The Spaces between Filmmakers and TV Guys
These cases make clear that television has served as a pathway to film careers. While Whedon and the Russos are perhaps, echoing Steven Spielberg, upper-limit examples where television skillsets provide opportunities to manage the most expensive and visible Hollywood productions of the 21st century, we could list any number of other film professionals who launched their careers working in network or cable television. With a simple Google search, it is not hard to find long lists of renowned directors who learned their craft in television’s training grounds over the past 70 years (Hall 2013; MeTV 2016). These resources ask us to consider alongside those directors already mentioned here a long list of TV professionals turned film auteurs, including Jonathan Demme, Sam Peckinpah, James L. Brooks, Sidney Lumet, Brad Bird, Mel Brooks, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, Sydney Pollack, and Edgar Wright (who, incidentally, was originally slated to direct Marvel’s Ant-Man). Thus, while Marvel presents a very particular, 21st-century style and system for filmmaking, it is hardly unique in Hollywood for seeking out the talents of those who have worked in television. Moreover, as more and more Hollywood content managers look to Marvel as a model for building their own “cinematic universes” (Kit 2019; McMillan 2018; Shanley 2018; Wardlow 2018), it stands to reason that Marvel’s specific experience of looking to the talent of television producers to help manage franchise filmmaking practice would gain broader relevance. We can therefore expect film futures to be built on the serialized and professional histories of television.
Yet looking at these lists of television professionals who got their start in television, we can also see that the pathway into filmmaking offered by television is not equally accessible to anyone who wants to travel it. These lists tend to be comprised exclusively of white men. In this way, they merely reflect the overall inequalities of Hollywood filmmaking in which, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women made up only 20% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 100 box office grossing films of 2019. Unfortunately, this unequal number represented an “historic high,” up from 16% the previous year. In terms of directing alone, women made up only 12% of directors for these 100 films, compared to only 8% in 2018 (Lauzen 2020). UCLA’s 2019 “Hollywood Diversity Report” offered comparable data in terms of gender and also revealed that only 12.6% of all film directing opportunities and 7.8% of all film writing credits were held by people of color in 2017 (Hunt, Ramón, and Tran 2019)—a considerable underrepresentation given that almost 40% of the US population is non-white (US Census Bureau
2020). Considering such significant gender and racial imbalances, these lists of television creators-turned-filmmakers are unsurprising, as the data suggests that Hollywood employers would look disproportionately to the white men in that pool of television trained aspirants.
The television industry plays an equal role in barring some creators from traveling this road to filmmaking—and yet there is also reason for some very muted optimism in terms of relative opportunity.
On the one hand, employment data offers some equally depressing figures for television employment. According to UCLA’s Diversity Report, people of color have had disproportionately few opportunities to create television shows: only 9.4% of broadcast scripted series, 11.2% of cable scripted series, and 16.5% of digital scripted series. In addition, these numbers were framed as “noticeable gains” from the previous report (Hunt et al. 2019). By comparison, UCLA’s data seemed more positive for women, who comprised around 22% of scripted broadcast and cable series creators and almost 35% on digital television platforms. Yet those numbers, too, reflected a television industry that continued to afford significantly greater opportunities to men. Research from Alton Carswell and the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity and (2020) further showed that even when hired, 64% of women and people of color reported experiencing bias, discrimination, or harassment: even if they got their feet in the door, they confronted a culture of isolation and failure to support their careers. If television is to be a training ground for opportunities across the media industries, then these failures and inequalities have significance beyond just the television industry itself. They work to reproduce privilege and inequality along all the pathways that might extend from television (whether to film or to other employment opportunities).
On the other hand, it is also worth recognizing that while television is hardly an equal playing field, it has offered somewhat greater opportunities for women and people of color than film. Although the phenomenon of “peak TV” seems to have been imploded by the COVID-19 production shutdown of 2020, the last half of the 2010s saw a massive increase in demand for television content, with more hours of original scripted programming being produced than ever before to meet the demands of a booming number of streaming services looking for content to attract new audiences. It is in this context that we might understand the “noticeable gains” reported by UCLA. In the 2014-2015 season, for example, only three women of color were employed as directors across the entirety of US programming produced for cable networks AMC, FX, HBO, and Showtime, as well as streaming service Netflix. This was across hundreds of hours of content across dozens of series. Although some broadcast series like Grey’s Anatomy (2005-) proved exceptional by comparison—hiring 21 non-white women to direct during this same period—many other broadcast series like NCIS (2003-) and Lam & Order: SVU (1999-) offered no better records than their cable and streaming competitors. While Variety’s Maureen
Ryan (2015) called this “peak inequality,” the production boom of peak TV slowly created opportunities (beyond Grey’s Anatomy!) to close the gap. In late 2019, the Directors Guild of America reported that women and people of color had directed half of all episodic television programs that year, an increase from 42.5% in 2018, and just 21% in 2014. Broken down by gender and race, women directed 31% of television episodes (an increase of 100% over five years) and people of color directed 27% (an increase of 40% over five years) (Robb 2019). Industry analysts saw measurable changes attributable to the expanded opportunity created by the television industry’s increased production output. These gains could be had for women and people of color and “it didn’t cost white men any work,” claimed one IndielVire article in 2017, even as it recognized that these gains “haven’t come out of nowhere; in the last two years, diversity hiring initiatives have begun making real progress in holding showrunners and studios accountable for real improvement” (Miller 2017). While activists pushed for greater equity, the conditions of peak TV allowed a redistribution of opportunity to be imagined as something other than a zero-sum game.
Indeed, these improvements followed not just hiring initiatives, but industry investment in genres and programming forms that created more opportunity to center women and people of color. In comedy alone, this more inclusive programming boom included The Mindy Project (2012-2017), Girls (2013-2017), Broad City (2014-2019), Better Things (2015-), Catastrophe (2015-2019), Atlanta (2016), Fleabag (2016-2019), Insecure (2016—), Lady Dynamite (2016—2018), One Mississippi (2016-2017), SMILF (2017-2019), Patriot Act with Hassan Minhaj (2018-2020), Random Acts of Flyness (2018-), A Black Lady Sketch Show (2019-), Pent 5 (2019-), Rainy (2019-), Shrill (2019), Never Have I Ever (2020-), and more. From this body of work emerged new television auteurs like Mindy Kaling, Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Hassan Minhaj, to name just a few. Far from being lone voices on the margins in the rooms where white male professionals created television stories about white men for white male viewers, women and people of color could find an increasing (but, unfortunately, still insufficient) number of opportunities to contribute to programs that aimed to center their experiences and perspectives. Seeing their target audiences as increasingly diverse, television distributors like FX, HBO, and Comedy Central offered a shared context and multiple outlets in which this work could develop.
Make no mistake—the television industry has only begun to address these inequalities. The point is only that the industry lore circulating in and around television began to recognize change in action (however limited or problematic). This recognition, moreover, often pit television against film, celebrating the former by comparison to the persistence of the status quo in the latter. Deadline described the gains toward equality in 2019 television as “much better than in feature films,” where people of color were actually directing 46% fewer films with budgets over $250,000 than five years prior (Robb 2019). Comparable analyses of perceived progress in television explained that “by contrast, the film industry barely seems to be moving forward” (Liao 2017).
Taking these comparisons into account, the question of transforming television careers into film careers is one that must grapple with the conditions and cultures of inequity in each medium. At the same time, we cannot assume that the process of crossing over is itself neutral. While each industry may have its own practices and strategies for managing equality of opportunity, the points of intersection may be defined by privileges and inequities of their own. For example, if television provides more opportunities for women and people of color than film, we might expect the process of professional crossover to help diversify the film industry. Yet while television has afforded opportunities for women and people of color to develop creative careers, it is not always doing so in a way that provides equal access to doorways that lead to the film industry. In March 2020, Den of Geek profiled 26 female film directors readers “should know about” (Bonner 2020). The choice to highlight 26 (not 30 or some larger, rounder number) and the inclusion of several international and documentary filmmakers underscored the relatively small number of women directors working in Hollywood at that time. Another similar list marshals only 67 names (StudioBinder 2020). While Den of Geek’s list usefully brought visibility to directors ignored in dominant industry narratives, not a single profile mentioned prior work in television.
However, several of these featured directors have worked in both television and film, despite it going unmentioned. Karyn Kusama directed Girlfight in 2000 and Aeon Flux in 2005 before directing a 2007 episode of The L Word (2004-2009). She then continued to direct films like Jennifer’s Body (2009), The Invitation (2015), and Destroyer (2018) while taking on occasional episodic directing duties for Halt and Catch Fire (2014-2017), Chicago Fire (2012-), The Man in the High Castle (2015-2019), Casual (2015-2018), and Billions (2016-). Over a decade, Melina Matsoukas built a career making commercials and music videos, until 2016 when she directed seven episodes of Insecure. She would direct two episodes of Master of None (2015-2017) the following year, before helming the feature film Queen & Slim (2019). While Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow has enjoyed a prestigious film career including Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995), and more recently The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Detroit (2017), she engaged in a mid-career exploration of television, directing three 1998 and 1999 episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999), as well as an episode of Karen Sisco (2003). As writer, director, actor, and producer, Lorene Scafaria has occupied many roles across a two-decade career in film and television. She wrote and directed the films Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), The Meddler (2015), and Hustlers (2019), while on television writing for Ben and Kate (2012-2013) and directing episodes of New Girl (2011-2018) in 2013 and 2014. Although moving outside the US production system to do so, Little Woods (2018) and Candy Man (2021) director Nia DaCosta also directed episodes of the British Channel 4 series Top Boy (2011). It is thus clearly the case that the Russos and Whedons of the world are not the only film directors to cross over to and from television, despite receiving much more attention for it.
Perhaps most analogous to these figures are Patty Jenkins and Ava DuVer-nay, both of whom have directed for television while also being handed the reigns of a major Hollywood franchise. Jenkins’ career carries many parallels to the Russos in particular: after directing the short film Velocity Rules (2001) and the feature Monster (2003), she found herself developing a career in television. In this period she worked as a director for Arrested Development in 2004 and Entourage in 2006. By 2011, she was similarly entrusted to set the look and tone of new series, directing the pilot and second episode of The Killing (2011-2014). The next pilot she would direct for Betrayal in 2015 would also come with an executive producer credit, evincing her success in building a solid television career. By 2017, Jenkins earned significant plaudits as the director of the Warner Bros, superhero film Wonder Woman, which was praised not only for bringing needed gender diversity to the genre, but also for being an exception to the dour and uneven installments that had so far comprised the DC Comics film universe. Even as she stayed on to manage the franchise as director of Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), Jenkins maintained an investment in her TV work, directing the pilot and executive producing I Am the Night in 2019. Nominated for many awards as a documentary and feature director, Ava DuVernay has also worked in parallel across film and television in a highly visible way. Her 2014 film Selma was nominated for the Golden Globe for best director and the Academy Award for best film—making DuVernay the first African American woman to be recognized in those categories. She also earned an Academy Award nomination for her 2016 documentary 13th, and Disney looked to her to direct the 2018 fantasy film A Wrinkle in Time. All the while, DuVernay cultivated a significant career in television. First, she directed a 2013 episode of Scandal (2012-2018), then the pilot of a project called “For Justice” in 2015. Following the success of her films, however, she had new power to create her own television projects. She has served as creator, writer, and director on the OWN series Queen Sugar (2016-) and Cherish the Day (2020). In addition, she earned a Peabody award as well as an Emmy nomination for the Netflix miniseries When They See Us (2019), which she also created, wrote, and directed. The professional accomplishments of Jenkins and DuVernay demonstrate that the pathway between television and film is traveled by a more diverse set of creators than just white men.
Yet this road does not always seem to be traveled in the same way. If the industry stories about the Russos and Whedon narrated a journey of being pulled toward filmmaking and transformed from one creative state to another, the tales told about DuVernay suggested that she could move between film and television while maintaining a more liminal creative status. In a 2019 feature on the “modern Hollywood empire’’ that DuVernay built from her success, The Hollywood Reporter remarked not on her transformation into a fully-fledged filmmaker, but instead on her status as the manager of a new enterprise in which television had become increasingly central. Although film remained central to her work—she owned the production company Array Filmworks with its own indie distribution provider Array Releasing—much of that creative energy was devoted to television projects: “DuVernay runs a company that now employs about 50 people at work on 14 TV shows in various states of production and development, as well as her independent film distribution arm, which has released 22 movies in theatres” (Keegan 2019). Indeed, while figures like the Russos and Whedon often embody romanticized values of filmmaking as creative end in trade reporting, DuVernay could appear impatient at that suggestion, embracing the medium of television and partners like Netflix that might help her reach her goals. Asked by The Hollywood Reporter about her partnership with Netflix and uncertainty in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences about how to treat “films” released through that platform, DuVernay responded:
We’ll look back in a very short number of years and it’ll all sound ridiculous [...] I can’t show Straight Outta Compton in Compton, and I can’t show Selma in Selma because there are no movie theaters. Now you have a platform [... that] will make sure that audiences, not only in this country, but in 190 countries, for the price of a hamburger can see your movie, your TV show, your whatever.
DuVernay appeared uninterested in ascending from television to film, looking instead to how she could work in the spaces between media to make her voice and those of the creators she now worked with heard. Managing this vast empire, DuVernay is clearly a “TV Gal”—and yet, it seems unlikely she would adopt such an identity, seeing strength not in alliance with media-specific cultural identifications, but instead in working in in-between spaces that serve her goals best.
It is also worth noting that directors like Jenkins, Matsoukas, and others also continue working in television after finding some filmmaking success. Oprah Winfrey, too, emerged as a creative force in television, and even after developing a significant amount of cultural capital from her acting in The Color Purple (1985) and Beloved (1998), maintained her significant investments in television through ventures like her cable channel OWN. On one level, this is no different from figures like Whedon or the Russos, who continue to operate in television even after they find success with film projects. However, less evidence exists that these female creators, or the trade reporting surrounding them, lay claim to a professional identity tied exclusively to filmmaking. This may be in part because of gender biases that lead to an oversized amount of attention in the trade press and other spaces of industry loremaking to male creators; with that space comes more room to groom professional identities associated with the status and power of the cinema. At the same time, while women and people of color may slowly win more opportunities to direct, the structures that provide support and career advancement may not enable the kinds of professional moves and creative security that would make such permanent transformation an attractive goal. Cultivating opportunities equally across film or television is a sound strategy for creator communities who face uncertainty and who are unequal in the arenas in which they work. White men may enjoy the privilege of fantasies of transformation in the crossover between film and television, while women and people of color may find themselves developing strategies of flexibility and fluidity to take advantage of every opportunity.
This is not to say, though, that there is a clear dividing line based on gender (or race) when it comes to how these fantasies of transformation play out. The competing list of 67 best female filmmakers, for examples, does offer the television credits of some of its nominees. And in doing so, directors like Gail Mancuso are said to be “shifting” as she “makes the jump” from the world of directing television comedies like Modem Family (2009-2020) to feature projects like Besties (StudioBinder 2020). Kathryn Bigelow, too, was “thrust back into the spotlight” with The Hurt Locker following her time working in television. In that equation, her time in television was by suggestion a lesser period in her career out of that spotlight. Similarly, and perhaps more dismissively, the profile of Mary Harron carries an air of disappointment in noting that after making the cult “classics” I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and American Psycho (2000) “she worked mainly in television,” replacing superlatives with descriptors. Mimi Leder, too, “transitioned back to television,” a shift that suggests some kind of transformation—and a disappointing one at that. So women, too, have clearly been figured in the industry narratives that position work in film as more prestigious and accomplished than television and thus filmmaking as an aspirational professional identity. By contrast, though, the transgender duo of Lana and Lilly Wachowski appear in this list to have “pushed into television” as if it was a new frontier rather than a mere training ground (StudioBinder 2020).
Instead of drawing hard binary divisions, it may suffice to say that the pathway from television to film is one that is traveled unequally, and that journey is one that is tied up in the identities constructed for professionals working in these industries. Some travelers are able to reach the path, while others are barred from it. Once on the path, some may decide to move toward a destination that figures some professional outcomes and some cultural formations— often, the romanticized “cinema”—as the ultimate goal. However, others may linger in the space between, whether because they are barred from reaching the destination, or because they find the crossover space to be a productive one. In this way, the question of who gets to cross over—who is a “TV guy,” who is a filmmaker, and who even cares about such labels—tells us something important about the power of moving between media industries and the way that mobility can shape and be shaped by creators’ identities.