x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Television is no longer languishing in Hollywood's shadow

If you're an actor – even a big actor – you probably aren't waiting to have money troubles before you're "open to television". If you're smart, you're open to it now. Because there's some great stuff on television.

Not long ago, when you were casting a television show, you had a "concept meeting" with officials at the network, in which everyone sat around a table and threw out names of actors who were right - "in concept" - for each role.

These meetings were, of course, as pointless as they sound. The problem was this: while everyone might agree that Robert De Niro was exactly right, in concept, for the role of the beleaguered dad in the television sitcom, the chances of getting him to do a half-hour show were pretty slim, unless he had been unbelievably bad with his money.

Being "bad with money", actually, used to be what determined whether a movie star might be open to television. That's actually the phrase we used - "open to television" - as if it required some kind of intellectual or emotional adjustment made under duress, as in "I'm not a cannibal, but if I were in a plane crash in the Andes, after a month or two of no food, I might be open to cannibalism."

But that was a long time ago, back when the entertainment business could sustain a huge number of idle movie stars. Not too long ago, the big movie studios regularly released 30 pictures a year. Now, most are stretched thin releasing a dozen or so. The result is, a lot of movie stars haven't worked in years. Suddenly, a lot of them are "open to television".

And they're getting more open. This summer has seen more than the usual number of high-priced box-office flops. Some very big names took a tumble this summer. There's nothing more depressing to a movie star than realising, in those awful and gut-churning days after his latest movie is released, that he can no longer "open a film", to use the industry term for, well, "movie star".

Movie stars are expensive. But so are computer-generated effects. And some big effects-heavy movies such as Battleship and Total Recall disappeared with a sad whimper from movie screens this summer.

The result: fewer movies are going to be made next year, which means more movie stars looking for work. And where will they be looking? Television.

I say this because I just finished watching the first four seasons of the hit serial television drama Breaking Bad, and I have friends who are diving into the five years of The Wire.

That's how a lot of people enjoy television now: in big gulps of episodes, in lost weekends of obsessive viewing. And as someone who makes his living in the television business, I think this is a very good thing. It's always nice to have loyal and passionate customers.

So if you're an actor - even a big actor - you probably aren't waiting to have money troubles before you're "open to television". If you're smart, you're open to it now. Because there's some great stuff on television - great material, great characters to play - and there isn't, really, all that much great stuff in the cinemas. And there will be a lot more of the former, and a lot less of the latter, in the next few years.

Not too long ago, I was having dinner with a certified movie star - a card-carrying member of the Hollywood elite for several decades, at least - and he was lamenting the parts and the dialogue and the stories in the feature scripts he was reading, and instead expressing jealousy that some of his peers were doing wonderful work on television.

"I love what I'm seeing on television," he told me. "Lots of dialogue and words and jokes - pages of people talking and making each other laugh and cry. Scenes between adults with no explosions or monsters from outer space."

"Movies," he told me, "have got so big. So loud. So over-scaled."

His words reminded me of that moment in the old movie Sunset Boulevard when a cynical screenwriter, played by William Holden, says to the over-the-hill silent-movie star played by Gloria Swanson that something was popular, "back when you were big".

"I am big," she says. "It's the pictures that got small."

But nowadays, with all the big summer movies chock full of CGI and superheroes and exploding planets, it's sort of the other way around.

"I'm small," a lot of movie stars must be saying to themselves. "It's the pictures that got big."

And that's what's best, right now, about television: it's small. Or better, it's human-sized. If you like that sort of thing.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood. On Twitter: @rbcl