A-List Movie Directors Are Moving into Cable TV

Here's what's behind the growing trend of top Hollywood film directors choosing to work on the small screen

Another multi-episode hospital drama? Really?

Yeah, but this one is directed by Steven Soderbergh. And it stars Clive Owen. And it takes place in early 20th century New York when surgery was risky business. The promo alone promises something bloody good.

The Knick debuts on Cinemax on August 8 and it’s Soderbergh’s first directing project since announcing last year that he was “quitting” Hollywood to turn his talents to television. The 51-year-old Oscar-winner joins a growing trend of A-list movie directors opting for the small screen. A combination of factors is attracting heavyweights like Martin Scorcese, Gus Van Sant, and Oliver Stone, including greater creative control, more character-driven stories, and unique plotlines that would be a tough sell to ticket buyers—and studio finance departments.

“I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television,” Soderbergh told New York Magazine. “The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like.”

For years, TV was the last place a movie director wanted to be. It usually signaled the end of a career—or the need for an easy paycheck. But as cable networks have grown and invested more in quality programming, the prestige of television has skyrocketed. When Soderbergh brought the script of last year’s smash hit Behind the Candelabra to HBO with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon already attached, the network green-lighted production at $23 million. Candelabra went on to earn three Primetime Emmys and two Golden Globe awards.

The experience reconfirmed Soderbegh’s opinion that artistic freedom has shifted from the big screen to the small.

“Three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success,” said the director, whose résumé includes Good Will Hunting, Milk, and Magic Mike. “That many people seeing a movie is not a success. I just don’t think movies matter as much any more, culturally.”

True Detective is a Game Changer

The opportunities for expression on cable go well beyond the one-off project like Candelabra. For some acclaimed young directors, a multi-part series offers a chance to sink their teeth into long-form storytelling and boost their reputations. Oscar-nominated Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan Labyrinth received a critics rating of 96% percent on Rotten Tomatoes, is at the helm of The Strain, a 13-part FX series about vampires starting this summer. Cary Fukunaga, director of Jane Eyre, is much in demand now that the first season of HBO’s True Detective has drawn raves and put his talents on a larger map.

“Something like True Detective, where the director is responsible for the whole series and the entire aesthetic vision, offers them a way in,” series producer Richard Brown told The Guardian.

For more established directors who want to keep one foot in the film world, dipping a toe into a multi-part series keeps their creative juices flowing. Martin Scorcese directed the pilot episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (cost: $18 million) and established the look and tone of the series. He remains an executive producer. The same holds true for Gus Van Sant and the Starz series Boss, which ran for two seasons, 2011–2012.

Major movie stars are also jumping on the bandwagon. Both Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson signed on to True Detective before writer Nic Pizzolatto even sat down to bash out the script.

All that A-list talent flowing into TV has our pulse racing. We’ve already scrubbed up for The Knick and are anxious to set the DVR, stat!