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Some directors can't get respect

While made-for-TV movies lag on networks, they thrive on cable. The DGA campaigns to raise the profiles of the filmmakers.

September 20, 2006|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

The made-for-TV movie is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and while it doesn't attract the stars or ratings it once did on networks, it's still thriving on cable with critically acclaimed productions garnering large audiences.

So how come the directors can't get any respect?

"If a person is sitting down to write about a film that just opened -- good, bad or indifferent -- they have to say something about the director," said director Jeff Bleckner ("Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story").

"When they sit down to write about TV films, often they don't even know that anybody directed it. A lot of people don't even think the movie was directed by anybody."

To help raise their profiles, the Directors Guild of America kicked off its "Movies Made for Television: Four Decades of Directorial Excellence" campaign in June.

Several members of the DGA's Movies for Television Directors Committee -- Bleckner, Mike Robe, Robert Markowitz, Mick Jackson, Jane Anderson and Walter Hill, a newcomer to the TV-movie realm -- recently met over lunch to discuss their craft, concerns and the health of the field.

The campaign comes as TV movies and miniseries are in flux. Gone are the days when a miniseries such as "Roots" would attract 66% of the audience (the finale of the 12-hour adaptation of Alex Haley's bestseller drew a staggering 100 million viewers in January 1977).

Movies and miniseries on the broadcast networks have slowed to a trickle. ABC's controversial "The Path to 9/11," which aired earlier this month, was the network's first miniseries since April.

CBS has even abandoned its long-running Sunday-movie franchise this fall and will be showing the crime series "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace."

But original movies remain strong on cable television. HBO, a dominant force in movies and miniseries, won Emmys in August for outstanding movie ("The Girl in the Cafe") and miniseries ("Elizabeth I").

This summer, AMC's first miniseries, the Hill-directed western "Broken Trail," drew 9.8 million viewers on its first night, making it the No. 2 most-watched made-for-cable movie since the TNT western "Crossfire Trail" 11 years ago.

TNT's "The Ron Clark Story," starring Matthew Perry, drew 6.8 million viewers in August in its first showing and added nearly 6 million more in two subsequent airings the same night.

Anderson ("Normal") said that TV movies and miniseries have grown out of favor with today's audiences because viewers "don't want their movies interrupted by commercials."

"Now they can rent movies or go to cable. Rentals have changed the habits of the audience and even in their feature world; everyone is shaking in their boots.

"It's much cheaper to rent and watch with your family than go to a movie theater where they have commercials in front of features," she said.

"There's been a lot of discussion in our business about the health of the genre," said Robe ("The Burden of Proof"). "We take the view that the TV film is not withering, it's evolving. My own feeling about 'Broken Trail' is it succeeded because it represented great storytelling."

TV movies and miniseries often have a successful afterlife on DVD. "The fact that the long-form TV is now released on DVD has greatly changed the economical model of them," Robe said. "There is a lot more money available now ... and a much greater encouragement to make the darn things in the first place."

The directors said they enjoyed working on TV movies, in part because they feel that they are treated better by TV executives than they are treated in the feature-film world.

Anderson recalled that while waiting to learn if she would be given the green light to direct her 2005 feature "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," the movie executives kept referring to her as a "first time" director.

"Even though it was going to be my fifth film," she said. "They kept saying, 'We don't know if you can direct children' -- even though the ... films I did had children in them. I was basically an amateur as far as they were concerned."

"Unlike Jane, my training ground was feature films," said Hill ("The Warriors," "48 HRS"). "So I brought everything that I learned to bear [in making 'Broken Trail']. I only know how to make things one way. In the end, it's true of all of us."

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