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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel On TV/Radio column

September 26, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 26--The overlap of the fall movie and fall television seasons is one of those peanut butter and chocolate moments.

Add the Milwaukee Film Festival, which is showing more than 200 short and feature films through Oct. 10, and you could easily lapse into a popular culture coma.

Shakespeare may not have anticipated reality TV when he said all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. But that sentiment has never been more true than in an age of online streaming, video on demand and cable channels as far as a bloodshot eye can see. The sprawling and pervasive entertainment industrial complex has become so incestuous that the medium in which a work of visual art or entertainment is presented no longer matters.

This is equal parts a result of technology and economics. I once asked Steven Spielberg if he would take the rap for creating the blockbuster phenomenon with "Jaws." He said yes, but only if you also credit him for nurturing independent film through a box-office gold rush that led to an expansion in the number of screens on which such films could be shown.

The problem is that while there are 40,000 movie screens in the United States, most of them simply digitally project the 3-D blockbuster of the week. Even alternative venue Landmark Theatres, whose Oriental and Downer theaters are home to the Milwaukee Film Festival, cannot survive on art house fare alone.

Meanwhile, frustrated filmmakers seeking venues for their fare are finding a home on television.

A site for storytelling

Once television actors and storytellers sought prestige by making films. Today, that premise is reversed.

Oscar winners like Martin Scorsese, producer of "Boardwalk Empire" which was just renewed by HBO for a fifth season, and Steven Soderbergh, who won a best director Emmy for HBO's "Behind the Candelabra," see the value of television. In fact, Soderbergh turned to HBO for the Liberace biopic when movie studios rejected the project.

The Showtime series "Masters of Sex," about sex researchers Masters and Johnson, which premieres Sunday, and "Ray Donovan" were directed by Michael Apted, of "Gorillas in the Mist" and the "7 Up" series of documentaries.

And AMC's "The Walking Dead," which returns Oct. 13, successfully transferred a concept popularized on the big screen onto the home screen.

And such success stories are not just, or always, limited to cable.

"Sleepy Hollow" on Fox is from writers and producers of the "Spider-Man" and "Star Trek" films. J.J. Abrams, producer of NBC's "Revolution," is directing the new "Star Wars" film. And ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" is a spinoff of "The Avengers," co-created by that film's director, Joss Whedon, who directed the film adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing." David Fincher, the Oscar-nominated director of "The Social Network," produced the political drama series "House of Cards" for Netflix. Ron Howard, director of the new film "Rush," opening Friday (see my review on page 3E in Weekend Cue) began his career as a TV actor.

And Milwaukee Brewer-in-law Paul Attanasio, Oscar nominee for his "Donnie Brasco" and "Quiz Show" screenplays, was executive producer of the series "House." Attanasio will appear at a retrospective of his career at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Oct. 5, conducted by festival artistic and executive director Jonathan Jackson.

Crossover between film and TV is not a new phenomenon. "Psycho" was made in the minimalist image of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," which the director hosted for a decade in the 1950s and 1960s. HBO began as a movie channel turning to original programming. Netflix was also once primarily a movie delivery system; now, more than half of its viewing is of television shows.

TV doesn't just offer employment opportunities; it nurtures high-quality storytelling too rarely found at the multiplex.

Among the reasons AMC's "Breaking Bad," which airs its series finale Sunday, became a national obsession was because of its cinematic-caliber production values and density of character.

"Homeland," which returns to Showtime Sunday with a -- spoiler alert -- Brody-free episode, has an addictive, novelistic quality that most TV thrillers lack.

A loss of community?

But if television is the new cinema, what is being lost?

Communal viewing, says the Milwaukee Film Festival's Jackson, "which I believe is one of the primary reasons film festivals around the country are flourishing. There is nothing like seeing great cinema together as a community."

Successful TV pilots are made "by top directors and exquisitely produced, but after the first few episodes the quality drops," as those who created the series become less involved.

"Don't get me wrong," Jackson said in an email. "I am currently hooked on way too many series," including "Homeland," "The Newsroom," "Boardwalk Empire," "Breaking Bad" and "Treme." But "it is disappointing if all the time, money, energy and artistry going into these series is at the expense of producing more great American cinema."

"Thankfully, the rest of the world and independent filmmakers are filling that gap," Jackson said.

"You just have to seek out these films or wait for a festival to come around."

Email: ddudek@journalsentinel.com

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(c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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