And the Oscar for Best Writing goes to Television

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March 18, 2013 by bmcconnelluwo

With the release of House of Cards last month, Kevin Spacey and David Fincher became the latest in a long list of big names in Hollywood to transition into television.

Released as a single package in 12 parts, Fincher created a series that rivals his own cinematic work to a level only recently seen in the television market.

He effectively uses the 12 hours of air time to intricately weave main and sub plot lines with skillful character development and visuals that rival any artistic Hollywood film.

Spacey takes just as much advantage of the longer onscreen presence. He slowly creates a character that the audience both loves and hates—playing with their emotions and their sense of justice.

With the rise of television producers like HBO, Showtime and AMC, more and more Hollywood stars have taken up roles in the television medium—a transition that was once seen as a step down or a place for stars to end their careers.

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That’s not the case anymore.

Stars like Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, John Malkovich, Don Cheadle and Sally Field—just to name a few—are all dipping their creative pen into the television market. And they’re all coming up big.

So why is this? Why—despite the fact that the master Alfred Hitchcock’s own transition into television was barred with controversy—are we seeing the Hollywood elite flocking into a different medium?

“TV, right now, is where the best writing is taking place,” says Scott Henderson, a professor of film studies at Brock University.

“I think Hollywood has kind of gone towards special effects and towards using elements of style to mark film out as distinctive,” he explains. “You know, loud, brass, in your face. And the good quality writing and the development of character has all switched to TV.”

This comes as no real surprise to television and film junkies.

Take for instance the top three box office films right now—Oz the Great and Powerful, The Call, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

All three of these films can easily be classified as high concept, sensationalism-driven films. Compare this to Hollywood art cinema in its heyday—the 1960s and 70s—and the differences are striking.

This is not to say that there was no high concept, effects-driven films before nor is it to say that there are no well-written, artistic films today.

But, the caliber of writing that is seen in golden oldies like Taxi Driver and Annie Hall are becoming fewer and farther between.

“Hollywood has moved much more towards 90-minute spectacle and everything has to be high concept,” says Henderson.

“Get it in theatre, get it out of theatre, and get it on DVD, all within a matter of a few months so there’s really not the time for the development there used to be.”

Enter television.

With shows like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and now House of Cards, some of the best writing and acting for audio-visual media is coming from television.

This means that making a move into the television market is no longer seen as a step down—it’s seen as a step across and one that you can easily return from at any time.

In the past—before the 1980s and 90s—the two media were seen as different worlds. Once you went one way it was very hard to go back. What’s more is that it was very rare that you would see actors go from film to television—it was always television to film.

“I think it’s only once the idea that TV was a second class medium was dispelled—and this happens probably in the 80s or 90s—do people then start saying well actually we have more creative opportunities here,” says Keir Keightley, a professor of popular culture at The University of Western Ontario.

Budget also seems to have played a big role in this shift.

Where before most of the money was thrown into films which provided a director or actor only a 120-minute window to develop their plot and characters, television offers that many times over.

“You also have a situation where the budgets for a TV show have crept up and up and so now a million dollars an episode is nothing, it’s common place,” says Keightley.

This means television directors and actors today are still working with massive budgets but, unlike film, they now have more room and artistic freedom to stretch their legs.

And, with new platforms like Netflix and online streaming, viewers no longer have to wait each week to see the next episode.

Hunkering down for a 12-episode marathon of House of Cards or any other show is now a common Saturday ritual for many people.

This means actors and directors have more one-on-one time with their audiences and can weave the creative tapestry that much finer and not have to worry about going past the accepted timeframe for a film.

Expect to see more of this transition in the future.

– Brendan McConnell

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