Right now TV is giving cinema a serious run for its money. Budgets have risen for small-screen productions and home audience sizes have swelled, while the writing is growing more ambitious and epic in scale. Some of Hollywood’s highest-profile producers are still getting involved as they shoehorn TV projects into their glittering film careers.
Upcoming line ups for US and UK TV screens are a case in point. Homeland has seen the spectre of international terrorism turned into must-see conspiracy entertainment, perhaps taking the baton from 24. The AMC network has scored a double-whammy with The Walking Dead and modern classic Breaking Bad, which has turned crystal meth production into a labyrinth of Shakespearean character studies.
But it is HBO who are really the ones to beat. For every Breaking Bad and Homeland there are seven CSI spin-offs to wade through on network TV, but HBO has largely kept its quality control in check. The cable channel revolutionised ideas of what TV (and cable specifically) was truly capable of when it introduced the world to Tony Soprano and his mob back in 1999, only to continue the trend three short years later with peerless crime drama The Wire.
While it currently champions high-end shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, the network also relishes the chance to polarise national debate with the likes of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. Sure, it’s a depiction of the modern media that US critics particularly delighted in savaging, but at least it got people talking.
Over the past few years cinema audiences have begun to shrink, with Joe Cinema Goer perhaps repelled by the soaring cost of a trip to the multiplex that all too often isn’t rewarded with a well-crafted story. When the alternative to a pricey night out to a mediocre movie is a slew of high-end TV shows available on DVD, Blu-ray and streamed from the internet on-demand, the Hollywood studios face a real challenge getting people into cinemas.
TV comes across as a haven for screenwriters looking for a chance to flex their dramatic muscle and really make an impact. It’s tempting to think of the beleaguered Movie Screenwriter cowering on the floor of the set while the Director pins him down and barks orders to come up with the next lines of dialogue for his stars to deliver in the next three minutes.
The Movie Screenwriter will scribble his thoughts on the studio floor with the burnt embers of the script as he prepares for his ‘retirement’: “Dear Successor: Where did it all go wrong? I wanted a career as a Movie Screenwriter but the reality is a nightmare. I’m kept in shackles day in, day out, and pinned upside down to a dungeon wall by night while I dictate script notes to a studio stooge called Billy. Basically they pay me well but the accommodation is pretty rotten…
“I hear magical stories of a place in TV Land called HBO. The rumours are that they treat writers with Res-Peck – whatever the hell that is – and they get to sleep lying down in hotel rooms with ceilings, electricity and running water, rather than being pinned to the dungeon wall while Billy the studio stooge cackles and throws rotten vegetables.
“I yearn for this place, HBO (and to a lesser extent AMC because they messed up The Walking Dead when they sacked Frank Darabont after the first season). Writers seem to be given the freedom to express their ideas among like-minded creative people, to explore complex character arcs over several hours of television and to do it with the backing of hefty production budgets. It sounds blissful and I’ve decided I want a piece!”
Impatient, the Movie Director hauls the Screenwriter to his feet, suspicious that he’s defacing the studio floor with a mournful memoir rather than coming up with urgently-needed dialogue. TV is beating Movies into the ground and the Director is not about to let that happen. The battle will commence. Just as soon as the Movie Star has his cappuccino.