Star Wars, Avengers, and TV’s Lost Generation: How Small-Screen Visionaries are Transforming Hollywood

Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams share something in common besides their dominance of big-budget Hollywood movie-making. Is genre TV the training ground for the next generation of powerful directors?

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Jason Kempin/Getty Images; Michael Kovac/WireImage/Getty Images

J.J. Abrams at the Producers Guild Awards on Jan. 26, 2013 in Los Angeles; Joss Whedon at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards 2013 on Jan. 10, 2013, in Los Angeles

The starting point for any directorial career that involves running a billion-dollar movie franchise just might be running a TV series. It is the path taken by two directors—J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, both pushing 50—who, between them, have been handed the keys to such valuable (and storied) properties as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the Marvel Comics universe.

For Abrams, it was his experience as the co-creator and producer (and occasional director) of shows such as Alias and Lost that, in 2004, caught the attention of Mission: Impossible star and producer Tom Cruise—and launched his career as movie director (and, later, movie-franchise savior).

Whedon, too, made a name for himself in television—creating shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly—before becoming a movie director with Serenity, the big-screen sequel to his cult-fave Firefly. (Both also had success as screenwriters; Abrams’ credits include Regarding Henry and Armageddon, and Whedon writing for movies as varied as Toy Story, Alien Resurrection and the original Buffy).

But Whedon’s route to the big-screen big leagues was somewhat more circuitous, with Serenity essentially flopping, and Dollhouse, his return to series television, following suit after two short, confused, seasons. His Avengers hiring seemed something of a risk—a decision many saw as a combination of Marvel’s tendency to choose lesser-known (read: cheaper) talent for their projects and Whedon’s good relationship with the company’s comic-book arm, for whom he’d written a best-selling X-Men storyline. It was, it turned out, a gamble that paid off very, very handsomely.

So was it those years of working in genre television that gave Whedon and Abrams the Right Stuff? That convinced studio suits to hand them the keys to some important—culturally and financially—movie franchises? (After all, it the was the immense perceived value of Star Wars that led Disney spent $4 billion to buy Lucasfilm in the first place.)  And more importantly for movie execs currently casting around, looking for their own J.Js and Josses: Is their rise to prominence a repeatable phenomenon—and if it is, who should they be eyeing up for future stardom?

(MORE: You Got Star Trek in My Star Wars!: Mixing Up New Frontiers And Galaxies Far, Far Away)

The idea that making television is just like making movies, only shorter, is a common, if flawed, comparison. Outside of the differing scales of production, the two have different narrative needs, with movies generally moving towards an emotional resolution faster than television. Of course, that’s not necessarily the case with the kind of franchise genre movies we’re beginning to see take over the summer box office.  And it’s with genre powerhouses like Star Wars and Star Trek that you find movies being treated with the same open-ended, interconnectedness of television or comic books. Such reliance on continuity requires audiences to view and have some familiarity with every installment—a concept that has gained even more complexity with Marvel Studio’s ever-expanding  Avengers franchise. In these cases, movies, like TV, must have episodic storytelling working towards a larger goal.

Who better to guide these projects, then, that those who have proven themselves adept at the task on television? Looking to TV showrunners to take on the responsibility of leading a movie franchise makes a lot of sense: the role of a showrunner in television parallels that of a movie director, in that both have a level of control over the finished product in a way that goes beyond the official definition of their job title, from guiding the overall direction and tone of the project to managing a budget. That kind of experience would be valuable on genre projects, which often involve stories where imagination often clashes with practical considerations. In that respect, then, showrunners for genre television have earned a particular brand of credibility.

Another factor: Fan base. For whatever reason, genre fandom is far more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of favorite shows than mainstream fare. While few who enjoyed Cheers or Friends could tell you their respective showrunners, there’s something about genre programming where the identity of the creator or lead EP is can often be the subject of discussion as to how it affects the show itself.  Choosing the right figure from genre television for your movie could mean being able to immediately have an engaged and vocal fanbase for your project with very little effort.

(MORE: 2012 Turnaround: The Avengers Brings People Back to the Movies)

So who out there might be the next J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon? It’s hard to say—there aren’t really any currently-airing genre TV series that have the same kind of cultural impact as Buffy or Lost. And without that level of awareness, we’re unlikely to see any current show runners rise to the name-recognition level of either of those two creators. Still, here are a few talents who should be added to some Rolodexes:

Eric Kripke
The creator of the CW’s Supernatural—the closest thing to Buffy on air these days (Sorry, Grimm)—and NBC’s Revolution, Kripke has demonstrated a way with a high concept and eager embrace of (and a willingness to play with) genre tropes and cliches that places him close to Abrams. He may not yet have the smooth execution of Abrams’ work—Supernatural veers close to pantomime a little too often, and Revolution‘s pacing has been remarkably uneven so far—but if someone is looking for the next Abrams, then Kripke is a pretty good place to start.

Josh Friedman
Friedman represents the greatest deviation from the Whedon/Abrams formula in that he’s only run one show: the short-lived Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But, as anyone who watched Chronicles already knows, he excels at finding new approaches to familiar concepts—and those lucky enough to have seen his pilot for Fox adapting the comic series Locke & Key can also attest to an ability to pare down complicated genre concepts to find the emotional core inside—skills necessary to take on a movie series based on a well-known property.

Kevin Williamson
Williamson has been a Hot Young Thing in Hollywood before, having helmed movies like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Faculty back in the 1990s. These days, he’s found success on TV with The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle and The Following. Possessing the pop-culture awareness and eagerness to go in for the kill (reminiscent of Whedon), it’d be interesting to see what Williamson could do if given the keys to a major name franchise.

Ron Moore
That Moore has essentially all but disappeared following the cancellation of his Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica feels like one of those strange mistakes of genre as a whole. From his early days on the Star Trek shows —he worked on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager—through aliens-among-us series Roswell, HBO’s Carnivale and eventually BSG, Moore has shown himself to be an intelligent writer who likes to play with genre ingredients while trying to say something about the world we live in today. For the last few years, he’s been stuck developing shows that fail to materialize, echoing Whedon’s time in limbo. Perhaps what he really needs is for an existing movie series to bring him on to play with toys that just need a little bit of attention. We know he can do that

Josh Schwartz
He tends to hide his genre light under a bushel these days, more known for Gossip Girl and, now, The Carrie Diaries than Chuck or The O.C., but Schwartz is exactly the kind of hyper-aware television wunderkind—The O.C. made him the youngest showrunner of a network series in U.S. television history—that Abrams and, to a lesser extent, Whedon were, at their televisual peaks. He has teased moves into movies—at one point, he was to write Fox’s X-Men: First Class, as well as write and direct a new adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City—but has yet to make that big leap. Perhaps all he needs is the right reason… Do you think he’d be interested in Thundercats, maybe…?