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Film directors zoom in on TV

Oct 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Legendary Hong Kong action filmmaker/director John Woo is the latest marquee name to bring his talents to television.
Mr. Woo and Terrance Chang, his production partner in Lion Rock Productions, are hanging their TV shingle at 20th Century Fox Television and co-owned sister studio Regency Television. Mr. Woo is committing to directing any series projects taken to pilot and is offering up his own stable of writer-producers as part of his exclusive TV series development deal with the studios.
Mr. Woo’s feature credits include “Mission Impossible II” and “Face/Off.”
“John [Woo] represents a great way for us to attract other feature writers and producers we wouldn’t normally have access to,” said Jennifer Nicholson Salke, 20th Century Fox TV’s senior VP of drama. “The deal works so well for us because he basically attaches his name to certain projects and gives his company ongoing creative involvement, in addition to directing the pilot episodes. It’s such an ideal situation.”
Mr. Woo’s one-year deal, which can be rolled over by the the studios, does not tie the director to ongoing, direct involvement in a show’s long-term network series run.
Wall breaking down
Mr. Woo is not alone in his jump to television. The proverbial wall that once existed between the rarefied world of motion pictures-where big-name directors often looked askance at television-appears to be breaking down.
Motion picture directors Rob Cohen (“Fast & Furious,” “XXX”) and Wesley Strick (“The Tie That Binds,” “Love is the Drug”) are two others who have recently agreed to develop series for 20th Century Fox TV. Mr. Cohen’s new arrangement with 20th Century Fox TV and Original Television is part of what Ms. Salke characterized as a “three-for-one deal,” which has him developing three projects and committed to directing a single pilot for the Fox network next season. Mr. Cohen’s first pilot in development is the cop drama “LB Law” (also known as “Long Beach Law”), which includes Original Television’s film producers Neal Moritz, Marty Adelstein and Dawn Parouse serving as executive producers.
“Basically, [movie] directors have limited windows of availability when they are committing to direct a pilot as they are briefly stepping out of the movie world,” Ms. Salke said. “The three-for-one deal is a way for Fox [network] to incentivize [sic] Rob to set up projects and corner the market on his development slate.”
“Over the last few years, it has been interesting to see the evolution from where television has always been a writer’s medium and the feature film industry has always been a director-driven business,” said a leading talent agency director’s rep, who requested anonymity.
“Now there is a growing movement in TV’s creative community that it makes more sense to get directors to collaborate with writer-producers earlier in the development process,” said the agency source, who emphasized that it does not minimize the role of scribes and producers in a TV show’s development. “[Directors] bring in a visual style, a sense composition and an overall sense of the character development that has become so much more of a needed contribution to stretched out writing and producing staffs.”
The MTV school
The greater sense of bilateral communications between directors and the network/studio-retained writers and producers even has nontraditional directors from the worlds of commercial production and music videos making greater inroads.
Studio and agency executives are looking to the fast-paced MTV world to attempt to recapture the lucrative younger demographics.
Music video and film director McG (“Charlie’s Angels”) made a splash this season as the director and writer-creator of Fox’s “Fastlane.” Other prolific MTV-exposed directors such as Dave Meyers and Hype Williams are looking to follow in his footsteps.
Mr. Meyers, who Ms. Salke said is credited with producing hundreds of music videos and has won five MTV Music Video Awards, is being attached to established writer-producers and show runners at 20th.
“Dave is really new to the [series] arena, so the idea here is to have some established writers and show runners help him flush out some projects that fit his unique visual style,” said Ms. Salke, who noted that Mr. Meyers’ producing partner and manager, Oren Koules, will also lend a hand in development.
NBC Studios struck a series development deal last week with Mr. Williams, the director of more than 200 music videos, including Will Smith’s MTV Award-winning “Getting Jiggy Wit It” musical short Mr. Williams is set to develop, direct and produce series projects for the studio and NBC, aimed at the 2003-04 season.
Traditional sources of talent
Because the failure rate in TV often means nine out of every 10 series pilots don’t see the light of day, including those from marquee TV producers, the risk taking with new directing talent helps reduce development costs for the studios and networks.
“With the [TV] medium typically looking to budget $15 million to $17 million for a comedy’s initial [13-episode] series run, sometimes it becomes more affordable to take a risk on lesser known music videos or commercials director,” said Michael Goldman, who heads the personal management department at Tollin/ Robbins Productions.
“On the drama side, though, Warner Bros. Television really wanted to get the most bang for its buck on `Fastlane’ [a pilot said to be budgeted at upward of $8 million] and McG really proved to be at the top of his game,” Mr. Goldman said. “He is just an exemplary example of that youth generation of MTV directors in achieving the sense of pacing, speed and style he brought to `Fastlane.”’
While the studios are in pursuit of hot unproven young talent, they are still looking to some other rising directorial stars from the more traditional film and live theater arenas with earnest. One-time Broadway theater director John David Coles, who has done past directorial stints on NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and HBO’s “Sex and the City,” is set to direct and executive produce CBS’s new “Crimetown” drama in development for next season, sources said.
Mr. Strick, the director of “The Ties That Bind” and screenwriter of “Wolf” and “Arachnophobia,” has been retained by 20th Century Fox TV and Regency to develop and direct the pilot for an untitled female-led drama, Ms. Salke said. Todd Holland, a film vet who earned an Emmy Award for helming Fox’s pilot of “Malcolm in the Middle,” is back in the 20th fold to tentatively direct the pilot for the woman-sees-creatures drama “Maid of the Mist” (Fox), in addition to directing the pilot remake of “Time Tunnel” (Fox), which starts production in March.
Jon Avnet represents a rare breed of producer-director who has historically rotated from the long-form TV arena (“Uprising,” “The Burning Bed”) to motion picture directing and producing gigs (“Red Corner,” “Fried Green Tomatoes”). This season he is again making waves in the series arena as the executive producer and director of the pilot episode for NBC’s critically received freshman cop drama, “Boomtown.”
Mr. Avnet expressed a bit of cautionary advice for long-time film helmers unexpectedly facing the rigors of series production-especially the need to get acclimated to the story-and the character-driven nature of episodic television.
“In the TV world, you have a limited time because you have to really make sure the writing skills are not masked by the tendency to heighten the dramatics of the acting to compensate for it,” Mr. Avnet said.
“TV is a more demanding form when it comes to time, so the question really comes down to how much time the director is willing to put in. Even when I did [NBC’s miniseries] `Uprising,’ it was done in 73 days of shooting, but shooting an hour of TV in eight days on each episode of a 22-episode cycle takes a lot of dedication. Sometimes you have to deal with a paucity of ploys and a limited time to put it together with the writers, so there’s always those sort of pressures in episodic televisi
on. It’s not always for everybody.”