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A CAREER IN MOVIES OR TELEVISION?
A question you may ask yourself when getting started in filmmaking is whether you should focus on theatrical movies or television. Years ago any serious "auteur" would most certainly say movies!
Today, the opposite may be true. Depending on your career goals, working in TV can be more fulfilling both creatively and financially.
When we refer to "TV" we mean narrative TV. In other words, TV shows that tell an extended story. This, as opposed to sitcom, reality, and episodic TV. The latter are viable career options, of course, but they are not akin to theatrical movies (i.e., screen storytelling), our concern here.
Movies Reign Supreme
Years ago, TV was considered inferior to theatrical movies. In fact, actors were loath to take a role in TV as it was considered a career-breaker. You were either a TV star or a movie star, the latter being more glamorous. If you stepped down, you became pigeonholed--a huge problem back then.
For example, George Reeves was a promising young actor with roles in both Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity. After accepting the role of TV's Superman, he could never get a foothold in the movie business again, much to his heartbreak.
This slowly changed over time with actors eventually using TV as a springboard into theatrical films. Tom Hanks got his start on the TV show Bosom Buddies and went on to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
During this time, some movie stars began to grace the small screen in an emerging new format known as the "mini-series." These were usually lavish productions, more highly regarded than the typical TV movie of the week.
TV Comes of Age
In 1977, two groundbreaking mini series--Roots and Jesus of Nazareth--paved the way for this new format. The crossover was in full swing by 1983 with Hollywood stars Robert Mitchum and Ali MacGraw starring in Winds of War. A few years later Patrick Swayze starred in North and South.
Despite this, it was not until 1999's The Sopranos did TV begin to claim equal dominance with theatrical movies. The characters and storylines were so powerful in this multi-season saga, that it was difficult--even a bit unfair-- to compare it with the typical hour and forty minute Hollywood movie.
Since then, the relationship of the two mediums has been reversing. Generally, Hollywood is playing it safe with remakes and tried-and-true franchises, while TV is branching out into the wild and edgy. Dexter and Breaking Bad are two good examples.
Dexter is about a serial killer that kills serial killers, while Breaking Bad is about a terminally ill school teacher that runs a meth lab in order to leave money behind for his family. Both premises sound improbable, almost comical, but the shows are played with a serious through-line and executed to perfection.
This trend is true not only for cable TV, but network television as well. Most viewers would agree that one fifty minute episode of 24 or Life on Mars blows away the average genre movie (no pun intended).
Of course, this does not apply to the occasional gem Hollywood produces. Unfortunately, in this day and age, they are getting scarce. This should not be the case given the huge budgets allocated to Hollywood movies compare to television.
One of the obvious advantages of working in TV is the continuity of income. Theatrical movies are typically in production for three months, and then you are looking for work again.
In contrast, a successful TV show guarantees you employment for two, three, four or more years. In addition, the pay is comparable to the movie industry.
So, if you are not thrilled about the prospect of freelancing for the rest of your life--modus operandi in the movie industry--a career in TV may be ideal for you.
As mentioned earlier, Hollywood has been playing it safe with remakes, potboilers, and franchises. On the other hand, television has been a trailblazer, pushing storytelling boundaries with unique ideas and situations.
Because of its long form nature, an inherent benefit of narrative TV is the ability not only to explore multiple storylines, but to tell them in great detail. In fact, because there is so much screen time, multiple storylines are almost mandatory to maintain audience interest.
Another benefit is that it allows for the development of highly complex characters. Because you are seeing all sides of their personalities, protagonists tend to be darker, vacillating between likeable and unlikable.
Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, King Henry VIII, and Walter White from the previously mentioned shows exhibit these traits. Are they good guys or a bad guys?
No doubt this is one of the attributes that makes narrative TV so successful--the audience gets to experience the "wild side" without guilt. Jack Bower (24) did some pretty bad things, including torturing several bad guys, but most of us stayed with him!
Television may be a particularly attractive career choice if you are a writer. The majority of successful TV shows were the brainchild of a writer who went on to become the executive producer of that show. If you are not the "executive" type looking to create your own show, there are many opportunities for staff writers, as well.
Since writer control extends into production, TV writers wield "authorship" of the final product, not the director. Directors are essentially hired guns, that come and go from episode to episode. This is the exact opposite of theatrical filmmaking, but it allows a greater number of directors to find work and hone their craft. -Lou LaVolpe
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