayed their backgrounds into successful movie careers. "These are all people who run or created shows," says one agent. "And when you have that experience, essentially managing businesses, it's a much easier transition."
As the movie business shrinks and there's more pressure to deliver, movie executives "appreciate when someone [from TV] comes in," adds the agent. "They know what they want, they've proven their voice and what they're capable of doing, and can work within the confines of a studio's resources. Josh Schwartz is at Paramount Pictures [where he just signed a new deal through 2014] because he's a brand, and they wanted that brand — it isn't in films right now."
Whedon, meanwhile, made Marvel Studios so happy, he was signed to both direct a sequel to The Avengers and also create a new Marvel-based live action TV show for ABC. Says one writer: "Yes, guys like Joss and Seth have found huge success. They're collaborative guys who have clear vision and when they apply those skills to movies, why wouldn't they be great?"
Orci, whose 20-year partnership with Kurtzman has now spawned a mini-empire (TV, films, animation), equates running a TV show to being an ER doctor. "You're always working on five or six patients simultaneously," he says. "You're breaking one story, writing another, you're editing one episode and shooting another. So by the time you learn those skills and get into a movie studio executive's office, they tend to be surprised by TV writers' ability to communicate, multitask, do things quickly, to treat them as a client in a sense. For us, we would always get the comment that 'You guys are so user friendly.'"
But Orci says he and Kurtzman ran into plenty of resistance from the film world early on, particularly during the early part of their careers (when the duo worked on syndicated hours Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess). "There was a lot of snobbery about television especially snobbery about syndicated TV," Orci says. "I remember one exec, and we're 24 years old running this billion dollar show and I think he said, 'Ahh, maybe one of these days you'll get off that show.'" Orci adds that movies could still learn a lot from TV — most importantly, he says, "the film world could definitely learn to respect the writer a little bit more."
For former Buffy showrunner Marti Noxon, the decision to pursue movies (Fright Night) came as she wanted to take a break from the world of high-strung TV execs and their show notes. "Compared to the way I was treated by network execs, I get a lot more respect in film," she says. "Success is so hard to predict in TV and they get so hands-on that it became impossible for me... As much as writers don't get any respect on the feature side, they hired you because you have a track record." Still, Noxon missed being involved in production, which is why she's back at TV (with projects at Syfy, MTV and Showtime).
Meanwhile, with so many film stars and producers getting into TV the lines have blurred to the point that even Hollywood's talent agencies are doing away with the distinction between the the two genres. Film agents are learning the TV business, and TV agents are brokering film deals. TV executives are also moving to film, and vice versa.
"There's less delineation," one agent says. If anything, TV types no longer see film as the holy grail; now it's the feature world chasing hard-to-get TV talent. "I have a lot of successful TV clients who just don't care about film," adds another agent. "They don't feel they need to do film to prove themselves, [particularly] when you have Martin Scorsese and David Fincher now doing TV." The screen may be smaller, but TV now looms large over the feature world.
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