Zooey Deschanel made you fall in love with her in 2003′s wildly underrated Elf. She did it all over again six years later in (500) Days of Summer, playing the title character who crushes Joseph Gordon-Levitt with her pretty little eyelashes. (Don’t feel bad; that dude has enough going right for him.) Deschanel was making a name for herself as a young woman who might not be able to carry a movie on her own, but certainly could augment a cast. Then, the twee darling made an interesting decision: She left the movie world and jumped to television with New Girl.
The Fox sitcom wasn’t Deschanel’s first foray into the small screen. She appeared in a few episode of Weeds in 2006 and 2007, and her sister stars on Bones. (The kids have an Oscar-nominated cinematographer father and a mother who starred in Twin Peaks. Not too shabby.) But it was surprising to see a legit movie star – even one who specialized in breaking boys’ hearts in indie films – go to television, a medium long considered inferior to the silver screen.
Deschanel, however, is far from the only actor making that career choice. Sally Field, Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Daniels, Alec Baldwin, Ashley Judd, Christina Ricci, William H. Macy, Don Cheadle, and, of course, Charlie Sheen have all moved to television in recent years. The trend is so prevalent that outlets from Yahoo to Parade launched into slideshow mode. The Atlantic even wrote a story called “It’s Time for Movie Stars to Stop Doing Television Shows.” So yes, it’s happening. The question is why?
Two of the most basic issues are money and time. Movie-making isn’t as lucrative as it used to be, forcing actors into some strange deals. Television, on the other hand, is much more consistent. “Once a TV show is green lit, it’s not going into turnaround. You’re going to get paid, and you have work for the next year,” Megan Angelo, a movie and television expert, says. (Turnaround is when the rights to a film are purchased by one studio and then sold to another. This delays production time, sometimes indefinitely.) Sign on for a season and the checks keep rolling in for months. In a constantly fluctuating industry where you are worth whatever the fickle fans think, that type of stability can be nice. Plus, there is potential for unending royalties and residuals if the show goes into syndication. The producers and studio see the majority of this windfall, but actors can make a nice chunk of change from nonstop repeats.
Money and stability is a major reason why more movie stars are moving to TV, but there’s a more important one: quality. The small screen is no longer the domain of those who can’t cut it in theaters. “Television has gotten more sophisticated,” Angelo says. “If you look at what’s on Fox now, as opposed to five, six years ago, TV show feel more cinematic.” She’s right. Dramas are more complex, comedies funnier and subtler, everything potentially better. There’s still the same crap — Ashton Kutcher meet Two and a Half Men, and a huge payday — but there are quality offerings as well. That number grows every year as quirky, off-beat shows like New Girl succeed, and conservative executives loosen up just a bit. Contrast that with movie execs who grow ever more risk adverse and you understand why a movie star would want to try television.
The final piece of the trend is that television stars have a new goal. In the past, many built a following by being in your living room every week, then moved to the movies. But now, big TV stars are staying put. Angelo cites Mindy Kaling as an example. The Office star and star writer could have found a movie of her own or, at least, one in which she could play a part in an ensemble. But she seemed to have no interest, instead focusing on getting her own show. She did, and it’s excellent. Kaling is the wave of the future. Perhaps increasingly, the question won’t be “Why are movie stars moving to television?” but “Where are the movie stars?”
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