Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen is pulling no punches when it comes to his opinion about television. Coming off the success of Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, the lauded British filmmaker made the bold decision to tackle TV as his next project. He developed, co-wrote, and directed an HBO pilot called Codes of Conduct in 2015, which was planned as a six-episode limited series about a young African-American man’s experience entering New York high society. Devon Terrell, Paul Dano, Helena Bonham Carter, and Rebecca Hall were all set to star, but in 2016, HBO abruptly cancelled the series before it even aired (in the wake of expensive flop Vinyl, it should be noted).
McQueen eventually recovered—his new film Widows is phenomenal and hits theaters next month—but his views on TV have changed significantly since that time. Speaking with Indiewire, he says he thinks he got caught up with HBO at a time when they were just starting to think about how to compete with Netflix:
Though McQueen said HBO was “scared” of Netflix at the time — “They were in direct competition with Netflix and they thought, ‘We’ve got to fix this, we’ve got to do something about this’” — he doesn’t believe that experience was what turned him away from television altogether. The network was just playing it safe at a time when emerging competitors were attracting more and more viewers.
“I think basically I got into bed with [HBO] just at that turning point — just before the turning point because I was with them, and then things started to shift,” he said. “When I was with HBO, Netflix wasn’t Netflix then.”
Now, however, McQueen flat out says he “doesn’t like” TV, adding “there was some great stuff, [but] it’s just bad [now].” The filmmaker elaborated on the focus on volume over quality:
“TV had its moment,” McQueen said. “It’s fodder now, isn’t it? It’s fodder. […] There was a moment in the ’90s or early 2000s when it was amazing. And now it’s just, ‘Get stuff done. We need stuff.’ I don’t know what’s happening now, but obviously the quality has gone down a little bit. There’s more of it, but less quality.”
McQueen says he’d never do TV now, and even threw in a dig at Netflix’s Ozark while he was at it:
“When you get Breaking Bad, it’s amazing, but then you get Ozark, which is a rip-off of that. […] It’s unfortunate, right now, there’s so much money, and so little ideas. The problem is when you have no money, you’ve got to think.”
The filmmaker concluded by saying that TV can’t do what cinema does, citing silence and scope as major factors in the quality of films over television. And while that may largely be true, folks like Netflix and Amazon are pushing those boundaries as well. Netflix has the fantasy epic The Witcher on tap with Henry Cavill, and Amazon is making freaking The Lord of the Rings.
But McQueen’s larger point about there just being so much TV, regardless of quality, is true. The race to compete with Netflix is one of quantity, full-stop. Netflix has so much content that they hope to replace what you traditionally think about as “TV” with their streaming service. There’s a wide variety of programming available, from prestige dramas to teen shows to now Oscar movies, but also cooking shows and multi-cam sitcoms. Is all of it great? Absolutely not, but that’s not necessarily what they’re after.
And in the race to compete with Netflix, every other competitor is focused on one thing: volume. This is a major reason why Disney went so hard after 21st Century Fox. It wasn’t so that the X-Men can finally be in the MCU. It’s so that Disney can add Fox’s vast library of content to its own proprietary streaming service—so they can increase the volume of “exclusive” content exponentially.
The landscape is changing drastically, and not all for the better. It’ll be interesting to see how this all shakes out down the road, but it’s hard to disagree with a lot of what McQueen has to say here. And yes, the irony is not lost on me that McQueen’s stellar new film Widows will be one of the final features released from 20th Century Fox as a standalone entity.