May 2004

Movies for TV Turns 40






Director Rod Holcomb (left) with actress Mary Helgenberger on the set of Thanks of a Grateful Nation

This year will mark the 40th birthday of the Movie of the Week (MOW) and, not surprisingly, the event will prompt something of a midlife crisis. Having slogged through four decades of life, the MOW suffered its setbacks. But just as its career seemed to totter, the genre has gathered itself and seems poised for a creative revival.

The minuses for the MOW are well known. The level of production has fallen steadily over the last decade and shows no sign of a significant upturn. At the broadcast networks, television movies have become an endangered species, replaced by shows featuring bikini-clad young women diving into tubs filled with piranhas.

The positives, however, are just as real. Those productions making it to the screen — mostly on cable networks — have never been more vibrant or arresting, and these films suggest that the current crop of television directors may be reshaping the way people think about films made for the small screen.

This latter trend was demonstrated clearly by a number of notable productions over the past year. Mike Nichols' Angels in America — winner of the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television — and others represent the kind of risk-taking efforts that were rarely seen a decade ago and, some industry veterans believe, will constitute the leading edge of television movies in the future.

Whether these attention-grabbing movies will stir industry executives to increase production remains to be seen. But clearly they represent a break from the past and suggest there are new opportunities to make television movies that are both compelling and personal.

"You can give the cable companies all the credit for this," says Jane Anderson, DGA Award nominee for Normal. "If it was left to the networks, television movies would be long dead. HBO, Showtime and Turner are making it an exciting time because they give filmmakers a chance to do offbeat and experimental work. The cable companies don't have to worry about opening wide on the weekend, so they are in a position to take risks. It's just a miracle to me."

(Top) Director Jane Anderson on the set of Normal (below) Director Mick Garris on the set of Steve Martini's The Judge

Rod Holcomb, DGA Award nominee for The Pentagon Papers, largely agrees. "A decade ago we were stuck in that disease-of-the-week mode that marked a kind of low point," he says. "The movies were shot in Canada in two or three locations, and they all started to look the same. I find there's more of an adventuresome spirit now, and directors have more freedom to put their own stamp on the film."

In some recent instances, in fact, it has been the director who created the concept and written the script. That's what Jane Anderson did with Normal.

"Normal began as a play, and it was running at the Geffen Playhouse," Anderson says. "[HBO Films President] Colin Callender and [HBO Sr. Vice President, Development & Production] Keri Putnam came to see it and liked it. In about a week, they said, 'OK, let's do it.' It was stunningly simple."

An HBO release such as Normal will never attract the kind of large audience that once was demanded of network television movies. A cable audience of 2 million viewers for a television movie is usually regarded as a success. In the old days, a network movie needed to attract upward of 50 million viewers to be considered a respectable hit.

 Director Lamont Johnson

"This means, with cable, you can play a niche audience and that's an advantage in many ways," says Mick Garris, director of such television movies as The Stand, Stephen King's The Shining and the upcoming feature film Riding the Bullet. "It means you can pay attention to your particular audience and explore the nuances. You don't have to appeal to everybody."

In many ways, the cable movies made today constitute a throwback to the early days of the MOW. In those days, the networks saw television movies as an opportunity to offer more serious fare than that served up by the typical weekly series. The very first network movie to make its premiere on television, in fact, was See How They Run, a tense mobster drama that starred John Forsythe and was directed by David Lowell Rich.

Over the next decade or so, other television movies dealt with interracial love (My Sweet Charlie in 1970, directed by Lamont Johnson); grimy prison life (The Glass House in 1972, directed by Tom Gries and written by Truman Capote); and the problems faced by a gay father (That Certain Summer in 1972, also directed by Lamont Johnson).

In so doing, the MOW became known as the genre that explored the touch points of American culture. But it was not achieved easily or without conflict. Four-time DGA Movies for Television Award winner Lamont Johnson recalls that the networks often hesitated before approving projects involving controversial subjects. This was especially the case with My Sweet Charlie.

Some of the Many Memorable Movies for Television

See How They Run
David Lowell Rich, director

This action thriller was the first movie that would make its premiere on network television and kick off what was considered a "Golden Age" for the small screen. Rich's work was already well known in television, where he had directed such series as Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip and Marcus Welby, M.D. He would continue to direct movies and documentaries for TV until the late '80s. See How They Run was followed a week later by The Hanged Man, which was directed by Don Siegel, who would go on to produce three World Premiere features for NBC.

My Sweet Charlie
Lamont Johnson, director

This interracial love story was nominated for eight Emmys and received the best movie honor. With this movie, its director demonstrated that television could be a venue to take chances and explore controversial issues that proved more difficult in feature filmmaking. It also would bring Johnson his first of four DGA Awards for Movies for Television Direction, and his name would become synonymous with quality filmmaking.

Brian's Song
Buzz Kulik, director

Critically acclaimed and one of the most-watched TV shows in history, Kulik's sensitive handling of the tragic real-life story of a professional football player struck a national chord. It won three Emmys, including for best movie, as well as the DGA Award for Movies for Television Direction for Kulik.

The Auto-biography of Miss Jane Pittman
John Korty, director

This movie about a 110-year-old former slave was one of the most ambitious and successful movies in television history, winning nine Emmys — including best movie and direction — as well as the DGA Award for Movies for Television Direction for Korty. The subject matter, the myriad of time-specific settings and eras, and the contrasts set up by the storytelling itself made this an example of filmmaking at its best.

Friendly Fire
David Greene, director

This time the bow and arrow of controversy was aimed squarely at the Vietnam War and the action of our government. Make that inaction. The story of a couple disillusioned with the government's official indifference about their son's death in Vietnam won four Emmys, including best movie and direction.

The Day After
Nicholas Meyer, director

A whopping 62% of the country's television audience watched this movie, which depicted a full-scale nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. It received 12 Emmy nominations. Interestingly, the top Emmy and DGA Awards for movies for television that year went to another movie, but with similar "real life" circumstances. In Special Bulletin, directed by Edward Zwick, nuclear weapons protestors threatened to blow up a city unless the government deactivated the warheads stored there.

Something About Amelia
Randa Haines, director

The delicate issue this time was incest in a seemingly normal American family and it chalked up one of the highest-ever ratings for a movie for television. Also that year, television viewers would get another glimpse of ugliness behind the front door with The Burning Bed, a wife-beating drama based on a real-life story and directed by Robert Greenwald.

Paris Trout
Stephen Gyllenhaal, director

Gyllenhaal, with this film, deftly realized novelist Pete Dexter's world of the small-town South for the story of a lawyer who understands that his very unwanted duty is to defend a cruel white racist of the murders of two African-American women. Gyllenhaal, who had won an Emmy a year earlier for A Killing in a Small Town, captured the DGA Award for this film.

Indictment: The McMartin Trial
Mick Jackson, director

Manhattan Beach, California, was the site of this true-to-life tale of a day-care center that became the object of the longest trial in the history of U.S. jurisprudence. Superbly condensed under Jackson's deft touch with both actors and time-place verisimilitude, this film won Jackson the DGA Award for direction and the Emmy for best movie for television.

The Late Shift
Betty Thomas, director

The machinations behind closed doors of broadcast network TV executives to manipulate events to determine an heir to the late-night-comedy throne vacated by Johnny Carson were unraveled in exacting style by Thomas. The DGA Award-winning director brought the keen and savvy sense of someone who knows her way around network suites to every frame of this fascinating film, in which both Jay Leno and David Letterman are portrayed warts and all.

George Wallace
John Frankenheimer, director

One of Frankenheimer's more incisive character studies, this film followed Wallace from the mid-1950s when he was a circuit judge, through his years in the governor's mansion, to his survival after a would-be assassin's bullet partially crippled him during his run for the presidency.

Movies for Television