After the success of True Detective, award-winning film-makers are being lured to TV with the promise of more creative control, Does this herald a new golden age for viewers?
There was a time when American movie stars and big-ticket directors wouldn't touch TV. Now, thanks to hit series such as True Detective, not only movie actors but major Hollywood directors are flocking to the small screen.
The critical and commercial success of the series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson – currently on its fourth of eight episodes in Britain – heralds a potential TV revolution in which a series is created in one "block" by a single feature film director – in this case Cary Fukunaga, maker of the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, starring Michael Fassbender.
"Movie directors have flirted with TV for years, but they've typically only done the first episode," explains producer Richard Brown. "TV is made fast, but often lacks the tools of cinema. With True Detective we wanted to bring more cinema into TV – to find the sweet spot between film and TV."
The series represents a shift in creative control. Typically in TV, directors are subservient to writers and producers. The reverse is true in film. But in this series, says Scots-born Brown (one of six producers on the show, including McConaughey and Harrelson), the creative control is more equitably weighted.
In film, scriptwriters typically have their work turned over to more writers for rewrites. But in True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto wrote the entire series, with McConaughey and Harrelson already cast as troubled Louisiana state police detective Rustin "Rust" Cohle and his partner, Martin "Marty" Hart, who is caught in the throes of a midlife crisis. The production team also came out of feature films, not TV.
These behind-the-camera creative arrangements may seem like details that only entertainment industry people could appreciate, but True Detective is now a worldwide hit and the next stage in McConaughey's much acclaimed "McConnaissance". This year he swept the board at US awards ceremonies for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, including winning the best actor Oscar. His hard-to-follow acceptance speeches and trademark, Texas-drawled catchphase "all right, all right, all right" have provided weeks of media parody. For the other sex symbol of the series, Harrelson, the show has also been a significant career boost.
Showbiz and media writers predict that True Detective is a forerunner of a new era in TV drama. Writer-producer shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Wire may slowly give way to the director-led format.
"It feels like big feature directors are seeing a way to do TV, whereas they weren't able to in the past because their role was somewhat diminished," says Brown, who got his start in the music business as a talent scout before going on to produce music videos for directors such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.
"Something like a True Detective, where the director is responsible for the whole series and the entire aesthetic vision, offers them a way in. It presents established film directors with the possibility of telling longer stories which go deeper into character than is usually possible in film."
David Fincher, director of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, made the initial two episodes of Netflix's remake of the BBC's House of Cards and is now making a series called Utopia for HBO.
Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan's Labyrinth, has created a TV series called The Strain. Oliver Stone made The Untold History of The United States about under-reported but critical events since the second world war for the US cable channel Showtime. Robert Redford is making documentaries for CNN. The day after Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement as a movie director at Cannes last year, he teamed up with Clive Owen to make The Knick, a 10-hour period drama set in New York's Knickerbocker Hospital, produced by the company behind True Detective.
The shift is noticeable in the economics of the entertainment business. Since the 2007-2008 film writers' strike, there has been a 35% fall in the number of writers working in film. The number of major studio films releases declined from 168 in 2008 to 128 in 2012.
Employment in television has rebounded over the same period. TV writers had a record year for earnings last year – up 10% – thanks in part to writing fees from cable programmes and services such as Netflix, and total employment is marginally up on pre-strike figures.
The New York Times media commentator David Carr wrote last week that TV's resurgence was evident even at the Oscars, where a daytime talk show host, Ellen DeGeneres, treated Hollywood's A-listers to a dose of talk TV complete with pizza, selfies and tweets.
In Carr's reading, DeGeneres "treated incandescent celebrities as if they were regular people". That mirrors a similar drive in TV to present authentic lives, not fantasy characters. And that, in turn, has brought TV drama with complex plots and flawed characters the first-class cultural currency that it has lacked.
But Carr also worries that these small-screen riches have detracted from the written word and social interaction. He noted that, while TV viewing is up, other media outlets, such as magazine publishing, continue to lose readers and viewers. TV, he says, is "an always-on ecosystem of immense riches that leaves me feeling less like the master of my own universe, and more as if I am surrounded".
That doesn't faze actors and film-makers, who are in the middle of what some call "the golden age of television", enjoying ever-longer amounts of screen time.
With the new trend for on-demand "binge" viewing (watching several episodes consecutively) and bypassing TV altogether to buy direct from streaming services such as Netflix, film-makers are now enjoying relaxed controls on distribution.
Moreover, streaming services such as Netflix are not bound by viewing figures – their only concern is to sell more subscriptions – and that's opening up new opportunities. The downside of binge-watching may be that the suspense built over weeks leading to a season finale is lost.
"Netflix has opened up a new space," says Brown. "It's going to drive innovation and competition with other channels and I think TV and cinema will continue to move closer together."
As True Detective passes the halfway mark of its eight-episode UK run, fans may already be wondering if a second series starring McConaughey and Harrelson is in the works. It isn't – at least not with those actors or following that storyline.
Film actors don't want to sign on to endless series and the story of Cohle and Hart is concluded at the series' end. "That's how we were able to get movie stars," says Brown.
"Cary Fukunaga is a director they wanted to work with, and it was an event – they don't have to come back to do series four, five and six."
and 1995 Rust Cohle thanks you for your time.