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TV has become so cool it's hot

Movie directors are finding new, smaller worlds to conquer.

March 15, 2004|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

From Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson to "Entrapment's" Jon Amiel to action movie maestro John Woo, directors known for their imprint on the big screen are contending for slots on the small screen. In a remarkable crossing of media, 23 feature directors, including Rob Reiner, Ivan Reitman, Barry Sonnenfeld and Bryan Singer, are preparing pilots for shows vying for placement on all six broadcast networks.

At most, only a few will be picked up. But the effort shows an important swing in the entertainment pendulum: the acceptance of television as a creative and thriving medium that no longer stands as the stepchild to the big screen.

"It's cool to do TV now," said David Grant, president of Fox Television Studios, which is co-producing Woo's pilot for the WB, "The Robinsons: Lost in Space." "There might have been a stigma at one point, but in the last five years that hasn't existed. These directors all grew up on TV. They didn't grow up with the thought that film is high art and TV is not.... The lines are broken and blurred."

Some directors are veterans with household names. Several never worked in television; others are returning to the medium where they began.

There have always been film directors who succeeded in television. "Network" and "Dog Day Afternoon" director Sidney Lumet, for example, got his start on the early TV series "Studio One" and "Danger." Long before Michael Mann was Oscar-nominated for directing "The Insider," he was a writer on the original "Starsky and Hutch" TV series and executive producer and driving force behind "Miami Vice." In the '90s, "Rain Man" director Levinson's "Homicide: Life on the Street" was a favorite among viewers and critics.

Traditionally, feature directors with recognizable names lent their names to TV projects, received producing credits and moved on to their next film. This season, feature directors are directing, helping to set the tone and template for the pilots they hope will sell the show.

Woo has directed two TV movies, "Once a Thief" and "Blackjack," but his project for the WB is his first for a series. "The Robinsons: Lost in Space" is a remake of the popular '60s series that followed the struggles of a space colony family. Although the old series was a camp classic, Woo is a major selling point for the new version, said Carolyn Bernstein, executive vice president of drama development for the WB.

"It elevates the project in a number of ways," she said. "For the acting talent, it's an exciting proposition to work with John Woo in the TV arena. We work with a lot of great television directors, but he has a lot of experience working on features that are high-profile and attract the best and brightest." The combination of the story's multidimensional characters and the necessary use of special effects attracted Woo, who says he is treating the pilot like one of his big-budget action movies.

"What's challenging about this is that it's based on an old series and people have a great memory of this show," Woo said. "So my challenge is to make it better and give it a new element. I will be very unhappy if it doesn't get picked up, but I have so much confidence that it will."

During the last 10 years, television shows like "NYPD Blue," "Homicide," "ER," "The Sopranos " and "24" have paved the way for television dramas that can boast of sophisticated filmmaking and crisp writing that rivals many box office hits.

"The movie business is becoming increasingly polarized," said Amiel, who is directing "Eyes," a thriller for ABC about a high-tech security firm. "Fewer films are being made, and the ones that are being made fall between massive tent-pole pictures with a lot of visual effects or the $12-million-and-under bracket. These creative recessions in the movie industry, coupled with a tremendous resurgence in television and the growing power of cable ... basically released a raft of interesting products to the airways."

"They see the exciting work on television now and they have an interest in being associated with that," added Gail Berman, president of entertainment for Fox. "People like Bryan Singer ("X-Men") and Peyton Reed ("Bring It On") have grown up on this medium and have a love for it and a respect for it and want to be able to do everything."

One director who has seized opportunities in broadcast and cable is Levinson, who directed "Homicide" and, for HBO, "Oz." This summer, Levinson and his partner, Tom Fontana, will unveil "The Jury" on Fox, a courtroom drama told from the perspective of the jury, which has been picked up for six episodes.

"There are stories you can tell on television that film doesn't bother with anymore," said Levinson, who stars as Judge Horatio Hawthorne in the new show. "Film rarely deals with character behavior and the smaller moments that make up life.... The distinction between film directing and TV directing is fading away completely. You do what excites you."

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