Hamptons International Film Festival > Where Have All The Indie Filmmakers Gone? (Hint: Cable TV)
Cable TV is thriving right now with original programming that viewers can’t seem to get enough of, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, Showtime’s Homeland, and AMC’s The Killing – all shows that have had independent filmmakers at the helm such as Thomas McCarthy, Michael Cuesta and Patty Jenkins.
Without a doubt, the success of many original dramatic cable shows is due in no small part to the infusion of independent filmmakers bringing their compelling, creative vision to this burgeoning medium. Conversely, cable TV is helping independent filmmakers to enjoy fame and success previously unimagined when they struggled to bring their stories to the big screen. For the independent filmmaker setting their sights on cable TV production, success and having their work viewed by mass audiences is, at least, more of a possibility than a dream. This seismic industry shift begs the question:
Is cable TV the new “cool kid” on the block for indie filmmakers?
There was a time (not so long ago) when television was nobody’s “cool kid”. It was, most certainly, not viewed as a viable, respectable option for indie filmmakers looking to express their creativity. Cable TV was considered to be a space where cookie-cutter content existed purely for middle-of-the-road audiences who weren’t interested in being challenged — not a real platform for the creative & artistic expressions.
But now? Currently, cable TV is morphing into a platform where independent filmmakers can tell compelling, thought-provoking, emotionally-stirring stories ripe with quirky, multi-dimensional and wildly consuming characters that completely and unapologetically connect with audiences. And perhaps just as importantly, seguing their craft to cable TV means independent filmmakers who traditionally give up their life savings and financial security for their art, can now have a shot at sustainable, high-paying work (a director on a cable TV series typically gets tens of thousands of dollars per episode, plus residuals).
How did this all happen?
The combination of ground-breaking digital technologies in filmmaking, a struggling economy and the explosion of social media and unique, niche communities, means cable TV can now experiment with stories that explore unique perspectives instead of more universal ones that have dominated TV storytelling in the past. It’s no longer impossible for TV to find niche audiences to become engaged with these stories — these off-beat characters. The audience is out there and they are more willing than ever to hear a great story and to become engaged with memorable characters.
All of this naturally paves the way for original programming to be developed by storytellers who aren’t encumbered by traditional Hollywood storytelling and who think “outside-the-box” (independent filmmakers). For indie filmmakers (artists at heart) who have traditionally sought to be heard and accepted by broad audiences and have also yearned for more financial stability in their careers, this call for creativity from mainstream Hollywood TV is a no-brainer.
For Matt Nix (@MattNixTV), indie screenwriter turned USA Network’s Burn Notice creator and executive producer, transitioning from independent film to cable TV was an offer he couldn’t refuse. In an interview with The LA Times (The Big Picture: Hollywood’s Creative Talent Wants to be on Cable), Nix notes unapologetically that Burn Notice “was the opportunity to do something that was mine”. For a filmmaker who struggles to maintain ownership of their art throughout the entire development and distribution process, this is no small thing.
After many years writing independent films that never came to fruition as feature films, Nix finally had the chance to bring his stories to life through television. The idea of working in TV may not have occurred to him before, but based on his current cable TV success it’s hard to imagine him having any regrets.
Nix is not the only independent filmmaker who has experienced the benefits of working in cable TV. Lena Dunham (@LenaDunham), creator, writer and director of HBO’s Girls who also received critical acclaim for her indie film Tiny Furniture, actually wanted to make the big leap to cable television.
Having two parents who were artists, Dunham was fully aware of the ups and downs that come with being an artist (possibly a lifetime of struggling to be accepted creatively coupled with living dangerously close to poverty). Dunham decidedly wanted more. She, instead, planned for a life that would allow her to leverage TV to continue being an indie filmmaker. As she recalled in a discussion with The Hollywood Reporter’s Lead Awards Analyst, Scott Feinberg (@ScottFeinberg), she always felt strongly that cable television was “where independent filmmakers can make a living”. She’s now living proof that this is true.
For both Nix and Dunham, cable TV has been a space that has allowed them the stability and creative license to tell their stories while feeding their independent film careers as well. The fame and critical acclaim they have received for their work in television makes it that much easier to get their independent films funded and to guarantee a distributor that they can draw a sizeable audience.
Having said that, even when indie filmmakers are not satisfied with a career in television, it is still a medium that many lean on in order to support their continued independent film work. According to an interview in The AV Club, Thomas McCarthy (writer and director of The Visitor, The Station Agent and Win Win), the opportunity to direct the original draft of the Game of Thrones pilot came at a time when he “was between things”. He liked the creators and thought that the “challenge was interesting”. McCarthy’s experience left him far less enamored with TV than Nix and Durham’s takeaways. He believes TV is less “a director’s medium” and may actually be better as “a writer’s medium and a studio’s medium”.
But, regardless of his opinion, the fact that McCarthy was open to taking cable TV on as a ‘challenge’ indicates the openness indie filmmakers now have to working in cable TV. And with other filmmakers like Patty Jenkins (Monster) returning for a second season of The Killing and Michael Cuesta (Roadie) signing a deal with CBS to direct Elementary while continuing his work as director on Homeland, it seems that cable TV is certainly a viable career choice for a growing number of indie filmmakers. Change is in the air.
Does this mean that work in cable TV will become a “norm” for indie filmmakers looking to survive and succeed in this business? How will working in cable TV change independent filmmakers’ storytelling craft as they segue seamlessly between both mediums? Time will only tell.
For now, cable TV work is definitely a space where we expect to find more and more indie filmmakers spreading their wings. For many independent filmmakers, cable TV is indeed the new cool kid on the block.