Based on the title of this article, you might think that I’m referring to the end of the proliferation of TV shows set in the Dark Ages, but I’m not. I’m writing about the fact that dramatic TV series have suddenly gotten much better than they’ve ever been. In fact, I recently had lunch with my former literary manager who suggested I consider turning one of my dramatic screenplays into a TV series.
Have you noticed that TV Drama budgets are bigger? Production is certainly better—on a par with theatrical movies. Big film actors are moving to the small screen. And the writing is outstanding. At the same time, with the exception of 12 Years a Slave, which is one of the best films ever made, it seems movies have gotten much worse. Of course, the best stuff is going to be coming out during the holidays to make it in time for Oscar consideration, but so far it’s been pretty dismal.
What’s going on?
Well, one thing that’s happening in Hollywood is that the cost of producing movies for theatrical release (much of it advertising) has increased so much that studios rarely risk the budget on anything but films it deems broadly appealing, i.e. sequels, prequels, remakes, and film versions of other successful media—books, board games, video games, etc. (as I write about here and in the bestselling 2nd edition of my book, What I Wish I Knew Before I Moved to Hollywood–print 2nd edition due out 12/12/13 pre-order now). Broadly appealing doesn’t always mean bad, but what a studio might deem as broadly appealing—usually something with a great 20 second pitch—has a about a 50% chance of being developed poorly.
Another problem with the movie business is that it is controlled by businessmen—producers, accountants, marketers, theater owners mostly interested in selling popcorn and bankers. The goal in the movie business is to fill the seat. And who has the most time to go to movies and the most disposable income? Kids and teens. So movies aim at kids. Almost all of them aim at kids. If you’re a kid, that’s great news. If you’re not, there’s still hope. Hollywood is looking out for you, too.
That’s where the new television renaissance comes in. With the number of cable networks expanding into the hundreds—including basic cable and pay, and Internet services like Netflix, Hulu and Vidster, Amazon and others jumping into the “direct to consumer game,” television and Internet has so much airtime to fill that they are doing something radical—letting writers run TV.
Writers have always run TV, but what’s different is that today TV writers aren’t just filling space between car commercials. Today’s TV writers are writing mini-movies. Shows on pay services like HBO, Stars, Cinemax and Netflix’s new House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey don’t have commercials at all. And they don’t have censors to worry about either. Writers are free to let their imaginations run wild. Topics that would have never seen the air years ago are huge hits today. Breaking Bad just ended an amazing run that had (and still has for those who haven’t caught up) people glued to their TVs wondering how things will end for the chemistry teacher with cancer who decided to become a meth dealer. The what with what who decided to become what? People watch that? Millions do. And the trends predict that millions more will tune in to future shows based on previously taboo subject matter.
In reality, film is cheaper than ever to make. Everyone walks around with an HD camera in their pockets today and the ability to distribute movies they make with that camera to the world through YouTube. In fact, some TV shows are nothing more than collections of those videos with a little banter and commentary. So it makes sense that more and more shows would develop. But what the expansion of the number of networks and Internet venues is doing is allowing niche TV to develop for more and more specific audiences. Recently, the heads of FX (one of Fox’s TV networks) announced they were going to branch out into three different FX networks to target twisted dramas series, twisted comedy series and twisted movies. They also announced they were looking for pilots.
Where dramatic screenwriters might feel locked out of movies because studios don’t believe their stories will draw an audience, there’s new hope and respect in TV.
Your thoughts and comments are always appreciated and encouraged. What’s your experience with dramatic TV? Are you caught up in any current or recent show? How do you prefer to watch it—live on TV when it airs, on DVR, on Hulu, Netflix, Internet? What have you noticed that’s different?