'The Social Network': Great TV comes to the big screen
There are a million things you can say about "The Social Network," which has easily been one of the most talked-about movies in Hollywood this year. But what has struck me the most about the film is that it is an old-fashioned writer's picture, a quintessential Aaron Sorkin story crammed full of dazzling dialogue, audacious characters and a rich smorgasbord of moral issues worthy of prolonged debate. Which of course raises the question: Why has it been so long since we've seen a film that mattered enough to argue about?
It's a complicated question that lays bare one of the worst-kept secrets in the movie business — if you want to enjoy great writing or wrestle with complex moral dilemmas, you should be watching television, which over the past decade has become an oasis for the most gifted writers in the business, many of them refugees from the world of feature films. Sorkin acknowledges that if he'd bought the rights to "The Social Network" himself, he would probably have taken it to HBO, since the odds are so long for getting a film made in today's Hollywood without having to make a million creative compromises along the way.
"If Herman Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Budd Schulberg were alive today, they'd be writing on TV," Sorkin told me today, phoning from Germany, where he's promoting the movie. "As a writer, you love immediacy, of being able to weigh in on something that's on everyone's mind. And with rare exception, you only get to do that with TV. With a movie, even if everything goes perfectly, I can write a joke today and have to wait two years to hear the laughter."
But why is "The Social Network" one of those rare exceptions? "We got away with one," Sorkin says with a laugh. "We were lucky enough to be at Sony where, with Amy Pascal in charge, you're at a studio that was willing to greenlight the movie in two minutes without ever running our story through a piece of software that would tell them which bankable actors we'd need to cast to get the movie made."
Few of today's film writers have enjoyed Sorkin's good fortune. Nothing is more depressing than seeing how few films have been made in recent years by our best screenwriters. Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the brilliant script for "Traffic" in 2000, hasn't had a screenplay produced since "Syriana" in 2005. Frank Darabont, who wrote "The Shawshank Redemption," has had one feature made since 1999's "The Green Mile." Scott Frank, who wrote "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight," has two feature film credits since 2005, one for a low-budget indie picture he wrote and directed, the other for the studio programmer "Marley & Me." Paul Attanasio, who landed an Oscar nomination for 1994's "Quiz Show," hasn't had a film produced since "The Good German" in 2006.
Cameron Crowe and Alexander Payne, two of our best writer-directors, are only now finally back at work, not having having made movies since 2005's "Elizabethtown" and 2004's "Sideways," respectively. Andrew Nicol, who wrote the groundbreaking 1998 film "The Truman Show," hasn't had a feature made since 2005. So why are things so different in television?
Contrast those sparse credits with what Sorkin has accomplished in TV, where he's written and produced 221 hours of television since 1998. Of course, hardly anyone is going hungry here. The top writers are working nearly all the time. But they're a lot like architects who have a drawer full of lavish drawings and plans for skyscrapers that have never been built. All too many screenwriters make the vast majority of their money doing uncredited rewrites and polishes for dim-bulb studio fare that is often stitched together from the work of enough writers to field a baseball team.
In Hollywood, the best writers are used as catnip for A-list stars who are impressed to see an Oscar-winning screenwriter's name on the title page of a script, even if the writer has only been on board for five weeks, doing a quickie rewrite. In TV, writers are flourishing like never before. If Alan Ball had stayed in movieland, he'd be struggling to find someone to make a drama as idiosyncratic as the Oscar-winning "American Beauty." But in TV, he's in demand, having followed up the success of his hit HBO series "Six Feet Under" with the current TV show "True Blood."
At HBO, Terence Winter is a star, having been a key writer on "The Sopranos" before launching his own show, "Boardwalk Empire," with Martin Scorsese this fall. In Hollywood, the last film Winter wrote, 2007's crime drama, "Brooklyn Rules," barely got a theatrical release. Having written "Hancock," Vince Gilligan has a Will Smith comedy thriller under his belt, but he's not spinning his wheels, waiting for a studio to say yes to the kind of dark, edgy material he likes to write. He's just finished his third season of "Breaking Bad" on AMC, which is beloved by critics and is viewed as a hit even though it gets roughly only 2 million viewers each Sunday night.
And that's the bottom line. TV isn't just a dream job for writers because they get to control their own destiny. It's a dream job because you don't have to stoop to conquer. Less is more, in the sense that if you're willing to shoot a TV series on a relatively low budget, you can have nearly all the creative freedom in the world. That's the secret behind nearly every great TV show, from "Mad Men" to "Weeds" to "The Wire." Of all those wonderful films that I mentioned above, from "Quiz Show" to "American Beauty" to "Traffic," it's hard to imagine any of them being made by a major studio today, largely because of the economics of a business that has increasingly become focused on The Big Score — movie franchises that can be sold to a broad global audience.
"That's ultimately what's great about TV — you don't need a big audience to succeed," says Sorkin. "If you polled all 300 million Americans on the least objectionable way to prepare beef, when you tallied up the results, the winner would be a McDonald's hamburger. And that's pretty much what you have to be when you're making a movie that has to earn $200 million at the box office to be a success. But in TV, things are different now. If you're a writer, TV isn't the B team anymore. It's filled the void with stories that have largely been abandoned by the movies."
"The Social Network" has lots of other things going for it, starting with Fincher's often exhilarating visual directing style. But there's a reason why Sorkin's name is mentioned just as often in the studio ads as Fincher's: Because at its heart, "The Social Network" is a great piece of television coming at a time when calling something great TV is no longer a backhanded compliment.
Photo: Aaron Sorkin at a screening in New York for "The Social Network."
Credit: Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images.