The television landscape is changing. That we know for sure. With the rise of new platforms and independent studios entering into an already competitive marketplace, there is a plethora of content and new business models to explore. While this feeds commerce, it does not necessarily guarantee art.
To me, the most exciting thing to emerge in these changing times is the continued rise of the television auteur: that singular visionary who handcrafts the narrative stitch by stitch. This is not to suggest that a team of people don’t contribute to the production and finished product, but the emergence of a true creative heartbeat at the centre of a series is certainly relevant to the excellence coming from the small screen.
While this idea is commonplace in the UK, where often all episodes of a series are written by a single author, this trend has not been historically embraced by the US system. There are exceptions, David E. Kelley and Aaron Sorkin for example, but for the most part the US system has embraced large writing staffs matched with increased oversight from the network and studio executives.
One reason for the growing emergence of the television auteur is practical. With shrinking budgets and reduced number of episodes each season on US cable (and sometimes broadcast networks), the necessity for a large writing staff has become more of a luxury.
While one’s knee-jerk reaction to budget constraints is to protest the restriction, it’s arguably this very constraint that can ultimately lead to a greater liberation – exchanging money for creative freedom. Louis C.K. is a brilliant example of this. He achieves such excellence with his revered FX series not because he has an unlimited budget, but rather because he purposefully exchanged budget for absolute creative freedom and control.
Three years ago, as a newly launching independent studio, we at Gaumont had to figure out a way to differentiate from the well-established studios. We wanted to provide an environment for our creative partners to excel with their visions as unencumbered as possible.
There were various ways we thought to do that. First, we designed a studio that primarily focused on straight-to-series production. We felt that gave our creative partners the best runway to articulate their narrative vision. Bypassing the pilot process allowed our creative talent to fully invest in a series narrative. With a pilot, the creator, by necessity, ends up focusing on the buyer with the goal of enticing them to order the series. When you bypass the pilot and go straight to series the focus shifts to compelling the audience with the overall narrative throughout the season.
Second, we engaged in only a few projects that were built around strong and independent voices. Bryan Fuller’s adaptation and re-imagination of the Thomas Harris oeuvre was so profoundly specific and magical that the best thing we could do as a studio was to get out of Bryan’s way and simply help him realise his vision from page to screen on Hannibal.
Third, we recognised that sometimes the constraints of a series benefitted the creative vision. I often say the greatest enemy to creativity is unlimited resources. Having constraints required a higher degree of innovative thinking and imaginative problem-solving which is the very definition of creativity. The aesthetic of Hannibal was partly driven by this reality.
Finally, we embraced the idea that a proliferation of voices in the creative process can negatively impact creative excellence. We wanted to create an environment of unparalleled creative freedom and support.
Those series that have a true television auteur at the centre seem to be rising to the critical top. Whether it be Nic Pizzalotto on True Detective, Noah Hawley on Fargo or Bryan Fuller on Hannibal, these shows distinctively share a common denominator – a cohesive, singular and unencumbered vision.
Exciting times abound in this changing television landscape with emerging new business models and platforms. Let’s not forget, however, that our industry only truly thrives if we allow the creative talent to bring their unique and unfettered visions to fruition. It’s not about unlimited resources, but it is about loosening creative oversight and trusting the creative genius behind the narrative.