The announcement that Steven Soderbergh’s (“Contagion,” “Traffic”) final film would air on HBO, as opposed to being released in theaters, came as a surprise. The film, “Behind the Candelabra,” is a biopic starring Michael Douglas as the famed gay pianist Liberace. How does a film with such star power and such directorial promise find itself relegated to HBO? The answer is simple — Soderbergh recently revealed he initially pitched the film to Hollywood but studio executives rejected it on the basis that it was “too gay.”
Whether Hollywood executives’ conservatism got the better of them or whether big studios are more interested in money than talent is not the issue. The most surprising aspect is that something ruled as objectionable content, notably something involving sexuality, was pushed to television.
For so long, television has been a home to less risky content. “Two and a Half Men” and “CSI” reign victorious in the ratings and “American Idol” maintains a loyal following. Yet outside of network television, more creative and bold content exists, turning the medium into something many thought it would never be — a haven for content that would prove unacceptable for a mass film-going audience.
This transition is evident in a number of ways. Most obviously, filmmakers have finally taken to television. Lena Dunham has quickly risen to the status of hipster goddess with “Girls,” and Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes is working on an episode of another HBO show, “Enlightened.” New programs also embody a cinematic style. “American Horror Story” includes enough Dutch angles to make Brian De Palma’s head spin, and “Mad Men” brings cerebral characters and story lines to a mainstream audience.
To say that the proliferation of cable television is fully responsible for the shrinking gap between television and film might be only partially true. HBO debuted over 30 years ago, but the space between the two mediums has only recently begun contracting. Still, HBO’s programming exudes a unique style, which has definitely inspired networks made in its likeness, such as AMC and FX.
Yet the true reason behind television’s emergence as a creative haven is the viewers themselves. Those who watch these shows — the very same who went to “Inception” and “Zero Dark Thirty” with the intention of being confused and intellectually stimulated — want entertainment that is smart and meaningful. Filmmakers can deliver serialized content that meets those criteria, and that is why television continues to command a dedicated audience. For these viewers, the future holds even more promise through television — FX’s “The Americans” asks us to root for the bad guys; Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” promises lewd content — and it seems that maybe one day, television and film might become synonymous content providers.
A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 28 print edition. Alex Greenberger is entertainment editor. Email him at [email protected]