Sunday, January 10, 2010

Who holds the power in Features and TV

After posting the last blog about the differences between features and TV I realized that there's still more to say -- 

Who controls their medium, how they control it and why. 

Features, as I mentioned before, are the big guys on the block. They get more money and more serious attention and go back over a hundred years. While TV was working in the mid 30's it didn't really catch on until the early 1950's. Color came in the mid 1960's.

Features are primarily a director's medium. The director is king and believe me, you get taken with that power quite easily. Anything you want or need is there in seconds, a coffee, a new chair, anything. You get driven around and your every wish, albeit realistic (although sometimes...) is taken care of.

I experienced this the first time I directed a feature, the oft-mentioned Ghostkeeper. Once when I sat by a crewmember at the bar (we were on location in the Rocky Mtns) and talked to him he said he'd never had a director who actually spoke to him in a casual situation. Since I had directed and produced hundreds of commercials, I had no illusions as to my status, I was and am an ordinary guy who lucked into extraordinary jobs.

But there was someone on the crew who wasn't a big fan. He was the 1st Assistant Director, a position that is second only to the director and his job is primarily to keep the show moving. He deals with handling the crew according to the director's wishes and pacing and schedule is everything to him.

This 1st felt he should be directing the movie as he had far more experience than me. And each day he would put down little caustic remarks in his log; "lost 15 minutes due to director indecision" etc. What he forgot is that my company was producing the movie so at the end of the day, his remarks went directly to me. This situation is rarely worked out, as egos figure into the equation and we had a few good arguments in front of the crew. Ultimately, he backed off, as I had the power to fire him.

Features also have big budgets and schedules, a big movie can shoot for 6 months while one episode of a series is done in 5-8 days.

The director has the power on a movie as he is the train engineer, he's driving, the rest of us follow. That is until he screws up. Most important is making the day, staying on schedule, followed by shooting good scenes although a good DP can cover for them. And the budget is most important, you take too long or spend too much money, you can be out and replaced faster than you know. It's not uncommon to replace the director but rarely happens.

The writer is sometimes dismissed when the studio hires another writer to replace them. Sometimes a handful of writers will take a shot at a screenplay for a feature before it's made. And more than often, a battle for credits ensues resulting in a panel of peers who have to read each draft and decide who should get the credit. It's not unusual for the original writer to just have a "story by" credit. Credits are important to writers as they determine residuals as well as provide a credit to their resume.  Often these panel decisions are met with heated arguments.

Good directors will often have the writer on set or nearby should a change be required. Insecure directors often don't want the writer around and the joke is that some directors don't like the writer on set because he/she is the only one who knows the director is faking it.

WGA rules state that a director cannot change anything in a screenplay (or script, the words are interchangeable for both TV and features) without permission from the writer. This happened to me only once, on Gentle Ben, when the company was filming in Lake Tahoe and I was 300 miles away in Los Angeles.

In some cases, the Producer is the power on the set and everywhere. These are usually huge egos and since they find the money, they are on set and watching as the director directs. I've been lucky to not have that situation in the 3 films I directed although dealt with it directing commercials.

The basic difference between features and TV is summed up like this; features are what you saw and TV is what you heard. Putting it clearer, you watch feature movies (Lawrence of Arabia, Avatar) and you listen to TV (Grey's Anatomy, CSI, etc). One medium is visual and one is talking.

Television is where the the writers rule TV. This could be dramas like Law&Order, comedies like Two and a Half Men, action shows like the CSI franchise and others.

The director is usually a paid employee who comes in, has a week of prep, does the show and then goes home. Since consistency is the heart of episodic, all directors pretty much film the episodes the same way and they are really nothing more than a traffic cop.

Having worked for months on the show, The DP and crew know how to shoot it and the director occasionally has a few ideas... pending writer approval. I always wondered how TV directors get nominated for one specific episode as compared to the others, which all look the same. I think it's more about the script for that particular episode than the way it was directed.

How did the writers get this power?

One simple thing. 

They can write.

Unlike a movie where one script is needed TV requires a new show every week, or at least 13 episodes, usually 26 in a year. And so that means 26 scripts for the same actors for the entire season. Again, consistency is needed; writers learn the strengths and weaknesses of individual actors and tune them as the show goes on.

It wasn't long  until writers realized they were the most important thing in the entire production. Nobody else could deliver a new script every week. And without a script you have a crew and director unemployed.

How many times do TV actors thank writers in speeches? Always.

How many times do they thank TV directors? Not nearly as much but often in features. Cher thanked her hair dresser for her award to which director Norman Jewison was rumoured to have said "at least she didn't do it all by herself".

Today there can be around 10 to 15 writers on some shows and they almost all use the deceiving titles of "executive producer, creative consultant, co-producer, producer, co-executive producer" and finally" written by". Ironically, there were only one or two writers in the "golden days" from the 1950's to 1970's and more freelance writers were used. 

When shooting TV series on studio lots, the writers are there on set everyday or when required and the director quietly goes about his job. It's also becoming common for a handful of directors who also share in the production and also have producer credits. Watch an episode of CSI and count the number of producers sometime.

And somewhere in the group credits is the real producer, the one who actually handles the money and makes sure each show is brought in on time and on budget. Sometimes it's one person, sometimes two or more.

Making movies and TV is an inexact science at best. The only rule is that rules change.

Maybe that's why I like it so much.

Coming soon:  F.U. money