It's been quite a week. It started in Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival, where, in three days, I saw seven great films, a pop up performance by Eddie Izzard and 30 inches of snow. Then Sunday, to Miami, via Dallas, for NATPE (the annual conference and sales market for Producers and TV Execs), where I participated on a panel called The Economics of Comedy, and met TV people from all over the planet who debated the future of television over spicy margaritas. All accomplished, by the way, with only one carry-on suit case.
This wacky cultural mash-up -- Utah and Miami; Indie Film and Format Television -- created a strange brew in my mind. The juxtaposition of two ends of the show biz spectrum, along with the fascinating overlap of their populations (it's weird how many people make the same whirlwind trip), forced me to consider each medium in context of each other, more than ever before.
There are two basic assumptions taken away from this week: First, the best films in the world are Indie. They are pure, they are original, they are art. Yet, despite this, many Indie films have a hard time finding screens and audiences. Second, much of the best filmed content in the world is on TV, and specifically on cable (see the Emmys and Golden Globes, or hey, just watch). TV is in the middle of a golden era for both quality AND viewership. These two understandings, many late nights and several ounces of tequila swam around my mind for seven days. And they have led me to this specific theory:
Some Indie Films would be better as TV series.
Each year, there are a few great films that get Park City buzz, only to disappear into a sea of megaplexes and blockbusters. These are tweeners -- terrific stories, with great direction and unique characters that for various reasons are difficult to categorize and tricky to market. I submit that many of these would have fared better on TV. Would they have been better pieces of art? I cannot say. But with the reach and influence of cable TV right now, I can say they would have had a better chance of reaching an audience and influencing the culture, and their directors and producers may have seen a bigger return on their efforts.
Not all Independent Films, but some, fall into this category. When you see them in Utah, you can't wait to tell your friends back home to see them. And then, they're gone as fast as they came. These films hold so much amazing yet unrealized potential -- as pilots for series that never happened.
Here, then, are 15 Sundance Film Festival Darlings That Would Have Made Awesome TV Shows:
WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE -- Dir. Todd Solondz; Cast. Heather Matarazzo; Sundance Premiere. 1996; B.O. $4.5 million. Weird, dark, strange and uncomfortable. Todd Solondz probably has that stitched on a pillow in his house. This is a perfect example of his work, but strangely, it's also, probably, his most accessible film. Think My So Called Life, on acid. This would have been an AWESOME Cable TV series. A larger canvas would have given Solondz room to explore the secondary characters and could have helped find a following for him and for Matarazzo (who never became as big a star as she deserves to be). Alan Ball has found a way to make his dark vision a TV obsession for many of us. Solondz could do the same.
DONNY DARKO -- Dir. Richard Kelly; Cast. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone; Sundance Premiere. 2001; B.O. $500,000. Yes, it's achieved cult status, but it only grossed half a million. No one saw it in the theaters. In fact, if it weren't for cable TV, no one might have ever seen it. As a series, Donny could have made real money. He coulda been somebody. He coulda been Dexter.
TADPOLE -- Dir. Gary Winick; Cast. Sigourney Weaver, Bebe Neuwirth, Aaron Stanford, John Ritter, Robert Iler, and Kate Mara; Sundance Premiere. 2002; B.O. $2.8 million. Of all the boy-crushes-on-his-stepmom-and-sleeps-with-her-best-friend stories, this is my favorite. Funny thing: with this exact cast, Tadpole would have made a terrific TV series. The plot would have been really well served by playing out over a number of hours and continuing on beyond the end of the film. Stanford was great, and seeing him fall in love with someone his own age, after having his heart broken by Weaver and having slept with Neuwirth, would have been uncomfortably funny. Just think of the Thanksgiving episode.
THE SQUID AND THE WHALE -- Dir. Noah Baumbach; Cast. Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Laura Linney; Sundance Premiere. 2005; B.O. $7.3 million. Besides being my favorite divorce film since Kramer Vs. Kramer, Squid is also how I learned that people play tennis indoors in Manhattan. You may have actually seen this film, as it did reasonably well and earned Baumbach an Oscar Nom for screenplay. Granted, it made some money, but still brought in less than the cost of two episodes of Burn Notice. More importantly, in a series, Baumbach might have shown us how your parents' divorce affects you as an adult. I don't feel Baumbach's films have been well served by today's theatrical distribution, and I'd love to see him unwind his complex characters over 13 episodes, rather than limit them to 90 minutes.
A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS -- Dir. Dito Montiel; Cast. Robert Downey, Jr., Rosario Dawson, Chazz Palminteri, Tatum Channing, Diane Weist, Shia LeBeouf; Sundance Premiere. 2006; B.O. $517,000. One of the best cast films you've never seen. The film jumps back and forth from 2006 to 1986, with Downey and LeBeouf playing the same guy at different ages. The film is based on Monteil's autobiography and life. With more time, he could have explored far more from his life and book and shown us what it was really like to grow up in Queens in the 80s. Monteil won Best Director at Sundance and he's made a couple of other good films that you also haven't seen. Change the name to The Saints of Queens, make it into a series, put it on Showtime, and things might have been quite different.
THE WACKNESS -- Dir. Jonathan Levine; Cast. Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck; Sundance Premiere. 2008; B.O. $2 million. A 1994 period piece, with a kick ass soundtrack and the funniest performance of Ben Kingsley's career. Josh Peck (yes, of Drake & Josh fame) is a kid who sells pot out of an ice cream cart and trades his weed for therapy from a psychiatrist (Kingsley) who is crazier than he is. More real and funnier than Weeds, it would have made a great series arc. It's unlikely you've seen it, so rent it -- if just to see Sir Ben make out with Mary-Kate Olsen. Yes, you ARE reading that correctly.
HAMLET 2 -- Dir. Andrew Fleming; Cast. Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Shue; Sundance Premiere. 2008; B.O. $4.8 million. Glee before there was Glee, this movie was really hot at Sundance (and sold for top priced coin), but was TOTALLY underappreciated when it hit theaters. Yes, it has its problems, but Hamlet is funnier than it gets credit for, and would have been a much awesomer version of the high school musical comedy because, unlike Glee, it is funny. (Four words: Rock Me Sexy Jesus.) Steve Coogan is one of the UK's funniest TV stars. This could have been the TV vehicle to break him out in the states.
CHOKE -- Dir. Clark Gregg; Cast. Sam Rockwell, Angelica Houston, Kelly Macdonald; Sundance Premiere. 2008; B.O. $3 million. When is someone going to make Sam Rockwell a star? He's unbelievably talented, but never seems to break through in the way he should. Basically, this is a plea to Rockwell's agents... GET THIS GUY A TV SERIES! Ok, this is basically a film version of Californication -- just WAY funnier and WAY more realistic. Rockwell's sex addict has to make ends meet working as character in a Colonial American Theme Park, and then can't get it up when he meets a woman he actually loves. Erectile Dysfunction is a real thing, and it belongs on television -- just look at the commercials.
500 DAYS OF SUMMER -- Dir. Marc Webb; Cast. Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Sundance Premiere. 2009; B.O. $32 million. C'mon, a Hall & Oates musical number? You cannot beat that. While it brought in some coin, I would have bet good money it would do bigger business. It's also a love story that would have been fun to watch week after week -- those kids are so damn adorkable. While JGL seems destined to carry the future of the Batman franchise, it should be noted that Zooey has finally decided that her quirky charms are better cared for on the TV.
MOON -- Dir. Duncan Jones; Cast. Sam Rockwell; Sundance Premiere. 2009; B.O. $5 million. Sam Rockwell -- Hello, Sam? TV! -- gives an amazing performance as the only man on the moon. It was picked up for very good money and released into theaters. Did you see it? Probably not. Should you? Oh yes, yes you should. It could have been the Space 1999 of the 21st Century.
PLEASE GIVE -- Dir. Nicole Holofcener; Cast. Amanda Peet, Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt; Sundance Premiere. 2010; B.O. $4 million. A quintessentially New York story about a family who waits for a neighbor to die so they can get her apartment, this is one of several Holofcener films that are perfect candidates for dark cable comedies. She has such a knack for showing the inside of a relationship, I wonder if she doesn't have a listening device in my apartment. Nicole is the female Woody Allen, only no one knows it. Her films are the epitome of the tweener -- not easily defined or marketed on the film spectrum. On TV, though, her characters could build as slowly as she wants, find their niche and catch on as a cult. In the mean time, see this or any of her films, with a bottle of wine and your spouse.
CYRUS -- Dir. Jay and Mark Duplass; Cast. Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly; Sundance Premiere. 2010; B.O. $7.5 million. After I saw Cyrus at Sundance, I actually did bet someone it would make at least $50 million. Not only did I lose, they forgot, and I never paid the bet. It's probably not a great idea to put that in print, as I've now reminded that person that I owe them $50. I really thought this was going to be a Forty Year Old Virgin style break out and take the Duplasses to the next level. It did not. That said, I have always thought the Duplass Boys are perfect for TV. The movie is about a man who finds the woman of his dreams, only to find that she has an unnaturally, uncomfortably close relationship with her grown son. Played out over more time, they might have become a modern-day Tom and Jerry.
DOUCHEBAG -- Dir. Drake Doremus; Cast. Andrew Dickler, Ben York Jones; Sundance Premiere. 2010; B.O. $20,000. That's right, this film grossed twenty thousand dollars. The title and the style of the film stopped it cold before it hit theaters. Yet this was the movie that stayed with me longest from Sundance 2010. Picture a lead character MORE discomforting that Larry David, who gets into far more painful binds and says much more cringe-worthy things. That is Douchebag. Granted, it would have had to find EXACTLY the right network, but as a series, this could have created a year's worth of water cooler chat and hashtag buzz. Certainly it would have a better chance of being seen.
LIKE CRAZY -- Dir. Drake Doremus; Cast. Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones; Sundance Premiere. 2011; B.O. $3.4 million. See a pattern here? That Doremus did both Douchebag and Like Crazy shows his incredible range. That both films are on this list means he really needs to consider changing mediums! Douchebag might have been hard to match to a network, but this film, about two young lovers separated by immigration laws, trying to maintain a long distance relationship, could have been a slam dunk for some lucky cable channel. In 90 minutes, Doremus was forced to set up their passion very quickly. Spread out over a few seasons, the payoff could have been even more satisfying. Dude, seriously, make a series.
OUR IDIOT BROTHER -- Dir. Jesse Peretz; Cast. Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel; Sundance Premiere. 2011; B.O. $24 million. This is another bet I lost. I could have SWORN this would have been a bigger hit. It's got offbeat family dysfunction in droves and an iconically odd central character that you'd want in your living room (or on your iPad) every week. It's doubtful Rudd is going to make a long-term commitment to TV, but the fact that he's joined Parks and Rec this season is a great reason to love your TV.
I so look forward to Sundance each year. I get to see the next great films, before all my family and friends. Unfortunately, I also see some excellent films many people won't ever see. This year, I saw some truly great movies -- specifically, The Queen of Versailles, Celeste & Jesse Forever, Robot & Frank and Arbitrage -- that I really hope you get to see (seriously, find them in theaters or elsewhere when you can). However, each one of these would also have made terrific TV shows, and might have provided more work, over a longer period, for everyone involved.
Few people in this country -- even true film lovers -- saw the majority of tweeners on this list. They simply fell through the cracks of theatrical distribution. Indie Film NEEDS to be in theaters -- it is important that these films get made and get seen. But when these interesting, original stories go astray on their way to your local theater, it is a loss for everyone.
Whatever you think about this thesis, consider this: The combined domestic gross of the 15 films above, is less than one season's budget for Terra Nova. Imagine, for a second, what these filmmakers might have done with that budget. Just sayin.'