Skip to main content

Sibling Revelry

Fox’s party, in a tent next to the Beverly Hilton, was a good place to experience the alchemy of last month’s Golden Globe Awards.

Cheers erupted when the company’s art-house feature film hit 12 Years a Slave took home a trophy. Whoops greeted Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s unlikely wins for best TV comedy and best actor in a comedy. Talent mingled with the company’s film chairman Jim Gianopoulos, broadcast entertainment head Kevin Reilly and other top-tier execs. Inside the hotel, similar scenes played out at parties for NBCUniversal and Warner Bros., and a joint bash by Netflix and the Weinstein Co.

The Globes have long acknowledged film and television at the same event, and Hollywood is increasingly celebrating the fortunes of both under a single tent. Talent flows back and forth between the two arenas. TV networks are seeing upticks in ratings and valuations from theatrical libraries. And the definition of film vs. TV isn’t nearly as strict as it used to be. While disorienting and even disruptive, the change has ushered in a sense of opportunity for those willing to embrace it.

Not only are the boundary lines blurring, but TV has a sense of permanence that it didn’t have even 10 years ago. Schedulers once thought about Tuesdays at 8:30 but now the majority of a show’s audience is watching on its own time and bingeing across devices and on demand. What began with The Shield, The Sopranos and The Wire looking and sounding more like films has become a value system that prizes posterity and a business chasing long tail of emerging revenue streams.

“Martin Scorsese could easily have made Wolf of Wall Street into a series like Boardwalk Empire,” said Carmi Zlotnik, managing director of Starz. “It just feels like there are so many possibilities now.”

If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Conjoin ’Em

Box office receipts set a new record in the U.S. in 2013, nearly $11 billion, and many critics called it one of the best years in recent memory in terms of quality. The TV business is also on an upswing. Despite angst over broadcast headwinds, online competition and retrains fights, overall viewership and quality are at historic highs. And it is remarkable how much the lines have blurred between the two realms, a shift that is evident not only to partygoers in awards season but to anyone with a remote. Some of the most inventive, exciting TV programming of the past year has been delivered by filmmakers and talent with significant film résumés: from mainstays such as Breaking Bad, Louie, Girls, The Walking Dead and Sherlock to newer notables such as Black Sails, True Detective, Sleepy Hollow, Under the Dome and Top of the Lake. Even noble failures such as Mob City or Low Winter Sun have had a striking degree of artistic integrity.

It hardly causes a stir anymore when news breaks, as it did the week of Feb. 10, that Greta Gerwig, queen of indie filmdom’s low-budget mumblecore subgenre will play the lead on CBS sitcom How I Met My Father or that two-time Oscar-nominated film director David Fincher will tackle Utopia, a drama series on HBO that follows his signature work on Netflix’s House of Cards.

When this year’s Oscars arrive March 2 (with daytime TV queen Ellen DeGeneres hosting), a strong year at the multiplex will be celebrated along with a sense of new horizons. And there will be none of the handwringing of bygone days when David Caruso was scrutinized for daring to leave NYPD Blue for the big screen. (Although, given his film choices such as Jade, maybe his critics had a point.) Gravity, a best picture nominee, stars long-ago ER heartthrob George Clooney under the direction of Alfonso Cuaron, whose own NBC series, Believe, is just making its debut. Another Oscar nominee, Inside Llewyn Davis, was released by CBS Films, the boutique division championed by the company’s CEO, Leslie Moonves, that had its best year yet in 2013.

A couple of weeks after the Oscars, the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas—which is where Girls creator/star Lena Dunham’s 2010 film Tiny Furniture premiered, and soon found its way to Judd Apatow—will debut an entire category of the event called “Episodes” to showcase TV, streaming and digital series. Robert Rodriguez, the filmmaker who is chairman of the just-launched El Rey cable network, will return to SXSW to screen the pilot of From Dusk Till Dawn, a series adaptation of his cult-classic film for El Rey. Other major festivals, among them Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, have premiered TV work in the past couple of years.

The ever-turning carousel of film and TV was on the lips of many at TCA’s winter press tour in January, which unfolded at the same time as the Golden Globes. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf relected on the dramatic evolution of things when discussing Fargo, an adaptation of the Oscar-winning Coen Bros. film.

“When I started in this business 10 years ago, we were in ad-supported television,” he said. “It still felt like, more or less, a disposable medium; in other words, the primary reason you were making the show was for the audience that would watch it the night it aired. And now I think we’re making shows for posterity. I think it’s not unlike a movie in that, yes, it does matter what the first weekend’s domestic U.S. box office for film is. But if a film is really good, it has a chance of having a long creative and financial life. And people can still be discovering it, enjoying it, and you can still be earning money based on it 5, 10, 15 years after you make it. And that’s the thing that’s most exciting to me about television, is that now television seems like a medium that has a long life.”

Matthew McConaughey, EP and star of True Detective, also invoked the shift when telling the press at TCA about his response to reading the script for the limited HBO series.

“It wasn’t something that said, ‘I’m in, but wait. Wait a minute. It’s TV,’” he said. “There wasn’t that—that wasn’t a gauge. It was like—that transition is much more seamless, in reality and perception, more now than ever. So it was—to me, it was, ‘Television? Great. Let’s go to the right place to do it.’ And I’ve said this before. Some of the best drama going on has been on television and—you know, in comparison to some films. So it was a 450‑page film.”

Good as Gold

That this is the golden age of TV is beyond dispute. But significantly, many of this age’s early auteurs, including MadMen’s Matthew Weiner and The Sopranos’ David Chase, wore their film ambitions on their sleeve. Both leveraged their TV success to direct their first features—though Chase’s Not Fade Away and Weiner’s You Are Here both fizzled. In some respects, though, Chase’s Sopranos and Weiner’s Mad Men were part of a wave of American series that bore out the model common for decades across Europe and Australia—longer, episodic treatments so rich in character development and cinematography that yielded shorter cuts for theatres and festivals. (Calls for a Sopranos movie, a la HBO’s Sex and the City and upcoming Entourage, rang out until James Gandolfini’s death, and Mad Men’s planned 2015 exit has occasioned similar big-screen speculation.)

Yet the story goes far beyond TV programming bearing the imprint of film. The reality of the modern content experience has redrawn the map. At any moment, viewers are a click away from current films in theatres or classics on demand. That alters the traditional TV value proposition—content creators and distributors must understand how to cater to audiences who love Archer or Ted or, for that matter, Call of Duty and Kanye West.

“Audiences have gotten sophisticated and the bar is continuing to rise,” according to Starz’s Zlotnik, who was a key lieutenant of Chris Albrecht’s during the blossoming of HBO’s original content strategy in the late-1990s and 2000s. “We are copping things from the feature world all the time. And whenever I’m watching movies, I’m seeing scenes and thinking, ‘Hmm. That’s achievable.’”

It isn’t only that special effects costs have fallen due to technological innovation—it’s the mere fact that more creators and talent are willing to see platforms equally.

“People were operating with blinders on—and now the blinders are off,” Zlotnik said. “This story just doesn’t fit into two hours. Now there are places you can take that story. If it’s a 10-hour story, so be it.”

Supply and OnDemand

Part of the appeal of the redefined media ecosystem is that nimbleness can be as valuable as sheer scale. Radius, the Weinstein Co.’s label designed as a completely customizable platform capable of maximizing exposure for any film title, isn’t going toe to toe with Warner Bros.’ The Lego Movie, but it has scored two Oscar nominations for documentaries Twenty Feet From Stardom and Cutie and the Boxer. Box office for docs is always slim, but both titles have benefited from the surge in video-on-demand consumption.

Last month, the Digital Entertainment Group, a consortium of distributors and consumer electronics companies, released figures for 2013 showing a 5% rise in VOD spending, to $2.1 billion. Streaming subscriptions (excluding SVOD packages bundled with cable/satellite bills) rose 32% to almost $3.2 billion. Newer platforms such as Chromecast and Sony’s nascent streaming video service will only accelerate the trend.

Radius and its indie competitors, among them Sundance Now, Roadside Attractions, Magnolia Films and Tribeca Film, are watching the movements of TV networks and streaming services closely as the space keeps getting crowded. “There is definitely a world where the rise in quality affects the film sector both positively and negatively,” reasons Tribeca GM Todd Green. To keep options open beyond its own distribution label, Tribeca has also partnered with AOL on a range of online video projects.

“We’re just bringing people closer to content. That’s why we exist,” said Radius copresident Tom Quinn, who came up through the traditional independent film ranks. In his current role, he has as much dialogue with the full spectrum of multichannel video programming distributors as any TV programmer. There is a wide range of experiences—from viewers accessing on-demand content through videogame platforms to iTunes and connected televisions to traditional cable. But for film companies used to the older trappings of cinema—sticky floors and all—it’s an adjustment they have managed.

“It’s the same calculation you make on a traditional film release,” Quinn said. “What’s a downtown run versus an uptown run in New York theatrically? It’s the same idea with all of the different partners we work with.”

Jason Janego, Quinn’s Radius copresident, half-jokes that he often wishes the company’s modest downtown offices had a “a wall of screens showing all of the different interfaces out there and how they are showing our content.”

The customer content experience, namely improving the ways they can access and discover content, is driving most of the TV industry’s innovation efforts lately. Top cable operator Comcast, which made a dramatic statement Feb. 13 with its plan to acquire Time Warner Cable, the No. 2 operator, has worked aggressively to refine its user interface. The company, which reports some 400 million monthly VOD transactions, hopes to increasingly profit from dynamic ad insertion, which has matured dramatically of late.

Streaming content, while still popular, is increasingly rivaled by electronic sell-through, or Digital HD. Cloud storage, clever windowing (e.g., making electronic sale copies of films available a month before they can be rented) and the inexorable decline of physical discs have prompted many consumers to buy instead of rent. DEG figures for 2013 show a 50% jump in electronic sell-through (aka Digital HD) revenue to just over $1 billion.

“Interest in ownership is wildly increasing,” Quinn said. “It’s because consumers are now more comfortable with technology. It’s advanced to the point where you wonder, ‘Where do you draw boundaries anymore between film and TV content?’”

Theatricals still PG (Pretty Great)

The commingling of film and TV successes is such that not only have feature films started to thrive in VOD/on-demand environments, but their value to traditional linear networks is also showing an uptick.

Two of the biggest purveyors of theatricals are AMC Networks and FX. Broadcast nets have pretty much passed the baton entirely on theatricals, which are also a key focus for USA, Lifetime, TNT and other mature nets as well as newer channels still trying to scale their original content.

“They are not filler,” said Ed Carroll, chief operating officer of AMC Networks, who notes that both AMC and IFC—in a fascinating turnabout from their origins—have seen ratings growth lately from theatricals. “One thing that movies continue to do is they counter the trend toward time-shifting. There is not a lot of dropoff between live rating and the DVR or SVOD numbers. The cinematic quality and storytelling are obviously high, so that is a lead-in that works well for our original series.”

Chuck Saftler, COO and President of Program Strategy for FX Networks, calls theatricals “wonderful flypaper. We see audiences double from the first quarter-hour to the last quarter-hour.”

The decision early on by FX to emphasize theatricals “allows us to have a cinematic tone for our network.” Paradoxically, the ubiquity and ready availability of movies on-demand “does not affect ratings” or pricing for acquisitions, Saftler said. “There are an awful lot of people looking for lean-back programming,” he said. “They don’t DVR movies.” As a result, promos and ads get seen, driving tune-in for originals.

Like AMC, which preceded the debut of Mad Men with Scorsese’s Goodfellas, FX had an early Eureka moment with a movie lead-in, positioning Die Hard just before the 2002 debut of The Shield.

“If you’re running Law & Order or CSI or Big Bang Theory all day, while those are great shows, ultimately the audience you’re talking to is going to be looking for that specific kind of show,” Saftler says. “It puts you in a box in some ways in terms of what you are able to offer. We have tremendous flexibility in terms of tonal possibilities.”

Two-Pronged Attack

In recognition of not only the rise of TV’s quality and influence but the convergence of TV and film, many companies have diversified or restructured to create advantages in the current environment. Comcast’s NBCUniversal mobilized a key international TV exec, Jeff Shell, to reorganize the company’s U.S. film holdings. Viacom’s Philippe Dauman talked up Paramount Pictures’ TV division to Wall Street last month despite the unit being best known for producing a Beverly Hills Cop pilot starring Eddie Murphy that CBS passed on in 2013.

Independent companies also have immediately sought to develop bilateral capabilities that allow them to seize on True Detective situations and make money whether they become films or TV projects.

“It is a huge advantage to us when we are talking with talent,” said Jim Berk, CEO of Participant Media, which leveraged a decade of successful film ventures such as Lincoln and The Help in launching cable network Pivot.

Lionsgate, similarly, was a fledgling Canadian film distributor when current management took over in 2000. Since then, TV revenues have shot to nearly $400 million a year on the strength of productions such as Mad Men, Orange Is the New Black and Anger Management.

The company’s heritage in both film and TV “is coming into play with us a lot on casting,” said Jim Packer, Lionsgate’s president of worldwide TV and digital distribution. The fact that the company owns film franchises such as Hunger Games and has won Oscars for the likes of Crash and Precious, the casting of NBC event series Rosemary’s Baby, a new version of the story captured on film in 1968 by Roman Polanski, “came together very quickly,” Packer said. “When [TV head] Kevin Beggs was casting, he was able to get Zoe Saldana, the actor from one of the biggest feature films [Avatar].”

The broad appeal of an actor like Saldana helps the property’s marketability, especially overseas.

“I’m going to sell that in some territories as a feature film and other areas as a two-night miniseries,” Packer said. “There is flexibility in terms of who you sell to and how they are going to present it.

“There are a lot more opportunities, different structures, different opportunities to make the right content, and to tailor the distribution model,” Packer added. “It makes this an incredibly exciting time in our business.”