It's a paradox. Independent films -- the kind that are often dramas or comedies about everyday people, rather than superheroes -- have all but vanished from theaters, which now show mostly popcorn action blockbusters. And yet, many of the filmmakers who used to make those indie movies have found a home on TV, where that same character-driven sensibility makes their work a critical and commercial success.
Exhibit A is surely Lena Dunham. Her 2010 movie "Tiny Furniture" never played in more than 21 theaters or sold as much as $400,000 in tickets, but her HBO series "Girls," which has a similar directorial and thematic approach, has made her a star.
In recent years, a number of her fellow indie directors and writers have made the same transition, from the art-house to your living room, mostly via premium cable or streaming outlets Netflix and Amazon. Alongside Dunham at HBO, there's Cary Joji Fukunaga ("True Detective"), Andrew Haigh ("Looking"), Lisa Cholodenko (mini-series "Olive Kitteridge"), and Jay and Mark Duplass ("Togetherness"). Filmmakers who've found a home making series at Showtime include Matthew Carnahan ("House of Lies"), Morgan Spurlock (last year's "7 Deadly Sins"), and Diablo Cody ("The United States of Tara").
On Netflix, indie auteurs-turned-TV showrunners include David Wain and Michael Showalter (who are turning their cult film fave "Wet Hot American Summer" into a series), John Fusco ("Marco Polo"), and Michael McGowan (the upcoming "Between"),And then there's Amazon, new home to Roman Coppola ("Mozart in the Jungle"), Whit Stillman ("The Cosmopolitans"), and, as of earlier this month, that most independent of independent filmmakers, Woody Allen, newly hired to create his first TV series.
It's not just the premium-subscription outlets, either. The mainstream broadcast networks have attracted some indie talent. Cholodenko ("The Kids Are All Right") is behind next month's NBC mini-series "The Slap." In March, "12 Years a Slave" screenwriter John Ridley has "American Crime" debuting on ABC. Last year, CBS signed Greta Gerwig ("Frances Ha") to write and star in spin-off "How I Met Your Dad."
Even this year's Sundance Film Festival -- perhaps the last place on earth where the illusion of a healthy theatrical market for independent films still exists -- is screening TV projects, including the upcoming HBO documentary series "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," the seven-episode animated series "Animals" (a Duplass brothers project without a network commitment yet), and "Going Clear," the much-touted Scientology exposé by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, which is scheduled to air on HBO in a few weeks. (Indeed, HBO is Gibney's primary backer these days.) The SXSW and Tribeca film festivals have started screening TV content as well.
"Now the dream is to write and direct an indie film, get into Sundance, and then use that to become a big-time TV series creator like Lena Dunham, or a showrunner or a TV director," Reed Martin, author of indie-filmmaking guidebook "The Reel Truth," recently told the New York Times.
How did this happen? A lot can be chalked up to business changes that crippled the independent film industry -- the collapse of the DVD market, the conversion to digital projection (something a lot of art-houses couldn't afford), and especially the overall decline in the theatrical exhibition business. These changes have made it much harder for once-prolific filmmakers like Mike White (creator of HBO's two-season series "Enlightened") and the Duplass brothers to get their movies seen in theaters.
At the same time, TV has exploded, creating new opportunities for directors. At first, many filmmakers, including Nicole Holofcener, Lynn Shelton, and Allison Anders, were moonlighting there as directors of individual episodes of TV shows, keeping their careers active during the increasingly long intervals between their theatrical films. But eventually, indie auteurs were making deals to create their own shows. The economics and audience preferences of the small screen have made TV much more welcoming than ever to the indie sensibility.
As Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik noted this week, TV may actually be a better creative medium for these filmmakers than film. After all, it's more hospitable to lengthy explorations of character and relationships. You're not bound by the 90-to-120-minutes time limit of a feature film, you don't have to focus so much on plot, and you don't even have to think of an ending -- at least not right away. And right now, at least, TV programming executives are offering showrunners tremendous creative freedom, allowing for the kind of edgy content that the indie film scene used to pride itself on.
What's more, there are good economic reasons for indie filmmakers to do TV. Instead of hunting for financing, you get paid up front. Instead of hunting for distribution, you have a guaranteed platform and a likely audience of millions. If you're on premium cable or streaming, you don't have to worry about ratings because there's a built-in subscriber base. And for now, at least, these subscriber outlets have lots of money to throw at directors who are accustomed to telling colorful stories (and occasionally, attracting prestigious stars) on a modest budget. "TV is where all the money is," Martin told the Times, "and where a lot of the creative risk-taking is celebrated these days."
Finally, it's worth noting that TV has always been a more female-friendly business than filmmaking. Hollywood filmmaking, of course, has always been a men's club and a boy's fantasy playground, but even in the indie film world, it's been hard for women to get financiers, distributors, and film crews to take them seriously as directors. TV, however, has long recognized its place in a domestic sphere where women are more in control -- of both the viewing decisions and the purchases of sponsors' products. That doesn't mean there's gender parity behind the camera yet, but women writers and directors are still more commonplace in TV than in film. Modern-day series creator/stars like Dunham, Tina Fey, and Mindy Kaling are continuing a TV tradition that goes back to Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball.
All that creativity is great for the TV industry, but not so great for the indie film business. Those older, well-educated viewers who enjoy watching indie-style content in the comfort of their living rooms are the same former filmgoers who've all but stopped going to the art-house theaters. Much of the indie world has already pinned its hopes on video-on-demand, with films debuting on pay-per-view cable the same day as (or even before) their theatrical debut, a practice that theater owners fear is doing even further damage to their business. The mainstream Hollywood studios have all but given up making thoughtful dramas and comedies, the kind of films that win Oscars, having left that playing field to the indies (it's why so few studio smashes, save "American Sniper" and "Gone Girl," are competing this year for Academy Awards against indie films that drew much smaller audiences to theaters). If the indies, in turn, abandon that sort of fare to television, then film will be nothing more than expensive action spectacles, broad comedies, and cheap horror films.
And the TV business isn't likely to be an indie haven forever. The current largess from subscriber outlets can't last indefinitely, especially if subscriptions plateau. Content is migrating from cable to streaming, even as creators and platform providers continue to struggle to figure out how to monetize online video. Mobile viewing remains inhospitable to any kind of long-form content, whether a feature film or a TV series. And a future where movies, TV, and online video are increasingly indistinguishable means the differences in quality, creativity, edginess, and prestige between one medium and another are likely to flatten over time, with everything trending toward a comfortable mediocrity.
But maybe creators don't have to take sides. Allen, for example, isn't about to abandon his prolific filmmaking career just because he's doing an Amazon series. And other creators, like Jill Soloway (who made the Sundance feature "Afternoon Delight" and won a Golden Globe earlier this month for the Amazon dramedy series "Transparent"), continue to work both sides of the street. Her unique point of view is apparent whether she's working on a premium cable series (she won an Emmy writing for "Six Feet Under"), a streaming show, her own woman-oriented video curation site (wifey.tv), or an indie feature. "It's a rare, rare movie that's about humans or about families or about people that can really make it theatrically," Soloway told Time. "Independent filmmakers already have their heads around people on their couches watching their movies. For me coming out of Sundance and having Amazon offer this opportunity it felt like I was going to get to make a movie and I already had distribution." So maybe it doesn't matter what platform she uses, as long as we get to enjoy her storytelling.